Engaged Families and Communities

Anne Henderson

Solving the Parent Involvement Puzzle

Anne T. Henderson is a Senior Consultant with the Annenberg Institute for School Reform and based in Washington D.C., where her specialty is the relationship between families and schools. She tracks both research and effective practice on how engaging families contributes to student achievement. She has also written many articles and books on the topic, including Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family/School Partnerships and A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family, and Community Connections on Student Achievement.

Anne Henderson is currently serving as a consultant to a project of NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign that highlights initiatives to engage families and community that our affiliates and members are partnering in. The upcoming report, Best Practices in Family-School-Community Partnerships is due out this Fall.

Below is an interview with Henderson on how educators can bring more families into our public schools.

Why do so many educators find engaging parents to be a major challenge?

First and foremost, our teachers need to get some good professional development. According to the 2005 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, parent engagement is the number one area where they feel least prepared — and they’re crying out for help. This is something student teachers should learn about, but we still haven’t incorporated parental and family engagement into their coursework. When I ask educators how many have had good preparation for working with families while they were training to become a teacher, I might get one or two hands in a room of 100 people. When I ask how many have gotten professional development on the topic since becoming a teacher, again, it’s just one or two hands. We know it’s important to do, but it’s still not happening.

Another new study by Tony Bryk, Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, published last year, found that there were five essential ingredients necessary for transforming struggling Chicago Public Schools over the past 15 years. The schools that were successfully turned around had strong leadership, professional capacity, instructional support, a positive, child-centered school climate, and strong family and community ties.

All five factors are equally important, but the schools that had strong family and community ties, regardless of anything else, were also four times more likely to improve in reading, and 10 times more likely to improve in math. Yet reform movements ignore the family component. There’s no mention of it anywhere. It’s like they think these kids were hatched from eggs!

What can educators start doing now to engage more parents?

One of the best ways to reenergize family relationships is through home visits, which not only boost parental involvement but can dramatically decrease dropout rates. But the visit can’t be a home inspection where you’re going to see what’s wrong. And it can’t be an information dump visit – where you give parents a laundry list of everything they need to do with their child for school. It must be a one-to-one relationship building visit – that’s what community organizers would call it. You’re not there to tell parents how to do anything. You’re there to establish a human connection between teacher and family.

Ideally, educators should be compensated for the time they spend on home visits, and they should be trained on how to do them. They should start out with something positive about the child, not about what’s wrong. Then they should ask the parent, “Tell me more about your child. What are your hopes and dreams for her?” That gets most parents to totally open up. They think, “This teacher has come to my home to find out about my child. This teacher must really care.”

After that, you can begin a conversation about how the parent thinks the child is doing, and you can both talk about where he’s doing well, where he can improve, and how best to help him. The meeting ends with exchanging phone numbers and email addresses, and a promise that both will let the other know if they notice anything in the child’s schoolwork. And with that, a collaboration has started. The parents start coming to school more. They start listening to what the teachers say. And the teacher feels supported and better prepared to teach that parent’s student.

How has the relationship between families and schools changed over the past few decades?

We first have to look at how our families have changed. We’re a very dynamic society, which is a good thing, but it means there’s not much consistency in terms of who goes to a neighborhood school. People will say, “Oh, the neighborhood has changed,” and from the tone of their voice and their facial expressions, you can tell they don’t think it’s a good thing.

In many ways, we’re still stuck in the 1950s, still wishing we had Leave it to Beaver families where the mom is at home tending to the kids and getting them totally ready for school, physically, emotionally, and academically. But families don’t look like Leave it to Beaver anymore.

We’ve experienced an unprecedented wave of immigration in last the 30 years from all over the world. As immigrants pour into cities like New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Houston, and San Francisco, they don’t all stay in the port city — many continue on into the heartland. There are Asian communities in Nebraska, Hispanic communities in the Dakotas, and Somali families in Minnesota. Recently in Fairfield, Iowa, I saw a Turkish restaurant. But the communities and schools haven’t figured out how to embrace and include the diversity of families. Some figure if they don’t, maybe they’ll move on. But we’ve always been a nation of immigrants. Most of us descended from immigrant families, and we tend to forget that.

If communities could see their newest members as the assets that they truly are, we’d reap great rewards. We live in a global society and our kids are going to be working with people from all over the world. With new waves of immigrants coming into our communities, we can prepare kids for the global economy while they’re still in school, and help take the mystery out of new and different cultures. We need to prepare them for the world they will be entering – not the world we grew up in, or the world we might wish it were.

How can educators embrace and include more immigrant families?

Home visits work well with all families, but particularly with immigrant families. One visit I went on was with a fifth grader whose family had come over from Cambodia several years before. They walked fifteen days through the jungle with three kids to get to a refugee camp. In America the family grew to a total of fourteen kids, and the five oldest were in college. It really opened the teacher’s eyes. This boy who was struggling had a quite a story the teacher never knew. But the home visit also built trust. That family was very hard working, and had very big dreams for their kids, but the parents didn’t know how to approach the school. They were relieved and grateful that the school approached them.

Another way to involve immigrant families is to invite them to come in and talk about their home culture. Many schools do international fairs where people come in with a special dish or an item from their country, but those can be confusing, and often the Latino families stick with the Latino families, and Asian families with Asian families. But schools now have students from every part of the globe, from East Africa and India to South Korea and the Middle East. Try focusing on one culture for a month, and invite those families in to talk about their family traditions.

What are strategies for involving parents from low-income communities?

Go out and do things out in their neighborhoods. Be visible and meet people where they live. Housing projects have community rooms – host a meeting there. Organize a community walk with the school faculty and community leaders. Or just go out on a Saturday and walk around a neighborhood to get to know folks and see where they live. There might be empty liquor bottles and other signs of blight, but you might see a vest pocket park, or a community garden, or a building the tenants are renovating. Not only do educators see that a neighborhood isn’t as bad as they might have thought, it really signals to the families that the teachers are willing to come to see them on their own turf. It shows they care.

At the same time, teachers can see that parents care. Too often when parents don’t show up for events or conferences, we think, “Oh, they must not care about their child’s education.” But if their child is bused in from a distant neighborhood, how can the parents get there for a conference? Send buses for school events. Also, arrange for child care. If there’s no child care, how can a hardworking single parent come in with two or three small children on Back to School Night? Never assume the worst. Figure out a way to bring out parent and bring out the best.

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