Engaging Families and Communities in Students’ Education
“Student success is a shared interest of both school and family.”
Research informs us that those students whose families and communities are involved in their education are more likely to:
- Adapt well to school
- Attend school regularly
- Complete homework
- Earn better grades
- Have better test scores
- Graduate and go to college
- Have good social skills
- Demonstrate positive behaviors
- Have better relationships with their families
- Have higher self-esteem
How can teachers engage and involve families and communities in students’ education?
To answer this question, I went to my own community and interviewed the assistant principal and former classroom teacher with over 30 years of experience at Olson Middle School, Brenda Becker. Brenda provided her recommendations and allowed me to tap into her knowledge concerning ways to involve families and communities in students’ education. As we began our discussion, we first reviewed what Dr. Joyce Epstein, a researcher from Johns Hopkins University studied about community and family involvement.
Epstein explains that involvement means different things to different people. In her work in this area, she was inspired to create a framework that defines involvement in six ways:
- Parenting and Families
- Learning at home
- Decision making
- Collaborating with the community
Our review and discussion of Dr. Epstein’s framework was beneficial for our conversation, and assisted Becker in distilling what she thinks are the two most important tenets when involving families and the community in students’ education: mission and purpose.
Mission: Welcome, invite, include, and engage the community and families in students’ education through:
- At Stonewall Jackson High School in Manassas, Virginia, the introduction and use of an interactive voicemail system was attributed to an increase in attendance at school orientation from 50 to 1000!
- Technology becomes particularly important when there are health issues (Covid-19 pandemic) or other challenges that prevent families from attending in person. In those circumstances, consider the ideas presented in this article “Reimagining Family Engagement in the Time of Covid” from Getting Smart
- Other tech examples include the use of classroom websites, texting, and apps specifically designed to communicate with families
- Inviting families and the community to join Open Houses
- Offering meals, treats, or coffee for families and the community
- Letting families know there will be translators and offering communications in other languages. Check out Google Translate
- Transportation, or a voucher for Lyft or Uber
- Providing access to calendars via websites with events and activities laid out for the year so families can plan
- Flexible scheduling like weekend and evening opportunities to accommodate family schedules
- Inviting community members to visit schools, talk with students, and advocate for teachers
- Creating a school climate that encourages family and community involvement
In other words, Becker explained, “we can accomplish our mission of getting families and the community to the school, but then the questions become:
- What is our purpose once families are at the school?
- What do we want families and the community to learn and understand about what goes on at school?”
The “purpose,” Brenda shared, is more challenging. It is about building trust, creating connections, and ensuring families understand that teachers are working on their own professional growth. In other words, teachers, too, are learning along with their students.
- How do we create connections with families and communities to ensure we are meeting our purpose?
Purpose: Ensure families and the community are vested in students’ education through understanding, connection, and communication. Create a sense of purpose by:
- Communicating with families openly and honestly, not only when there are discipline issues
- Learning about cultures, customs, and values
- Reach out before school starts! Send a postcard, an email, a phone call to introduce yourself
- Connect by including your email address, phone number, website addresses, and communication apps
- Provide time for casual or organic check-ins
- Let families know when conferences will be held, where they are located, and what to expect
- Depending on the age of the students, invite families to complete an interest inventory/survey (there are many online!) to get to know students
- Ask for community support and resources to strengthen schools
- Communicate effectively through use of common “family friendly” language and leave out the educational acronyms and jargon that can make families feel excluded
- Nurture relationships by asking questions and learning about students
- Post office hours so students know when you are available
- Provide resources for students and families
- Work with school social workers, nurses, counselors and other specialists to make sure students are supported
- Encourage and support other interest areas beyond academics, or sports, such as: theater, art, dance, debate, and music
- Respect confidentiality
- Build trust
When it comes to connecting students with the community, Becker champions service-learning projects. “Service learning, is a phenomenal way to link schools with the community through common goals and provides students with an opportunity to learn empathy, collaboration, leadership, teamwork, and creativity (great lifelong skills!).” Here is an example one school created–based on the needs in the community.
Beyond the mission and purpose, Becker emphasized the importance of educators asking themselves these questions:
- How might I work with a student who doesn’t hear the message that education is important?
- How can I ensure I am meeting students where they are?
She went on to explain how some students come to school hungry, some after caring for siblings, some after working late the night before. Other students may feel pressure from parents or siblings to excel, to get into a certain college, or to be on a high-level sports team. Still, others may struggle with issues of mental illness or childhood trauma.
As Becker said, “It’s a lot.”
Which is why it is imperative that our purpose is about connection. Without it, students, families, and communities feel and become untethered.
Becker encourages teachers to recognize not all students, families, or communities view education in the same way, and that educational jargon can be confusing or intimidating. Some families or people in the community may have had negative school experiences which have impacted how they view school or education. It is essential for educators to meet students where they are, and to learn from one another, to create a culture of mutual respect and learning–particularly when it comes to nuances in customs, values, and priorities.
In addition, Becker reminds teachers to ask students what they need to be successful both socially and academically so educators can assist in practical ways. In some circumstances, it may be as straightforward as teaching good study habits or helping to organize and prioritize. For other students, it may mean guiding them about what it means to be a friend or modeling how to apologize when we’ve hurt someone.
Finally, Brenda asserted how important it is for families and communities to see the great work teachers are doing and that those in the community to recognize schools want to be in partnership.
Gradually, through connection, we can create a school climate built on trust. This bridge of trust positively impacts both families and communities. As students become connected and trust increases, students begin to share what is happening in school with their families–that their teacher helped them, taught them, advocated for them, or was simply patient and kind.
WEB, LINK, and Youth Frontiers
Three powerful resources that emphasize connection, leadership, and help students and families ease the transition between elementary school to middle school, and middle school to high school are WEB, LINK, and Youth Frontiers.
The goal of each of these programs is to create better experiences and to alleviate the anxiety associated with transitioning from lower grades to upper grades. Both WEB and LINK cite studies that state “If students have a positive experience their first year in middle/high school, their chances for success increase dramatically.” Each program provides support and guidance with transitional challenges that can “sometimes be overwhelming.”
Youth Frontiers is a retreat program that seeks to “build positive school communities” and is gaining in popularity as more and more schools seek to increase positive community connections.
Remember your mission. Focus on your purpose. Create trust. Keep connection front and center as you advocate for students, schools, and communities.
The Importance of Community Involvement in Schools from Edutopia
Critical Practices for Anti-Bias Education-Family and Community Engagement from Learning for Justice
A How-To Guide for Building School to Community Partnerships from EdWeek
Reimagining Family Engagement in the Time of Covid from Getting Smart