Rethinking Family Engagement for Successful Learning

By Erika Maldonado
For the Latino Policy Connection

5452085The power of parent engagement and the impact it has on a student’s academic success has rid doubt of even the most skeptic. But the debate about effective parent engagement strategies – even about what constitutes parent engagement – continues to divide.

Through our research and interviews we have come to some conclusions we hope will be useful to education policymakers in this region. We’ve learned that in order to be effective, Parent Engagement should:

  • Be adequately funded
  • Provide training for all staff
  • Promote awareness of what schools need
  • Effectively engage families with culturally appropriate outreach
  • Engage parents over the course of the year – no more one-offs!

Funding and Training
More frequent participation beyond a workshop once a year or an occasional parent-teacher meeting is what organizations such as Families in Schools, FIS, champion. Though the funding needed for resources and training may seem like an initial barrier to school districts, FIS President and CEO Oscar Cruz says it is a matter of prioritizing.

Cruz“There is a huge mismanagement of investment versus resources when you look at parent engagement programs for schools,” Cruz said. “At best, schools are using one percent of Title I money, but if we want to increase parent engagement, that has to change.”

The Azusa Unified School District Board approved FIS’ program last month, which includes training workshops for all school staff in order to improve communication and engagement with parents.

“It really does take a village,” said Azusa Unified School District Board President Yolanda Rodriguez-Peña. “From the board members, family members, teachers and even cafeteria workers, we are all a team and we need to stay that way if we want our kids to succeed.”

Rodriguez-Peña says the funds are currently available and that Azusa Unified is implementing the family and school program after voting to approve it last month.

Parent centers were established throughout the Azusa district to connect families with student’s progress, with furniture donated by families, including Rodriguez-Pena. She says it provides a sense of ownership and a welcoming space for family engagement.

Academic and Cultural Relevance
In order to be effective, parent and family engagement must be culturally relevant to parents. This means meeting the specific needs of each school’s parent “community.” Implementing the Latino Family Literacy Project throughout the Culver City Unified School District, for example, looks different for each school site, said English Language Development Specialist Claudia Benitez. The project encourages family reading that is tailored for preschool, elementary and middle and high school with up to 10 sessions throughout the school year.

4292117“It starts with a welcoming environment,” Benitez said. “Being able to support parents and students so that they know they’re not alone with concerns and questions they may have will encourage them to be more involved.”

For Pomona Unified School District Board Member Frank Guzman, it meant starting a bi-weekly family support group, modeled as round table discussion where parents share advice and address concerns.

“In order to get results, you have to be a person of action,” said Guzman. “We are in the business of educating students. How can we do that without engaging their parents? We’re also empowering families to educate themselves.”

FIS’s Cruz agrees. That is the one thing preventing many parents from engaging with their child’s school beyond just picking up and dropping them off. “Many parents don’t feel like the school belongs to them. They don’t feel empowered. They feel pushed out.”

Having teachers who live within the communities they teach will provide deeper connections with students and enrich learning. Other methods such as providing a translator for school meetings and alternating meetings times in mornings, afternoons and evenings to accommodate working parents are a few solutions Benitez from Culver City Unified found to be effective. With more control being given to schools on how money is spent, inviting parents, students and community members to have a voice in decision-making will foster more inclusion.

4860739_origFrequency of Interaction
An approach that fosters constant interaction rather than a once a year parent conference is considered optimal by educators such as Maria Paredes, Director of Community Education at Creighton School District in Arizona.

The FIS director cited Paredes’ model as a good example of a welcoming space where parents can establish familiarity with teachers and other parents. Cruz believes that a collaborative approach to education is crucial.

“When you talk about parent engagement—It’s perceived as what parents are not doing,” Cruz said. “It’s more about what are the roles and capacity of the schools? And how can they work together?”

More Parent Engagement Resources can be found at:
Attendance Works
Abriendo Puertas
Univision’s Clave al Exito

Erika Maldonado serves as a programs associate at The Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California where she manages social media and oversees the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times poll series along with supporting daily operations. She is a Journalism graduate from San Francisco State University.