Engaged Families and Communities

Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen addresses the summit audience Thursday as Tennessee Education Association President Earl Wiman and former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist look on.

Union-Led Conference Targets Family Engagement in Schools

The Tennessee Education Association in partnership with the National Education Association and 22 other organizations in the state, hosted the Tennessee Family/School/Community Engagement Summit this month, a dialogue on policy and practice for improving family engagement in schools.

A former Nashville elementary school converted to a professional development center was the site of the daylong event which brought together nearly 300 educators, lawmakers, parents, faith-based groups and others from all across Tennessee.

Research shows that the number one indicator of student achievement is parental and family involvement. But in an economic climate of record unemployment, those in attendance acknowledged the seemingly impossible obstacle many parents and families face in being active in their child’s education.

“Having been the principal of a very high poverty school, it is not easy to forget that the reason we don’t sometimes get the parental and family support is that we have parents working two jobs just to keep food on the table,” said TEA President Earl Wiman. “That can’t be discounted. That needs to be a part of the discussion here today. How do we support parents and families? How do we encourage parents and families? We’ve got a lot of folks out there doing all they can do to help their children succeed, but it sometimes falls short because of the economic pressures they face.”

And yet while money is important, former Senator Bill Frist, who now heads the Tennessee State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE), issued a firm reminder that school-family collaboration must be at the heart of any real effort to ensure students graduate prepared for higher education or the workforce.

“The family, the community, the engagement at the local level is what will define us,” he said. “Either it will make this real, or not. Money really doesn’t matter very much — sure it makes things happen; it sort of stimulates people. But it is the alignment of all interests that is key. That is why this is so important.”

Part of the day had attendees participating in small groups, challenged to discuss the changes in policy, practice and/or actions necessary at various levels (building, district and state) to increase family engagement. Participants also discussed the unique engagement challenges posed by rural, at-risk, and non-English speaking students.

Frequently discussed at the summit was Tennessee’s status as one of only two states to receive $500 million in phase-one Race to the Top funding. Tennessee’s outgoing leader, Governor Phil Bredesen, widely praised for bringing all education stakeholders together to deliver a winning application, made the important connection between education and government.

“We can’t have a functioning democracy, we can’t have functioning self-governance without an educated population,” he pointed out. “Thomas Jefferson first talked at length about that and an awful lot of people over an awful lot of years since have reiterated it.”

At the end of the day, the Tennessee summit had a goal of not only facilitating discussion, but also the development and dissemination of policy and practice recommendations. A compilation of measures local and state policymakers should consider and ultimately implement will be issued in the coming weeks.

In addition to the event in Tennessee and a summit already held in North Carolina, NEA is working with its affiliates in Nebraska and Wisconsin to convene state policy summits which bring together key stakeholders to examine and address barriers to meaningful community engagement in public education. The state events—coupled with a national summit in Fall 2010—will fortify coalitions for the purpose of increasing student achievement, reducing dropout rates, and promoting school success.

Other organizations supporting the Tennessee Family/School/Community Engagement Summit include: AARP Tennessee, ASCD Tennessee, ARC of Tennessee, Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Middle Tennessee, Conexion Americas, Hyde Family Foundation, Mid East Tennessee Regional P-16 Council, National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, Niswonger Foundation, Office of Governor Bredesen, Stand for Children, Support & Training for Exceptional Parents (STEP, Inc.), Tennessee Alliance for Children and Families, Tennessee Department of Education, Tennessee NAACP, Tennessee Parent Information Resource Center, Tennessee Parent Teachers Association, Tennessee Retired Teachers Association, Tennessee School Boards Association, Tennessee State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE), United Way of Tennessee and Urban League of Middle Tennessee.

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PSC Superhero Keith G. Pemberton

Keith G. Pemberton is a social worker at Oak Hill Elementary School in High Point, N.C., where he has built a strong and steady pipeline for parental involvement, specifically among fathers and male mentors. Check out his Classroom Superhero profile and leave some words of encouragement.

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