June 15th, 2021

District Leaders Invest in Equity to Reshape Family Engagement

Successful family engagement has been linked to increases in attendance, academic achievement, health, social and emotional growth and even increased morale in teachers and staff,” says Abigail Emerson, host of the SchoolCNXT webinar for Equity & Family Engagement, “it helps to lay the foundation for an objectively successful school experience that opens up wonderful opportunities and a bright future for its students.”

Along with hosts Abigail Emerson and Matt Hausmann, on the panel are four education insiders that discussed how to better serve their communities from the district level to each individual family.

“We are committed to looking at everything in our district at every level to make sure there are no barriers in place and that we’re not the barrier,” says Chrystal Hawkins, Title 1 Family Engagement Specialist in Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS). “We have the diversity, equity, and poverty department, and when we started to uncover the data in our district, we found that we have students where we, the schools, are the barrier.” Chrystal explains, “When the pandemic happened we realized we had over 20,000 families that couldn’t reach out to us or we weren’t reaching them because they didn’t speak English – which was completely unacceptable.” JCPS adopted SchoolCNXT, an app-based communication tool that translates over 100 languages and utilizes text-to-speech capabilities to help schools in their district effectively reach 100% of their student’s families.


Matt Smith, Associate Superintendent of Des Moines Public Schools, asks “How many assumptions have schools and districts made about what families need versus how many times have we actually invited them into the space and asked them? I can’t think of a single time when it shouldn’t need to start with asking them about what they need, and then meeting them where they are with all the uniqueness and beauty they are bringing to the table.” Smith, offers as a challenge to district and school leaders. “That’s where we fall short,” he says, “we make these assumptions and we don’t actually invite spaces with authenticity, with a genuine and sincere desire to hear, to learn, to do better, and be better for the families that we serve.”

As the principal for 15 years of P.S. 55 School in the Bronx, Luis Torres talks about how important it is to create opportunities for the families to engage. “If you don’t have those opportunities, what you’re doing is creating a false family engagement model that results in low engagement.” Torres goes on “It’s not that the families aren’t interested, you have to create those structures. Some examples in my school are, we hire from the community, and for afterschool programs, we hire former students.” This way the school reflects the community and creates engagement opportunities for everyone involved. Hawkins adds that employing families and offering stipends to honor their engagement has made JCPS family engagement soar. “There’s a misconception” Torres states, “that some families are not invested in their child’s education, that they don’t want to be involved, and that they don’t want to be engaged but that’s not true, the reality is that schools don’t take the time to know what’s best for the parents.”

Torres reflects on the family engagement in his school, “Before the pandemic, we would get about four or five parents to show up to the school – which would be the same four parents that pretty much did everything in the school. But with the use of technology, we went from four parents to now 40, 60 sometimes. The numbers have increased, the engagement has increased because now you have parents that want to be involved in the school, who can be there without having to be present in the actual building.”


“It’s about starting to create a space of understanding,” says Cyrus Garrett, CEO of WCG Strategies and former Executive Director of the Young Men’s Initiative, “where the school can better understand where the parents are as well as for the parents to understand that the educators, first and foremost and looking out for their children when they aren’t there.” He continues, “Technology has given us an opportunity to look at how we can expand certain aspects of what we do and what we haven’t been able to provide before such as counseling.” He talks about usually being constrained to one counselor in a building but with technology, there is an opportunity for more than one. “There is so much more opportunity to connect people with networks in their community that technology provides us with, now that students are used to using technology as an input for their education. So we need to think about how we can hybrid our school experience in a way that allows us to expand our capacity by utilizing technology.”

Smith concludes, “It’s not just about changing the individual moments or experiences, but changing the systems so we are creating just and equitable opportunities, access, and outcomes for all the students and staff that we serve.” With technology surfacing that is opening the doors for every family to be engaged, many educators wonder how it took so long to shift the focus to equitable family engagement. Like Principal Torres says, “These things can be fixed, but sometimes it takes a pandemic to get us motivated to get it done.”


Watch the full webinar on Equity & Family Engagement to learn more about reaching every family in your school district.


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