Community engagement has been mandated in California for five years as a part of Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAPs), yet parents and students still feel that their voices aren’t heard.
Personally, I’m not surprised. As I learned during my tenure as school superintendent in Sacramento, authentic engagement with the community takes trust, transparency, and equitable outreach. In other words, everything that’s required is what most bureaucracies are too clumsy, risk-averse, and top-down to do well.
The good news is that California is on a path to help local community members play an active role in school district decision-making, including a plan to invest over $13 million in the next six years. Having personally experienced the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to engaging communities and families around public education, here are my top 5 strategies for success. Feel free to share these ideas with decision makers in your school district. What they do is essential in making family and community engagement successful.
"Build relationships, and they'll give it all they've got."
Most school districts — like most organizations — operate as hierarchies. Orders come from the top, and the expectation is for those orders to be followed without question. One problem with that model is absence of buy-in: The people lower down the ladder — like principals — may do what they’re told, but their enthusiasm is likely to be nil. As Superintendent, I learned quickly that real leadership requires trust and collaboration: If you want to maximize your outcome, then instead of issuing an order, explain the why and ask for feedback.
In the case of community engagement, it’s one thing to instruct teachers and principals to engage with parents — and entirely something else to share the facts about parental involvement in schools.
It's proven: Students whose parents take an active interest in their children’s education get better grades, have better social skills, and are more likely to graduate from high school and go to college. Until they understand the why, educators may operate with the same assumptions and biases as the rest of the world. Yet the data are clear: Economically disadvantaged parents have the same degree of interest and involvement in their children’s education as their wealthier peers.
When your front-line ambassadors—your teachers, principals, and school staff—understand that forging better relationships with families yields better outcomes for children across the economic spectrum, they will value their own role in the process, and give it all they’ve got.
Equity is not Equal
People sometimes confuse equity with equal treatment. Equal treatment means treating everyone the same way: "We sent out a flyer inviting all parents to the school board meeting, but only 4 people showed up."
Equity is different. It starts by asking questions:
In any school district, families come from different walks in life. Bringing all of them into the process will require different types and levels of effort, and that’s OK. In fact, it’s more than OK. It’s a lesson in equity, and the payoff will be amazing. We all have so much to learn from one another, if we take the time to reach out, truly listen, and ensure that all of us are heard.
Let educators reach them where they are
As former Sacramento Teacher of the Year Stephanie Smith observed:
"We ask [parents] to come to back-to-school nights and teacher conferences without having tried to understand their reality. What if we, educators, took the first step? It’s time for school districts to rethink the approach of inviting parents into a prescribed time period and place and instead reach families and parents where they are.”
What Smith proposes is a step toward equity, and I saw its impact first-hand in Sacramento, where the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project (PTHVP) trained our teachers to engage families in education through visiting their homes.
What are your hopes and dreams for your child? That was the question at the heart of every visit. PTHVP, which improves attendance and test scores and reduces disciplinary actions, works because it nurtures trust, a rare commodity between people and state institutions.
Aimed at family empowerment, home visits are an appointment between two willing participants — parent and teacher — not a “home invasion” like other more punitive types of visits from social workers or state officials. At its heart, educating and developing children is about relationships — among students, educators, families, and community.
Open the Schools!
In Sacramento, my team worked hard to make our district schools into community centers serving everyone. If your goal is community engagement with schools, then open the schools to the community!
Many adult students are immigrants seeking English literacy and language skills to better provide for their families. But besides yielding greater earnings for parents, improved adult literacy directly impacts children: According to the National Institutes of Health, maternal literacy outweighs income and neighborhood in shaping a child’s chances of succeeding in school. Job skills and education also correlate to better health in adults and their children. When people argue that we can’t afford to provide adult education to immigrants and other disadvantaged adults, my answer is: we can’t afford not to. Improved community engagement is just one positive outcome among many.
School budget information is often indecipherable. In my experience, it’s not just indecipherable to parents. Sometimes it feels like the people crafting the budget are counting on the fact that none of the stakeholders — teachers, administrators, parents, or legislators — can fully understand where all the money is going.
Show the whole picture.
But transparency means more than openness about numbers. To me, it also means being frank and honest when hard decisions need to be made. Some districts complain that parents don’t see the whole picture and expect their priorities to pass despite scant resources and competing concerns. My answer is: Show them the whole picture.
Don’t confuse community engagement with PR. Instead of painting a rosy image when your district is in trouble, let the people know. When Sacramento schools desperately needed a bond measure to pass, our parents, teachers, and administrators worked shoulder-to-shoulder to muster the votes because everyone knew how urgently we needed the funds.
Does transparency work? I’ll leave you with this brief story. In my district, we initiated community budget forums, and the staff member who operated our portable sound system traveled around with me to all of them. After the last one, he approached me. “Superintendent,” he said, “I know I might lose my job given how dire our situation is, but thank you for helping me finally understand why, and what’s at stake for our children.”
These five approaches to engage and empower parents, families, and community don’t come without effort and focus, yet school districts don’t need to reinvent the wheel to do this work well. Lots of models exist. What’s required is a vision; remembering that parents and families are a district’s most important partners; getting out into the community to engage people on their terms; and bringing a sense of humility to the work.
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