How did you get into this work?
Well, I think there are two reasons I got into this work. I come from a family of educators and I also come from a biracial family. On the Latino side of my family, my Grandma was forced to stop speaking Spanish in school when she was young and was forced to repeat the first grade. So there’s a part of me that’s motivated by a history of the failure of the public education system to always meet the unique needs of kids and families. The second experience that motivated me to get into this work is from when I taught on the Navajo Nation. I had many colleagues who doubted that parents and families wanted to be involved with our school. But whenever we invited them, they showed up in droves! I experienced parents’ deep desires to partner with our school and to support their children.
How big is Denver Public Schools and what are the basic demographics?
We have more than 92,000 students across 200 schools. About two thirds receive Free and Reduced Meals, 37% are English Learners, and 10% receive special education. In terms of racial breakdown, our largest three groups are Latino (56%), White (23%), and African-American (13%).
What’s the name of your department or office in DPS?
Within our Office of Family and Community Engagement (FACE) that’s managed by Georgia Duran, there are three teams: School-Based Services, Family Constituency Services, and my team, which is Family Empowerment.
How long has your department existed and how long have you been in your role?
Well, our Office of Family and Community Engagement was formed in 2008 by our former Superintendent Michael Bennett, who is now one of our U.S. Senators. And we’ve had our current Superintendent, Tom Boasberg, for seven years. So we’ve had stable leadership at the top committing and building our family & community engagement efforts for years. A vision of FACE is embedded deeply in our commitments as a district. So now for my piece of the puzzle, the Family Empowerment team – I came into this role about two years ago. At that time there were two different teams under what is now Family Empowerment, and I was charged with bringing the two teams together. We conducted intensive strategic planning and came up with our name and vision, which is to “develop educated, engaged, and empowered parents and staff who are academic partners in creating great schools in every neighborhood where every child succeeds.”
Can you clarify what you mean by academic partners?
Sure, in our field we often talk about creating trusting relationships, but then the level of partnership stops there. Those foundations of trusting relationships really need to be accelerated into academic partnerships. We look at three levels of academic partnerships – the home, school, and district.
That makes sense! So what do you do at the home or family level?
At the home level we work to build parents’ capacity so that they know how to work with educators for the success of their children. For example, parents at this level can identify the particular academic areas of improvement for their child. We have a few initiatives at this level, but our primary one is our Family Leadership Institute, which provides families with the opportunity to enhance their leadership skills and become stronger advocates. There are four sessions that we cycle through and families are invited to any and all sessions throughout the school year. We typically have at least 100 parents in the room for each session and it’s always a really diverse group. I should also add that there are other initiatives at the home level that folks can check out on our website.
Wow, that’s great! Now that we’ve covered the home level, what about the school level?
Sure. At the school level, our goal is for parents and educators to work together for the success of the school. We want parents to know, understand, and contribute to areas for improvement in their child’s school. Our main initiative at the school level is the Parent Teacher Home Visit Program. We instituted this program in 2009 and started with five schools. Now we’re up to 105 schools and just surpassed 10,000 home visits! To accelerate the impact, schools submit plans to us and then we provide them with mini grants schools and incentives. We also give awards for the top performing teachers and schools. Another great example is our Community Progress Monitoring, where we support schools in hosting community conversations about their current performance. Last year, almost 130 schools had meetings in the fall about their School Performance Framework indicator. We believe this is a powerful way to build academic partnership.
Is there anything else you do at the school level?
Yes, there are quite a few initiatives that folks can check out on our website, but another one to point out is the support we provide to our “Extended FACE Family.” This includes the over 60 family liaisons and other school-based folks across the district who are charged with leading family and community engagement at the school level. The principals supervise them, so we don’t manage them. We do keep in touch with them and convene them quarterly for professional development and to make sure we’re all on the same page. Our main focus is to align their efforts – to keep them centered on best practices for family and community engagement and to build a networked learning community across all of our communities.
So that brings us to the district level. What is your focus there?
Our main initiative at that level is our Superintendent Parent Forums and regional listening sessions. These forums occur about five times a year and engage on average over 300 families from schools across the district. These events seek feedback from parents on key initiatives of the district and then focus on empowering parents to take materials and learning back to their school to engage other parents. Though these events are large, we often have breakout sessions and “flipped panels” where parents get in small groups, develop their own questions, and ask the panelists rather than waiting for a short Q & A period at the end. Our regional listening sessions allow us to go into a region of the city and meet parents where they are at and ask: how are things going? What needs to be better? How can DPS better serve you? We compile these into a report and then present to senior leaders.
You all do a lot! How many people are in your office?
There are nine of us in the Family Empowerment department, including myself. We have a few people on our academic partnerships team, some on our engagement operations team, and then the rest on our strategy development team. We are also lucky to have a few departments that partner with us to ensure our work succeeds, including the English Language Acquisition team and the Parent Portal team. We also have some amazing part-time contractors that help us, that include parents, college students and folks with a ton of expertise.
I’m thinking a lot about equity. How do you make sure that families who speak a different language or have logistical barriers can access these opportunities?
This is an area we prioritize significantly. We work very closely with the English Language Acquisition and Multicultural departments to ensure that we offer interpretation and translation for over a dozen languages at all of our events. We also support school and district efforts to gather feedback from our parents through parent advisory groups.
How is your district addressing equity and would you say your FACE initiatives are aligned with your district’s equity work?
