THE ROAD TO BETTER OUTCOMES IS PAVED WITH GOOD, CONSISTENT PARENT AND FAMILY ENGAGEMENT
There's an old quip attributed to Aristotle about giving a great speech: "Tell them what you're going to tell them. Tell them. Then tell them what you told them." We'll find out if that works for blogs. Having spent the last month or so deeply immersed in family and community engagement (FCE) practice from a variety of vantage points, I can say without a doubt that a key to better outcomes for children, youth and families is good, consistent parent, family and community engagement. It is no accident that my immersion experience was bookended by national conferences celebrating home visits; a high impact, transformative strategy designed to build trusting relationships. These trusting relationships are foundational – building blocks for deeper partnerships, collaboration and leadership across the board.
My journey began in Sacramento, California where I attended the national gathering of Parent-Teacher Home Visits, one of the country's premier home visiting models. It was incredible to be in the presence of so many folks from a variety of entry points - literally surrounded by people deeply committed to building relationships and trust between teachers and families through home visits.
At its core, there is nothing terribly deep about home visits. In fact, without being overly dramatic, you could say it's based on basic conventional wisdom and a bit of common sense. Let's get to know each other, understand each other, and work together on a common goal. Two people arrive at your home, one of whom is your child's teacher. The purpose of the visit is not to snoop, not to judge or otherwise convey any bad news. In fact, it's good news. They have the honor of being entrusted with your child for the coming year and they'd like to partner with you to ensure your child's success. The journey towards building trust begins with a simple question: What are your hopes and dreams for your child? Once that simple question is heard you can imagine a moment where family members exhale a bit, let their hair down so to speak and then begin to share. It’s the kind of question that suggests: I care about you and your child. A question backed by love and respect which facilitates a wonderful conversation and wipes away negative assumptions. So much power in a simple question.
A key feature of the PTHV (#homevisits) national conference was the national countdown. – It’s a powerful experience in which reps from each state proudly (and loudly) report out the number of home visits conducted. This past year, more than 20 states conducted over 50,000 home visits! Imagine 50,000 conversations that change the way teachers and families relate to each other. Heartfelt conversations focused on a common interest – their student’s success in school and life.
Next stop - Reno, Nevada. The Washoe County School District hosted a Learning Lab for members of IEL’s District Leaders Network on Family and Community Engagement (DLN). The District Leaders Network is a peer learning and action network designed to help coordinators of district FCE efforts learn from each other, build on each other’s strengths and gain insights in their work to implement high impact strategies and improve systemic efforts. Peer action networks such as the DLN and opportunities like learning Labs provide an opportunity for network members to learn from each other about systemic practice by visiting districts doing great work.
Leaders from 30 districts attended the Learning Lab which began with a strong message from Traci Davis, Superintendent of Washoe County Public Schools. When it comes to superintendents and the extent to which they believe in the benefits of family engagement and support the work district-wide, Traci is on the end of the continuum with folks who really get it AND have organized their districts in ways that allow family and community engagement to be fully integrated in the day to day work of the district. (Full disclosure, Traci and I are on the board of directors of Parent Teacher Home Visits, which frankly is yet another indicator that she really, really gets it).
What does it mean to be fully integrated? Of course, nothing is ever fully integrated – these are decidedly fluid processes within ever shifting local contexts. However, in this moment, Washoe County School District is considered much more integrated than not for several reasons. First, the Superintendent has sent a signal and made family engagement a priority. Second, the district’s senior leadership is clear about family engagement as a priority and can clearly articulate how their respective department supports the engagement of parent and families. Third, the data and accountability system supports real-time data collection and analysis and works to ensure that all of their key data sources and processes are relevant and useable vis-à-vis family engagement (e.g., the head of the data and accountability department works in deep partnership with the family-school partnerships director – this year’s EdWeek Leader to Learn From in the area of family engagement).
My next destination was Durham, North Carolina where I participated in a consultative conversation on Supporting Parent Success hosted by the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. The Campaign is working on multiple fronts to move the needle. They recognize that parents are their children’s first teachers and that “families play a vital role during the early years and early grades, ensuring that children are ready for school by kindergarten, attend school regularly, continue learning during the summer months and can read proficiently by the end of 3rd grade.”
The Campaign is also refining a new framework on supporting parent success in these roles. During our consultative conversation – which involved parent leaders and a variety of local, regional and national partners - we tackled an important question: What can communities, organizations and systems that serve children and families do to reframe the narrative about parents in a way that promotes the notion of parents as essential co-producers of good outcomes for their children? Answering this question is essential if we are to be successful in helping agencies and institutions change their perceptions and expectations of parents.
One of the bright spots during our time in Durham was a visit with parents and staff of an important local resource, Book Harvest, a community-based non-profit which “provides books to children who need them and engages families and communities to promote children’s lifelong literacy and academic success.” In 2016, Book Harvest reached an incredible milestone, giving away their 500,000th book! To date, over 740,000 books have been ‘harvested’ by children which is most impressive.
The last stop on my family engagement journey was Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to attend the Parents as Teachers national conference. Parents as Teachers (PAT) builds strong communities, thriving families and children who are healthy, safe and ready to learn. By matching families with trained parent educators during a child’s earliest years, PAT supports and engages caregivers through home visits, health and developmental screenings and parent group meetings.
Under the theme Making Connections Matter, the PAT national conference (#PATCON17) brought together over 1,200 parents, parent educators, community-based partners, early childhood practitioners and others committed from all over the country. The conference opened with a dynamic panel providing a federal policy overview, an explanation of key frameworks guiding family engagement, as well as a discussion on how different agencies support families and embed key engagement principles in the work. This unique panel included a local housing authority Director of Resident Services; a Marine Corps New Parent Support Program Manager; a Native Culture, History & Language Education Specialist at the Bureau of Indian Education; and a Professor of Pediatrics who manages a range of programs for a local Children’s Hospital Medical Center. The PAT national conference was a welcome reminder that we all have an important role to play in engaging families, building capacity and sustaining strong partnerships.
As the winter holidays approach and things slow down a bit, one of the things I’m most grateful for are the many friends and colleagues I get to work with all over the country – people who are part of the solution and making their little corner of the world a better place. As we work together to improve systemic engagement and promote high impact practices, little by little we build and hopefully sustain systems of excellence. Indeed, the road to better outcomes is paved with good, consistent parent and family engagement. The stakes seem to get higher and higher every day, particularly for children and families in our most vulnerable communities. Without powerful, effective school, family and community partnerships, achieving the best possible results for these students is in danger of being out of reach.