5 best practices for building family engagement capacity

School districts are obligated to comply with federal laws related to engaging with families, even during COVID shutdowns and with pandemic protocols keeping parents from being in school buildings. Here's how parents of children in Los Angeles schools are being reached.

COVID-19 has impacted tried-and-true school districts’ practices and procedures, forcing administrators to get creative on how they could meet their obligation to comply with federal laws, including Section 1116(a)(2)(B) and Section 1116(e) of ESSA.

Los Angeles County Office of Education, which provides services in alternative educational programs, including detention center camps and detention centers in county career schools, has applied several successful workarounds.

Jael Ovalle, program manager for parent education at LACOE, says the district’s family engagement program is fully funded with Title I. The program serves an average of 1,000 students, but the number fluctuates throughout the year. Title I funds are used to pay for her salary, the director’s salary and the staff time to perform family outreach. Title I also pays for speakers that LACOE brings to conduct workshops for families and for materials purchased for families, such as books.

“For example, we purchased an online library of resources for families, which is really a subscription that we were able to put up on our website so families can access from their devices from home,” she says.

LACOE developed the following best practices when the pandemic started as an effort to reach out and engage with families in a remote learning environment:

1. Transform research into action steps. Ovalle believes the program has been successful in transforming research into action steps because the focus of the research was to build relationships to establish family engagement. “Rather than assuming what works, let’s look at the research and read what works and then apply it,” she says. “Approach family engagement programs on a research base.”

2. Distinguish real relationships from marketing efforts. The program made a distinction between marketing efforts and building real relationships with families. Schools use social media and electronic communication to tell families about events, but there is no real connection in the process, Ovalle says. “The reality is that this doesn’t build or translate into a relationship that is mutual between the family and the school.” Don’t rely just on social media; weave in a personal connection.

3. Go the extra mile. LACOE’s peer liaison team are teachers, counselors and other staff, who in addition to their regular roles, are paid some hours to develop relationships with families and conduct family engagement activities. Prior to COVID-19, LACOE paid their liaisons four hours out of Title I funds. However, due to the pandemic, the program had to increase the hours that the liaisons devoted to one-to-one family outreach efforts, and these hours were also covered by Title I funds.

4. Provide tools to build relationships. LACOE provides tools for the liaisons to use during follow-up conversations, as well as training on how to have conversations that are building relationship and bringing the parent back. “It happens through one-on-one structured conversations,” she says. “We teach our peer liaisons how to have structured conversations with families.” Such structured conversations during the pandemic include learning about the families’ ongoing needs.

5. Meet families’ ongoing needs. After learning about families’ needs, meeting those needs is an important next step, according to Ovalle. LACOE hosted virtual workshops and classes for family engagement. “Part of what we do in the relationship building is learning from the families’ interests and needs and then meeting those needs through our workshops and classes,” she says. “We bring speakers that can address those very specific needs they express through our needs assessment.”

Claude Bornel covers ELs and other Title I issues for TitleIAdmin, a DA sister publication.

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