Family/parent engagement has been a hot topic in my diverse urban high school this fall: how do we get families in the door? How do make sure that our school community includes parents and guardians (beyond the obvious – discipline)? How do we make schools feel safe for families who see them as unsafe places due to bad personal experiences or associations with other potentially intimidating government buildings? Here are three of the best ideas I’ve heard this fall, including examples of great things happening in my school.
Push your building to create a hub for family resources (and a culture of caring)
I am always deeply inspired when I see schools carving out space for community resources. This was done with a lot of intention and love in my building last year with the creation of the Community Resource Center (CRC). Our administrative team and counseling staff advocated for a place that students could get groceries, clothing, transportation assistance, and ask for help from caring adults. Most recently, they’ve collected donations for Thanksgiving dinner boxes, conducted a massively successful coat drive, and hosted a well-attended family night event during a Friday night football game. The CRC has created a safe place where families feel welcome, and family engagement has increased among those who are utilizing AND donating resources. Here are some other amazing stories about resource hubs in other school buildings:
- A community food pantry in Charleston, South Carolina expanded its operations in a high school to serve the needs of students and their families. A great example of a community partnership!
- Sheldon Elementary School in Topeka, Kansas expanded its community resources after its staff was trained in ACEs and trauma responsiveness. Their new program includes a clothing bank, food pantry, and other resources to help families!
- Granite School District in Granite, Utah started a mobile food pantry to serve the entire district. The mobile pantry (including a four-truck fleet) is more flexible than a stationary pantry and remains open during the summer!
Even if your building or district doesn’t have the capacity or staffing to run a program like the ones listed here, think about what you can do as an individual teacher. One of my amazing coworkers takes donations of gently used professional clothing and keeps them in his classroom so that students can “check out” a shirt and tie for job and senior exit interviews. He spends none of his own money but is making a huge difference.
Reach out to families (BEFORE disciplinary action is taken)
The best advice I’ve heard recently (directed at teachers) about family engagement is to contact parents about the good things their student is doing BEFORE you need to call them about disciplinary issues. Create alliances early in the school year by reaching out to parents by phone or email, whichever is easiest for you. If you teach high school or middle school, this can be a daunting prospect, so consider focusing on one group of students. For example, our admin team encouraged us to reach out to parents of our Seminar (advisory) students about attendance and behavior issues, since all students have a Seminar. This reduced the number of parents to call from 150+ to less than 30. This proactive process improves family engagement by opening lines of communication. Check out this Scholastic article with five tips for successful parent-teacher communication.
Watch for unmet needs (and activate your team to meet them)
Teachers in my building routinely hold parent meetings (for conferences, discipline, and IEPs) with parents and families whose first language is not English. In the past, students or siblings of students acted as translators for their parents, putting an undue burden on the student and potentially compromising the message being communicated. Translation services were a widespread, unmet need in our building and it’s not just a problem in Washington! To combat this problem, we purchased a very cost-effective program called Language Line, a program with on-demand translators for things like phone calls home and conferences. While we don’t always have money in the budget for amazing programs like these, we only get them if teachers recognize a need and ask for support. Often, unmet needs such as translation services are the only thing standing in the way of meaningful engagement with a family. By addressing unmet needs, we are not only saying that we care about all families regardless of their background or language skills, but that schools are a welcoming, safe place.
What awesome things are going on in your building to support family/parent engagement? Brag in the comments!