Updated: Jul 28, 2020
It was exciting to think about going to the IEL Rise Up for Equity National Summit on Community Schools and Family Engagement in Los Angeles, California with hundreds of other like-minded professionals working to improve student achievement and family engagement in communities all around America. COVID-19 was not on our radar then. Things changed. IEL and the other partner organizations did a wonderful job converting the format to virtual and executing four weeks of programming. During week three of the conference, “Rise Up for Equity” was being echoed across the nation as social unrest was unraveling in many cities. Citizens were protesting the death of George Floyd (and others) at the hands of police officers. In a crescendo of civil protests and rioting, these tragedies were compounded by years of frustration with the institutional racism people of color were experiencing. The real and raw experiences of all of the presenters and participants were inspiring on so many levels.
Family engagement is all about relationships—relationships are where you start.
Theodore Roosevelt is credited with saying, “People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.” That message is at the heart of all family engagement work. Accordingly, the sessions of this conference have had the thread of relationships woven through most of its messaging. In addition to human relationships, it is worth noting that the important components of equity, community schools, and family engagement have strong correlational relationships with the coordinator working in family engagement programs, data that is tracked, community schools using a holistic approach to support the whole child, and storytelling.
Family-school relationships often start with the coordinator. The coordinator goes by a variety of names depending on the school – facilitator, social worker, counselor, volunteer – whatever the title, this person is at the heart of family engagement and is key to success. The coordinator can even the playing field for students ensuring access to all services. There is data to support that if a coordinator can create a system, then the chances of sustainability and scalability increase, and a viable program can be born.
Data is used to drive the decision-making. Data can take a variety of forms and be qualitative or quantitative. It may track and support the engagement of students and help close the equity gap. Data can be collected over time and show how much treatment is needed to render change in student outcomes. Data can help us tell stories by going through information and putting it together in a meaningful way. Data can help find partners or keep partners engaged with continued support. One presenter emphasized the importance of taking time to stop and assess where you are before continuing with programming. One of the most impressive uses of data presented focused on the transient population in Kansas City where they partnered with Legal Aid and the Kansas City Eviction Project to link housing court records to student data and use an automated process to intervene before evictions occurred and student attendance at school was disrupted.
Ira Harkavy noted that, “Community schools are a work of transformation necessary to battle poverty, unemployment, and racism.” They serve the educational, social service, health, and recreational needs of students, families, and the entire community. Community schools provide the human and material resources to improve the life and learning in the community while advancing the academic mission. Community schools incorporate a holistic approach that addresses the whole child.
The focus of family engagement as it applies to the whole child is determining what needs to happen to make children feel engaged, secure, and challenged.
Effective family engagement professionals elevate families and lift them up as the experts on their own children and ensure their basic needs are met so they can focus on school.
It has been said that people can learn statistics, but they feel stories. One of the session facilitators framed storytelling in this way, “Stories help make sense of the world. They define our identity, help us connect with each other, and are the building blocks of culture.” Whether we use data, empathy, or transformative storytelling—if we seek equity and access for students, then we must be willing to tell their stories.
For more information on the West Virginia Family Engagement Center, visit www.wvfec.org and follow us on Twitter and Facebook. A special thank you to our Program Manager and Family Engagement Specialist, Denise Workman, for authoring this post.