Reflection on IEL’s National Family & Community Engagement Conference

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From June 22-24, over 1,100 educators, parent leaders, community partners and district leaders from 47 states, Australia, the Netherlands, and the Philippines gathered at the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago for the 2015 National Family and Community Engagement Conference. Guided by the conference theme, Shaping our Future by Leading Together: Families, Schools, and Communities, participants embraced the opportunity to learn about family and community engagement practices that are being implemented across the country. The conference was successful in its mission to empower participants, unite likeminded individuals, and motivate change in their communities.

Pre-Conference Activities

The week commenced with several inspiring pre-conference activities. In the spirit of family engagement, Scholastic joined 23 families from a local Head Start center for a Book Giveaway and Family Literacy Event. Children and their families participated in various interactive literacy activities facilitated by one of our local planning partners, Community Organizing & Family Issues (COFI), and celebrated early literacy with a free book giveaway. Parents and children alike left the event feeling motivated and equipped with strategies and resources to engage with each other through reading. 

In a pre-conference meeting of the District Leaders Network on Family & Community Engagement, district leaders from around the country gathered to increase their capacity for implementing successful systemic strategies by identifying solutions to common challenges and sharing best practices. (Sign up at for more information on the District Leaders Network). Other pre-conference activities included a convening of state FCE directors and a session on community schools facilitated by the Coalition for Community Schools, emphasizing the important role of family engagement in implementing the community school strategy. 

Local site visits were filled to capacity offering participants the opportunity to see successful family engagement activities in action at 3 public schools and a local  community-based organization. Visits to COFI, the Parent Engagement Center at Lavizzo Elementary School, and Parent University Centers at Clemente High School and Spencer Technology Academy presented and modeled important strategies for visitors seeking to implement similar programs in their communities. During one of these insightful visits, a local host posed important questions: “As a leader, how are you creating a community where learning happens?” and “How do you honor and dignify the knowledge of the community?”

Plenaries and Conference Workshops

Kicking off with the Opening Plenary, “Setting the Stage,” IEL President Martin Blank called for a moment of silence to honor those affected by the recent shootings in Charleston, South Carolina after challenging conference participants to continue the fight against racism and to promote equity through their family engagement efforts. Master of Ceremonies Kwesi Rollins, IEL’s Director of Leadership Programs, followed, asking everyone in the room to hug a stranger in order invoke the spirit of love to start the conference. Rollins’ “hug it out” session set the tone for the days to come, emphasizing compassion, community, and shared understanding.

“RT @posickj: Can there be a better way to start a conference than hugging someone as passionate as you about families in education. #FCEconf15”

Conference plenaries offered many powerful speakers ranging from students to government officials. Ounce of Prevention Fund President and Illinois First Lady Diana Rauner welcomed us to Chicago and addressed the transition from early childhood to K-12, calling the audience to action: “Let’s transcend boundaries of funding streams and organizational structures to achieve cradle-to-career success”. Illinois State Superintendent Tony Smith shared inspiring words while realistically addressing the challenges that face students, educators, and families on a daily basis, stating “schools can be the hubs of opportunity infrastructure but we have to tell the truth about the history”. Smith urged educators to stay positive: “If you only focus on what isn’t right in education, it makes it easier to tear down what is good.”

The plenaries featured several student and parent voices, vital perspectives that are often absent from these kinds of gatherings. Jesus Velazquez, a student leader with the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, impressively spoke to the detriments of harsh disciplinary measures in schools and the merits of restorative justice programs. Velazquez candidly addressed the school to prison pipeline: “We are young. We are supposed to mess up. We need to break the cycle. Rather than lock up or suspend students, find a mentor for them”. Velazquez left the audience with a simple but powerful request: “Listen to us.”

After an electrifying keynote by parent leader Rosazlia Grillier that left attendees standing in ovation, Jesse Sharkey of the Chicago Teachers Union facilitated a panel discussion during the Chicago Story plenary on current challenges facing the public school system and the difficulty for community voices to be heard. Echoing Jesus’ remarks during the opening plenary, Rosazlia called for the elimination of zero tolerance policies in schools, instead promoting a network of parent-run peace centers where students lead their own restorative justice programs. In terms of student achievement measures, Leticia Barrera of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association promoted a more diverse set of assessment tools, while Carlos Azcoitia of the Chicago Board of Education called for greater accountability based on growth.  Bea Eusebio, who graduated from high school just a week prior, brought a student activist perspective to the panel representing the Mikva Challenge, a Chicago-based group that develops youth to “be informed, empowered, and active citizens and community leaders.” 

Karen Mapp of Harvard Graduate School of Education stated that it is vital to transform yourself before doing transformative family engagement work, asking the audience to consider “what assumptions or biases do we have about families as they sit across the table from us in our schools”. Moderating the Family Engagement and Educational Equity Plenary, Mapp encouraged listeners to embrace discomfort and to understand that “sometimes to transform you have to go through a process of chaos and disruption”. Similarly, Khalilah Harris from the White House Initiative on Equity and Excellence for African-Americans questioned “Do we only invite parents to the table to “co-sign” what we have already decided is best for their child?”, challenging educators to form a shared vision with a child’s family and community. Mapp, Harris, and Carla Thompson, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s V.P for Program Strategies, all discussed the opportunity gap, inspiring listeners to address equity, social justice, and race openly and honestly in their classrooms.

The conference offered 80 workshops highlighting high impact strategies on a wide array of topics including community partnerships, early learning and literacy, high school transitions, parent leadership and advocacy, student achievement, systemic practice and policy, and teacher leadership and professional development. Presenters from over 100 organizations shared their experiences and insights in interactive workshop sessions.

During the Closing Plenary, Melissa Bryant, an award-winning teacher leader from D.C. Public Schools, brought the audience to tears and filled the room with her infectious passion through her story of home visits and community engagement efforts. Bryant reminded the audience that “community is not what keeps our children down. It’s what propels them forward”. Earl Wiman from the National Education Association kept the momentum going, saying that teachers must understand where children are coming from in order to take them where they need to be. Wiman presented a humorous and heartfelt personal anecdote of the time a state trooper pulled him over for speeding.  The trooper turned out to be a former student. Instead of issuing a ticket, he thanked Wiman: “Thanks to the people who do what you do I’m driving a state trooper car instead of sitting in the back seat of one.” Ralph Smith from the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading brought the conference to a close with words of wisdom: “Schools have got to do better with the kids they have, not the kids they wish they had.” Smith highlighted the importance of family and community engagement by reminding the audience that while there is no magic potion for improving outcomes, “parents are the secret sauce to success.”

Conference Feedback

  • “We came away keenly aware of our power and that we are not alone.”
  • “This conference seemed very solution focused. It was nice to see that participants have moved beyond sharing what’s not working. It was also clear that presenters and participants feel empowered by gains in awareness in recent years and the fact that family engagement is now part of pithy education discussions.”
  • “The conference was informative and motivating. The speakers encouraged participants to go back to their communities and push forward with their visions and mission to engage families and the community.”
  • “This was by far the BEST conference I have ever attended! It was inspiring, radical, insightful, full of soul, heart, and passion for the work. Thanks IEL for what you did!”

Keep an eye out for information regarding next year’s National FCE Conference! 

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