Family-School-Community Engagement: A Path in the Forest
What do night walks, tree houses and suspension bridges have to do with family-school-community partnerships? They’re all part of the unconventional outdoor education methods focused on cultivating the relationships required to sustain school reform.
IslandWood, a Bainbridge Island-based educational charity known better as a “school in the woods,” played host to nearly 40 teachers, education support professionals, parents, principals and others for a three-day meeting designed to develop skills and provide strategies for school-based community liaisons and partners.
“Parent engagement, especially at the middle school level, has to be seen as something more than coming to a conference or being seen in the school,” said Gloria Henderson, an assistant principal at Totem Middle School in Marysville, Wash. “We have to look at it differently.”
And doing and thinking about parent and community engagement differently was an underlying theme of the Family Ties Conference, which was spearheaded by the Washington Education Association and supported in part by a grant from NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign. Rather than dumping information onto participants, organizers relied on metaphors of nature and nurture—allowing attendees to draw their own conclusions about the connection between a night walk through the woods and working in and with a high-needs school.
“The walk in the woods at night gave us a different perspective. For a lot of families with kids going into middle school, it is like walking in the dark,” said Suzzanne Schalo, the vice president of the Totem Parent Teacher Student Association whose son attends the middle school. “As a parent, going into a middle school, I wasn’t sure what to expect but the reassurance of having the parent liaison there was huge.”
Although there wasn’t any singing of Kumbaya around the campfire, participants agreed they felt a sense of community, which is much-needed in work where burnout and heightened scrutiny are constant factors, says Valerie Fisher.
“Administrators, certificated and classified [staff] got to cross communicate without our positions getting in the way,” said Fisher, a family support worker at Seattle’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School. “That helped break down walls, and let us know we’re all in this together.”
Delila Leber, a kindergarten Spanish teacher at Mount View Elementary School in the Highline Public School District, agreed, adding that situational awareness also can play a pivotal role in education reform work.
“It makes it more impactful when you use and integrate the environment you’re in,” said Leber. “This place is so peaceful, and it clears your mind. You’re so clear about what you want to do when you get back.”
For some participants, who were forced outside their comfort zones, they reflected on how adults within a school system can work together to increase student success. Crossing a suspension bridge in the woods became a metaphor for what it will take for school personnel to span the gap between student success and community resources. Highlighting the importance of community partners in sustaining school success, conference planners devoted a significant part of the experience to strategies for the realizing the potential of community resources.
“I thought about ways that I actually might be a barrier,” said Lisa Lucas, a family and community engagement specialist at Hawthorne Elementary School in Seattle. “I’ve had opportunities to ask myself what ways I might be a barrier, which helps me be more mindful.”
As the clock ticks down for priority schools that have received a federal School Improvement Grant, the emerging question has been sustainability, with family-community partnerships surfacing as the key component needed to continue the reform work in priority schools. Unlocking the mystery of strong family and community partner engagement, many participants learned that the strongest strategy is to move from the schoolhouse to the community instead of always waiting for the community to come in.
Heather Harris, a sixth-grade teacher at Washington Middle School in Yakima, Wash., received an invitation from her principal to participate in the three-day gathering after making a record number of calls to her students’ parents to increase communication.
“It was nice that when calling parents I was using the phone for positive recognition of their children,” said Harris about the work that led her to the conference. “Having parents from other schools here has helped me gain perspective.”
Her colleague, Robert Sanders who teaches eighth grade at Washington, agreed.
“We were looking at it from a teacher’s viewpoint—from the school—and we got to see it from the outside, like a parent,” said Sanders.