Family engagement is more important than ever. How K-12 leaders are responding.

In many places, parents and educators are working more closely together than they did two years ago.

Among the lasting impacts of the pandemic experience in Chelsea Public Schools, which is 87% Latino, are the bilingual family liaisons Superintendent Almi G. Abeyta has hired at each of her schools over the last two years.

The liaisons in the Boston-area district have helped families with emergencies, such as providing support after a house fire and assistance with day-to-day needs, such as serving as interpreters. The liaisons are now working with families to ease students’ transitions from elementary to middle school.

“I have always believed that our families know more about our students in many ways than we do,” Abeyta says. “Parents are our partners, and we need to co-design with them and work alongside them and welcome them into our schools.”

Chelsea Public Schools’ moves are reflective of the ways district leaders across the country have ramped up family engagement efforts even further over the last two years. In many places, parents and educators worked more closely together than ever before as schools supplied students with instructional technology early in the pandemic and families helped students with remote instruction.

The district will also continue to hold some meetings over Zoom because that option has increased family participation substantially, says Abeyta, adding that family engagement was a top priority in the strategic plan she implemented prior to COVID. Still, she and her team kicked family engagement into even higher gear when schools shifted to remote learning in 2020. During the following summer, Abeyta, with support from the union, sent teachers to students’ homes anticipating that the 2020-21 school year would begin virtually.

These meetings, which the district calls “trust visits,” took place on porches and sidewalks, in front yards and under tents outside school buildings. Teachers were given some professional development in how to conduct the visits and some ideas for family discussions. The teachers also delivered books, art supplies and other learning materials. “We called it the Hopes and Dreams protocol,'” Abeyta says. “It was, ‘Tell me about your students.’ ‘What are your hopes and dreams for your children?'”

The effort paid off when Abeyta heard a teacher teaching remotely from a classroom at beginning of the school year. As students logged on, the teacher talked to the students about how fortunate it was that they’d already met in person. It also meant the teachers could reach out to parents, whom they’d also already met, if a student wasn’t logging on or was struggling in other ways. “It was a very positive way to start a year in remote learning,” she says. “It meant the first interaction with a parent wasn’t going to be a negative one.”

Home visits are among the best ways to build strong relationships with families, says Allison Socol, assistant director of P-12 Policy at The Education Trust, which advocates for equity in the education system.

“As a former educator who did home visits, I saw firsthand how it transformed my relationships who did not feel welcomed or empowered to come and talk with me and my colleagues,” Socol says.

The wholesale switch to virtual learning in 2022 and the ongoing disruptions of the pandemic have led many districts to enhance and diversify their family engagement work beyond the most vocal parents. Leaders have been particularly focused on underserved and marginalized families, Socol says. “As terrible as the pandemic has been, it has given families unique insight into their child’s learning,” Socol says. “Many families now feel more empowered to demand equity and high-quality education.”

Families are sharing more

Educators in Metro Nashville Public Schools are continuing their regular check-ins with students and families this spring through an initiative the district launched at the outset of the pandemic when instruction was fully remote.

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In summer 2020, with the school year set to begin virtually, educators were particularly concerned about not being able to connect with students. So, all 80,000 students were placed into cohorts of about 10-12, and paired with an educator who would check in on them every two weeks, says Keri Randolph, the district’s chief strategy officer who developed the Navigators program. The check-ins, then and now, cover students’ mental health and academic needs as well as their family’s food, housing and other immediate needs.

Nowadays, teachers and other staff conduct their monthly check-ins in person during the school day. Each week, students use an online platform to describe how they’re feeling and then complete a self-reflection exercise. The system sends alerts to staff if a student appears to be in crisis and many need more intensive attention from the district or from outside providers. This is occurring about once out of every 100 check-ins, Randolph says.

“This has been a very powerful tool with social media and the way students communicate now,” Randolph says. “Students can enter without having to say to an adult how they’re doing. We have been able to intervene and support students in a more robust way, particularly around mental health.”

Standing up the Navigator program in a district of 130 schools does come with challenges of scale. Professional development, however, is not among them, Randolph says. The district created short videos on family outreach for staff to watch and also provides scripts for the check-ins. Each school has a program lead who can provide further support for staff.

The data can be viewed at the district and school levels. Heat maps can show hotspots of particular needs that help educators establish support hubs in various communities. The data collected is also helping educators set academic goals with students. “As these relationships build over time, families and students are sharing more about their needs,” Randolph says.

How to be more welcoming

The American Rescue Plan identified family engagement is a key priority. Relief funding, for example, is allowing district leaders to provide more extensive translation services for the families of English learners and do more one-on-one outreach to parents. “We’re seeing more districts recognize that traditional parent nights at a single time and in one language aren’t logistically accessible or welcoming to all families,” Socol says.

District leaders may be able to leverage the strong partnerships they’ve formed with families and community organizations as they grappled with staff shortages from the classroom to the lunchroom. The nonprofit Future Forward Literacy combines tutoring and family engagement to address unfinished learning. The program also provides guidance and resources for families in supporting their children’s literacy development at home, Socol says.

Administrators should also be holding their states accountable around family engagement, and not just when it comes to funding. States can also set family engagement goals, share best practices, and provide districts with feedback and access to professional development programs.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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