Building Momentum For Family Engagement: A Q&A With Bellwether’s Jeff Schulz

This week, Bellwether staff share their perspectives on family and parent engagement. Follow Ahead of the Heard from now until Friday for a series of blog posts that tackle common misconceptions about engaged parents, working with multilingual families, and more. Click here to read other posts in the series thus far.

 

At Bellwether, we believe that schools are most successful when families and parents are engaged. But despite decades of research on family and parent engagement strategies, there is still little consensus about meaningful family involvement in a child’s education: what does it look like, how does it translate into student achievement, and what is a school’s role in facilitating it?

To get some answers, we spoke to Bellwether principal Jeff Schulz, who has been a member of our Strategic Advising team since 2013 and has helped school districts, charter management organizations, and service providers address a wide range of strategic issues. In the Q&A below, Jeff talks about a recent project advising a major client on family engagement work and what he’s learned.

How do you define family engagement? How does this work look on the ground in different communities? 

The Flamboyan Foundation – which does some of the best work nationally in this area – defines family engagement as “the collaboration between families and educators that accelerates student learning.” I like this definition because it encompasses so much more than ice cream socials or “donuts with dad” and gets at the essential role of schools.

This collaboration can take on many different forms:

  • Providing timely information to families about student performance, and creating multiple opportunities for parents to interpret and act on that data (e.g., progress reports, parent-teacher conferences, report card nights, regular email/writtencommunication)
  • Welcoming parents into classrooms to advance learning (e.g., reading with younger kids, talking about their profession, helping teachers prepare learning activities)
  • Seeking input from families on key school decisions (through surveys, focus groups, or a standing group like a parent teacher association)
  • Supporting parents to advocate for resources and supports for their schools (e.g., speaking to local, state, or national representatives about critical issues)

What do you take away from the research on family engagement?

The research on family engagement is not as well developed as some other areas (for example, the What Works Clearinghouse has a whole collection of research around literacy and dropout prevention). However, there is research that suggests a correlation between better student performance and more engaged families. Here are a few key findings from a recent summary:

  • Schools instituting high-quality family engagement programs have higher attendance rates than similar schools without such programs
  • 71% of teenagers interviewed in one study said that more communication between parents and schools might have prevented them from dropping out of high school
  • Meta-analyses of 40+ studies found a significant association between family engagement and the academic achievement of urban elementary and middle school students

To be clear, these findings point to a correlation between effective family engagement and student success, not a causal link. Stronger research on the impact of effective family engagement, and what “effective” actually looks like in practice, is an area we’d really benefit from as a field.

Tell me about a recent family engagement client project: What was the problem and what was Bellwether’s proposed solution?

This year, we partnered with a large and rapidly growing multi-region charter management organization (CMO). The client believed that effective family and parent engagement was critical to its continued success, and it invested significantly in surveying parents, creating parent curricula, and developing an advocacy approach.

While they saw a positive impact from their investments, the work was not clearly aligned to an organization-wide strategy or set of metrics. On top of that, the work was often distributed among different teams in multiple regions, making it difficult to assess the overall impact.

That’s where Bellwether came in: our Strategic Advising team was asked to support the development of a five-year family engagement strategy. We interviewed people from across the organization – including central office staff, school leaders and teachers, and parents – to understand what was working well and what gaps needed to be addressed.

We developed a family engagement vision, set of shared beliefs, and measurable goals to guide the work. This provided a framework that everyone could understand and rally around even as specific strategies and activities evolved over time. The three overarching goals we identified were:

  • Engage families in classroom and school activities
  • Build family knowledge and skills
  • Empower families to take action on issues that affect their child’s education

With goals in place, it was easier to identify specific initiatives that aligned and could be measured, including: planning for a family liaison program, a parent advisory committee at each school, and a “parent university”; better utilizing existing tools to communicate student performance; and supporting parents to organize and advocate for their schools’ needs.

What are the biggest misconceptions about family engagement?

The biggest misconception I see is that there is a tradeoff between focusing time, energy, and money on family engagement versus direct support to students. In fact, when done well, family engagement is in direct alignment with student success. It is not an either/or but a both/and.

A second misconception, which relates to the first, is that family engagement is a “nice to have” and not a “must have.” For students to succeed, families must be engaged and supportive partners. This is particularly true when students leave school for college or other transitions. At that point, the school’s sphere of influence ends or is greatly diminished.

In what ways do racial blind spots or biases affect family engagement efforts?

Different cultures have different norms: whereas some parents are perfectly comfortable visiting a school and asking tough questions about their child’s experience, other parents might be more deferential to teachers and less likely to proactively advocate for their child. There are also parents who have had bad past experiences with schools or witnessed a revolving door of school leadership, resulting in low trust. This divide is especially prominent in urban schools, where teaching staff are commonly much less racially diverse than the communities they serve. Schools must proactively build a welcoming and non-judgmental culture for parents, encourage them to visit the school, and create space for those types of conversations.

Are there any big picture best practices around family engagement you can share from your work? What makes a winning family engagement strategy?

Through our research and benchmarking, we’ve identified five design principles that inform successful family engagement strategies:

  1. Successful family engagement requires a shared organizational mindset that deeply values and respects family contributions.
  2. To achieve buy-in among staff, the top leaders must emphasize the importance of family engagement.
  3. Principals should be the focal point of training efforts so they become champions of family engagement in their schools – without their support, family engagement will remain sporadic and transactional.
  4. Track results and publicize them. This will build excitement around familyengagement.
  5. Make family engagement as easy as possible for campuses to implement, with easy and customizable resources, strong program design, and staff support at the central office.

What’s your advice for an organization looking to invest in family engagement?

  • Start with families and parents. Understand their needs and desires. If you’re a parent, think about what you want from your child’s school, and then think about how to make sure all parents have that.
  • Don’t make it “one more thing.” Think explicitly about how family engagement can support other goals and priorities. For example, if a school has a goal aroundincreasing reading achievement, engage parents through starting and operating a book fair, leading a book drive, or volunteering in classrooms or the library.
  • Support teachers and administrators. School staff are busy. If you’re going to ask them to increase time and energy on family engagement, think about how to take other non-essential tasks off their plates (e.g., paperwork) and provide them with ready-to-use resources and supports.

To learn more about Bellwether’s Strategic Advising team and how we can partner with you on family engagement strategies or other work, email contactus@bellwethereducation.org.