Family Engagement: The Top of Everyone's Back-to-School Checklist

With the start of the school year just around the corner, now is an excellent time for all of us to renew our commitment to ensuringchildren succeed. So what should be at the top of to-do lists as children head back to school?
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With the start of the school year just around the corner, now is an excellent time for all of us to renew our commitment to ensuring all children succeed. So what should be at the top of to-do lists as children head back to school? I suggest that families and their communities begin this year working together to focus on transformative family engagement efforts empowering parents and caregivers to be the strongest voices for their children.

Transformative family engagement begins as a shared responsibility between families, schools and communities. This means ensuring that all families and community leaders are included in decisions regarding their children's education - going way beyond traditional parent involvement activities, such as a once a year open-house school night or parent-teacher conference.

Over the course of the last year, my colleagues and I, along with education and philanthropic partners, set out on a mission to raise awareness of the need to strengthen and include the role and voice of parents and families in the conversations on improving education in this country. We recently teamed up with the White House for a first-of-its-kind symposium to examine effective transformative family engagement models, with an understanding of the clear need to better align and leverage strategies, policies and investments around this issue.

On Thursday, July 31, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation co-sponsored the White House Symposium on Transformative Family Engagement and brought together a distinguished group of administration officials - including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Deputy Assistant to the President for Education Roberto Rodríguez - along with philanthropic, research and other family engagement leaders to examine successful practices and discuss what more can be done so that family engagement is always seen as an essential component in education reform efforts.

Roberto Rodríguez of the White House Domestic Policy Council highlighted President Obama's education strategies, noting that we need to "ensure families are full partners in the development, well-being and educational success of their children" and demonstrating the importance of starting family engagement early within the administration's "cradle to career" education strategy. Secretary Duncan told the gathering that "If we authentically listen [and] authentically partner, parents can do amazing things to help their children." He made the case that school reform cannot happen without engaging families.

Everyone at the symposium expressed a shared understanding that all parents want the best for their children, and they are committed to putting families front and center in educational policies. Parents can and should be part of the planning, analysis and operation of schools - helping them decide on and develop curriculum, hire teachers or decide which after-school programs to adopt, especially for schools serving low-income students or students of color.

Transformative approaches to family engagement focus on the strengths of parents, building parents' capacity, and see families, educators and community leaders as equal partners with a shared voice in student learning. It also needs to be viewed as a continuous process, from birth through third grade and beyond, occurring in multiple settings where children learn.

Concentrating our resources on early childhood within the context of families and communities offers the best opportunity to dramatically reduce the vulnerability caused by poverty and racial inequity over time. We believe focusing on a child's education and development from birth to age 8 is the most effective way to help children reach their full potential now and in the future.

One example highlighted at the symposium is the work of Baltimore's Youth Resiliency Institute, which uses cultural organizing and art to create strong parent leaders that are effective advocates for their children. And rather than assuming that families need assistance in meeting their parenting responsibilities, organizations like the Bay Area Parent Leadership Action Network (PLAN) run dynamic programs that increase the skills, knowledge and confidence of parents to successfully advocate on behalf of their children.

Also released at the symposium was a new survey commissioned* by the foundation which reinforces the idea that truly unlocking parents' potential as partners, decision makers and leaders in their children's education is key to boosting student outcomes. Polling 1,000 parents nationwide, the survey found that 96 percent of parents believe they have a role to play in ensuring their child has a quality education. But too often, traditional family engagement approaches view families as problems - not partners. While 82 percent of parents say they are actively involved in their children's education and feel welcome to participate, 10 percent are active but do not feel welcome. This figure rises to 18 percent among Hispanic parents. Truly transformative family engagement means that schools remain open and committed to adapting to the needs, cultures and priorities of local families and communities.

Thankfully, there are already organizations doing this work and models to help schools, early childhood programs and the community authentically connect with parents. Dr. Heather Weiss of the Harvard Family Research Project called family engagement "a public good from which we all benefit," and shared some of her organization's research on how to more authentically engage with families. Anne Henderson of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, another researcher, spoke about the criticality of honoring families' home cultures and creating relationships based on trust, not blame. She said when teachers and parents have a "shared concern about children" that can be transformative in building a relationship that gets past stereotypes.

The Department of Education's recently released "Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family-School Partnerships" also calls for schools and communities to work together to build authentic relationships with parents and to create conditions that invite parents to the table, according to Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy Jonathan Brice. And Amanda Bryans from the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Head Start discussed how its Parent, Family, and Community Engagement Framework was driven by parent leaders and their "lifelong commitment to teaching their children."

Transformative family engagement should always be a part of the conversation between families, schools and communities. By directing our collective voices to lift up families, we will build a much stronger foundation for success for all children.

*This survey was conducted on behalf of WKKF by ORC International among 1,000 parents of children ages 6-17 in the United States, using a representative online sample, from July 1-8, 2014, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

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