While decades of research underscore the value of family engagement, the crises of the past year cast a new light on its importance. First, the pandemic-forced school closures blurred lines for educators and families, as parents abruptly took a front row seat to their children’s educational experience in a way that they never had before. Second, our country’s reckoning with racial injustice highlighted an urgent need to equitably engage families in their child’s education. With this heightened recognition that meaningful and authentic family engagement is critical, it has also become clear that establishing a shared, well-understood definition of family engagement is critical.
We, at Family Engagement Lab, have been focused on family engagement since our founding in 2016. Powerful insights directly from families and educators regarding their experiences and needs, paired with research uncovering that involvement from a parent or caregiver in at-home learning has more than twice the effect on student achievement than parents’ education levels or socio-economic status (Melhuish et al., 2008) motivates our work, drives our commitment, and has shaped our definition of family engagement. Our approach to family engagement builds off of the Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family-School Partnership, which highlights how relationships between educators and parents are central to supporting student and school improvement.
The violent attempts to disrupt our democratic processes at our US Capitol on January 6 were disturbing and traumatic. The Capitol building is a symbol of our representative government, meant to uphold our cherished values of equality, liberty and justice for all. Yet the insurrection, including the symbols held up during the desecration of the US Capitol, explicit encouragement from a President fueling false conspiracies about the election, and delayed deployment of the National Guard from the Executive Office, was deeply about the racism that courses through this country’s past and present.
As educators fighting for equity, it is our responsibility to acknowledge this truth: while our nation’s promise may deem all to be equal, we have yet to achieve this promise for all of us. To live up to the promise that our democracy’s laws and institutions hold, we all must do our part to face our past while rebuilding a more just future for ourselves, and for our children.
We appreciate the efforts of the following organizations who have created resources for teachers and families to support honest conversations with children.
During a truly remarkable 2020, my colleagues and I are grateful to have had the opportunity to reach, impact, and connect with a growing number of leaders, educators, and families through our work at Family Engagement Lab with FASTalk. Yet, as I look to 2021, what brings me the greatest hope is the feeling that our work is part of a powerful collective effort, and our organization part of a greater community working to advance equitable educational outcomes through meaningful family engagement.
At Family Engagement Lab, we work to build bridges for every family and every classroom to support students every day. FASTalk is helping schools and teachers share weekly information and tips in families’ home language that are explicitly connected to student learning.
Are you finding joy in your adapted fall school rituals?
For example, when I’m feeling overwhelmed and need to focus on an independent project (e.g., writing a report), I have a specific table at the local Panera where I go to give myself permission to focus on one thing, and one thing only. The cell reception is terrible, and the WiFi is great. Fueled by mac n’ cheese, I block out those pesky electronic distractions and get my project done. It’s sublime.
“Is Talia paying attention?”
As we kick off a unique school year, teachers, students, and families are transitioning into new roles, taking on new responsibilities, and establishing new routines. And, as we witnessed in the spring (and will continue to witness this fall and beyond), the roles and responsibilities that teachers and parents are taking on in support of students’ education have never been more intertwined. Questions like, “Is Talia paying attention? What does first grade writing look like? Is Devon confused? Is the lesson going too fast? Too slow? Is Tia falling behind?” are just as likely to be on teachers’ minds as parents’ minds as instruction extends beyond the classroom into families’ homes.
Summer 2020 brought to our national attention the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, and the continuing injustices of racism and, in particular, anti-Black racism. It is critical for Family Engagement Lab to affirm and support Black lives and the community beyond taking a moral stand, as combating racism in schools is key to fulfilling our mission of promoting equitable family engagement.
At Family Engagement Lab, a key area of focus for us is ensuring that all families have access to information about what their child is learning in class and how they can help at home. To that end, we are examining our content with a lens toward ensuring its continued applicability for all families and its relevance across race, economic status, and language. In addition to internal edits and regular feedback from educator and family stakeholders, we are enhancing our content through a number of activities, including 1) working closely with district partners (e.g., OUSD’s English Language Learner and Multilingual Achievement team), 2) expanding our alignment with Benchmark’s Adelante curriculum, used in OUSD’s dual language programs, and 3) hiring new content writers with backgrounds and experience that support our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.
To all of you who work in education, we know you are working day and night right now to figure out how to help our kids feel a sense of security, connectedness, and stability so they are ready to learn this fall.
No matter where you are in the world, this fall will be unusual. Many of the rituals of fall that provide families, students, teachers and school staff an important touchpoint during the start of the school year are going to have to be reimagined. “Back to School Nights,” welcome events, and home visits are being adapted as I type this to limit the spread of COVID-19 and to heal from trauma together, while forging the important new bonds needed between teachers, students, and parents.
At Family Engagement Lab, we are committed to supporting and studying schools’ efforts to equitably engage families in their child’s learning. Our commitment extends to combating racism in this area. There is ample evidence that, despite the best intentions of schools and educators, families and children of color experience multiple layers of racism.
At a time when discussions of the “COVID Slide” and significant projected learning loss are ubiquitous, evidence-based approaches where families accelerate student learning are a bright spot. They are a sign of hope for school systems that are engaged in the challenging process of planning for an unprecedented school year. And while families are getting extra attention now due to school closures, it is important to remember that parents play an impactful role when students are in and out of the classroom by reinforcing student learning. Indeed, families have always played a critical role in their child’s learning journey.