This is an excellent question. In our district, we think about equity in a very specific way and that’s targeted universalism. It basically means setting universal goals that can be achieved through targeted approaches. So while we have the same goals for everyone, we have to also recognize that not everyone is at the same starting point in reaching those goals. So, we may provide targeted support to those groups.
Can you give us an example?
Sure. I’ll give you an example with our Family Leadership Institute (FLI). Our Latino population that attends FLI is proportionate to the size of their community in Denver Public Schools. Yet, if you look at our African-American and refugee populations, they are underrepresented in FLI. So, we must have targeted outreach efforts for those two communities. We purposefully spend more time and effort to engage those communities. Next year, in an effort to achieve more here, we will offer two FLI events – one in Southwest Denver and another in the Northeast – to ensure even greater representation of our local communities.
You’ve talked a lot about how you build the capacity of parents to help them be more engaged, but how do you build the capacity of the educators in DPS to do this work? I’m thinking about the Dual-Capacity Framework.
Most of the professional development and training we provide teachers on family engagement is around conducting home visits. Teachers make about $22 each home visit and last year, we trained about 1,000 educators to do these visits. I mentioned, our team is only two years old. So, we’re very excited as we think about next year and all that we can do to expand our impact with administrators, central office staff, and others. Stay tuned!
You brought up central office and I’d like to talk about that for a moment. How does your department collaborate with other departments at the district level? How do you break down silos and work to integrate family engagement into all departments?
This is an excellent question and one that’s so important! Districts need to realize that family engagement should be the responsibility of multiple departments, not just one. We are very fortunate that family engagement is a district priority in DPS, but it’s not actually a separate goal on the strategic plan because it’s integrated throughout the plan. Family engagement is sort of the thing that lifts everything else up and supports all other goals. As for breaking down silos, it’s hard work! I actually did my dissertation on this topic – I looked at boundary spanning and cross-departmental community engagement work in DPS. Basically, breaking down silos requires a lot of conversation about vision, mission, norms of engagement, and so on. It needs to be very purposeful work and requires being empathetic to other departments’ needs. It takes a lot of time, but it’s worth it. For example, our Family Leadership Institute was actually born out of a partnership with have with our English Language Acquisition department.
How do you all evaluate your family & community engagement work?
Some of this depends on the particular initiative we’re talking about, but one area I’d like to highlight is our “Survey of Academic Partnership” that we worked with Panorama Education to build. Our survey is basically a 27-question self-assessment that parents complete and it shows where they’re at with the three levels of partnership – home, school, and district as we discussed earlier. This survey is important because it tells us what programming accelerates academic partnerships and activates parents’ agency. This is much more useful information than if we just asked parents whether they liked a program! I think it’s important for our work to be deliberate and data centered.
So what has your survey shown? What did you learn?
We’re still at the very beginning stages of using this survey and exploring the data. Our initial analysis of hundreds of parents found that at the home level, 92% of parents strongly agreed that that they were able to identify areas of strengths or weakness for their student and work with educators towards their student’s success. At the school level, only 67% of parents agreed, which shows that it’s more challenging for parents to partner at the school level. And lastly, at the district level, the number dropped to 47%.
So what do you make of this data?
Even though we’re still at the very beginning of this process, these initial results show that academic partnerships start at the home level, with parents partnering with educators on behalf of their students. This is pretty intuitive, but now we have some data to show this. Next, we found that it’s really important for parents to go from the home level, to the school level, to the district level. It was rare to find a parent involved at the district level without also being engaged at the home and school levels. One of our most important takeaways from the survey results is that not all programs impact academic partnerships equally. Additionally, we learned that school governance is highly linked to partnership increases. Therefore, this will be an even larger priority for us next year.
Does DPS have any expectations for schools or educators specifically around family engagement? I’m thinking about teacher and principal evaluations, school improvement plans, and so on.
Yes, we do! We have included relevant priorities for family and community engagement in our teacher and leader frameworks. We also ask every school that participates in the Home Visit program to set a target.
How are your programs and staff funded?
We are very lucky to have general funds and we also get some Title I and Title III dollars. We also have some grants from National Council of La Raza, Climb Higher Colorado, and from Learning Heroes. I get out and fundraise as much as possible. We try to pass on as many funds as possible directly to the schools.
Are there any family engagement related resources you all have created in DPS that could share? Anything that could help other districts avoid reinventing the wheel?
Most definitely. We’re happy to share the Survey of Academic Partnership with any district who’d like to use it. I’m more than happy to talk to anyone about it. We also have produced a number of videos, such as one on our Academic Standards Nights and one on Home Visits. And we have our Family Empowerment Team Guiding Principles and One-Pager.
Can you provide us with one success story so we can have an understanding of the direct impact of your work?
Ana is an engaged DPS parent of a 3rd grader at Valverde Elementary school and a 9th grader at KIPP Sunnyside Charter. She has been an active participant at the Superintendent Parent Forums, English Language Acquisition District Advisory Committees (ELA DAC) for the past four years, and this year she also attended the Family Leadership Institute. In the fall of 2014, she participated in the Parenting Partners classes at the school, attended the 2-day trainer of trainer session to become a facilitator and has been voluntarily co-facilitating the sessions for the past three years. She was an original and still active member of the Parent Teacher Leadership Team that was formed in 2013 that later served as the designed committee during the school turnaround process. Ana joined the Padres y Jóvenes Unidos community organization to advocate for high quality education and equitable services for English Learners. Most recently, she presented to the DPS Board of Education as an ELA DAC board member.