“Learning is a team effort that includes parents, teachers and the community.”
This spirit of shared learning and best practices was reflected in IEL’s gathering of over 80 leaders from 27 districts and 17 state departments of education. This year’s Learning Lab in the District of Columbia provided an opportunity for district leaders across the country to build on their experiences guiding family and community engagement (FCE) work in a variety of contexts and fostered an environment that encouraged implementation of best practices and improving systemic family and community engagement.
The DC Learning Lab opened with a panel discussion that examined the strengths and challenges of federal education policy implementation. The panel challenged participants to consider how state and district plans required by the Every Student Succeeds Act could be strengthened to ensure equitable outcomes for students and incorporate a strong family engagement component. Panelists emphasized the importance of developing a strong parent school relationship indicating that parents and families are engaged with their children’s lives from birth. Recognizing the inherent willingness of parents to want their child to succeed is paramount for educators. It is the priority of FCE partners to encourage parents to lead in schools and in education policy just as they are leading in their homes and in their neighborhoods. Panelist Elaine Zimmerman, senior consultant for the Connecticut Commission on Women, Children and Seniors, echoed the sentiment of fostering parent leadership stating, “Parents who care become parents who lead.” Lauren Mims, Assistant Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans also shared her experiences visiting with students across the country and the impact she sees when engaged families place importance on student support.
To underscore its commitment to FCE in education policy, the federal policy panel also noted changes that are happening within the composition of the Department of Education, including the new role of Family Engagement Ambassador which will serve to promote and support family engagement in education policy on a national level.
The second day of the DC Learning Lab began with representatives from Arlington Public Schools (APS). They shared how APS has made family engagement a focus of its work. Much of the progress has come from dedicated members of the school board and parents. Board member Dr. Emma Violand-Sanchez (the district’s first Latinx board member) discussed how she has taken the lead in organizing a working group that involves parents and community members. This working group drafts policies and has proposed a framework that works to help guide family and community engagement (FACE) work in APS. Partners in these working groups include FACE specialists and FACE Action Teams which are composed of a diverse group of school staff, parents, and community partners. Violand-Sanchez described the importance of system-wide family and community engagement plans that are concrete enough for engagement to build from, stating, “Parents want to engage. They just need assistance and guidelines; parents are invested and the experiences they share helps to grow the program.”
In lieu of a visit to local schools, APS’s family engagement staff pulled together an impressive panel including the principal, family engagement liaison, community-based partners and parent leaders representing a language immersion school, their pre-school programs, an elementary school, and a high school. Parent leaders offered important insights on the roles they have played in helping to engage other parents and families helping them navigate the system and become part of their own leadership pipeline as parents from increasingly diverse cultural communities. Principals offered important lessons about working to improve the capacity of their teachers to engage families and reimagine regular practices like parent teacher conferences and other activities.
D.C. Public Schools’ Office of Family and Public Engagement facilitated a second panel featuring director Josephine Bias Robinson, the DCPS interim chancellor John Davis, and the director of curriculum and instruction. Panelists offered an in-depth look at D.C.’s FCE policies and structures and their journey from trying out national best practices on a small scale to a more systemic approach actively involving over two-thirds of their schools. Participants were able to ask executive staff about real-world practice that works. One panelist began by stating, “Engagement happens at the teacher level, not the central office.” The panelists went on to indicate this is why DCPS emphasizes the importance of family engagement on a regular basis to teachers, turning every teacher into an expert on family engagement. DCPS believes that relationships between teachers and family is the most important and beneficial aspect of family engagement. They described how they have set a goal to develop practices that support family engagement and enforce the belief that FCE is beneficial and necessary. One key role for the senior staff is to ensure that DCPS’s system-wide engagement practices are sustained.
“This Learning Lab was simply one of the best professional development opportunities that I have ever attended!” said Patricia Weinzapfel from Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation.
As a peer learning and action network, the District Leaders Network on Family and Community engagement was conceived as a mechanism for improving systemic practice by supporting the learning of leaders responsible for work on the ground. The DC Learning Lab offered a deeper understanding and an important feedback loop between those responsible for federal FCE policy and those tasked with operationalizing best practice on the ground. Additionally, the Learning Lab offered participants a unique opportunity to learn from peers successfully implementing the Dual-Capacity Building Framework for Family-School Partnerships in real time in the D.C. Metropolitan Area. Participants left inspired, more knowledgeable, and more capable of applying a range of lessons and strategies back home in their local contexts. They also left with an expanded network of peers ready and willing to support them in their local efforts.
View the archive of the live stream from the Federal Policy Debriefing and Listening Session.
View the Twitter history of the DC Learning Lab via Storify or search #dclearninglab on Twitter.