This essay and the accompanying webinar are part of a series that supplement Embracing a New Normal: Toward a More Liberatory Approach to Family Engagement by Karen L. Mapp and Eyal Bergman, a report commissioned by Carnegie Corporation of New York that explores the dynamics and barriers that stand in the way of effective family-school partnerships and outlines how to reach a more liberatory, solidarity-driven, and equity-focused family engagement practice that supports educational excellence for all children.
At Family Engagement Lab, inequality in family engagement drives our dual focus on empowering historically underserved families to support student learning and modeling inclusive and equitable family engagement for educators. Through our signature tool, FASTalk, we address both objectives. With FASTalk, teachers share engaging, at-home activities by text message in each family’s home language to reinforce classroom learning and curriculum. Features such as opt-out enrollment for families, professional translations, and automated messages aligned with the academic calendar ensure that all families are warmly invited to engage in their child’s learning.
We educate teachers about the benefits of family engagement and offer additional features in FASTalk that support two-way communication with translations. Multiple studies have shown that FASTalk accelerates student literacy growth in diverse contexts, with gains most pronounced for students whose parents do not share a language with their teacher. Importantly, 96 percent of parents want to keep receiving FASTalk messages each year. In achieving these results, we have helped leaders like Superintendent Angela Beck of Redesign Schools Louisiana to “redefine family engagement” by lifting up the valuable contributions all families make to support learning at home.
COVID-19, remote learning, and our national reckoning with racial injustice have prompted many visionary education leaders to address deep fractures in the relationships between families and schools that disproportionately affect students of color. These events have led us as an organization to redouble our commitment to racial equity. In addition, we are developing consulting services to help states and districts implement inclusive, equitable, and sustainable family engagement strategies informed by our experience bringing together cross-functional district teams to implement FASTalk. Our goal is to help systems shift family engagement from a peripheral activity to an essential component of student learning. For those of us who have longed for a platform to speak about and catalyze a response to racial inequity in family engagement, this is our moment to rejoice and find strength in the growing community of education leaders seeking to build a more equitable system for families and students.
About the Authors
Vidya Sundaram is co-Founder and CEO of Family Engagement Lab. She previously led research and insights at GreatSchools, championing a test and learn culture across the organization. Over her nearly 20-year career in family engagement, she has managed development, research, and strategy for digital resources used by more than half of US families with school-aged children.
Elisabeth O'Bryon is co-Founder and Chief Impact Officer at Family Engagement Lab. Elisabeth was previously the Director of Research and Evaluation at GreatSchools where she worked to design and implement evaluation projects, with a particular focus on rapid-cycle research approaches. Elisabeth recently co-authored 45 Strategies that Support Young Dual Language Learners, a resource that provides practical, developmentally appropriate strategies for supporting children and families from diverse backgrounds and creating inclusive early childhood classrooms that foster the success of young DLLs.