How parent engagement drives rising achievement

Bakersfield City School District turns around low-performing schools with focus on family involvement
By: | August 18, 2020
Several years ago, only a few parents would show up to most Bakersfield City School District events. Now, these meetings and activities are attended by hundreds of parents who also serve on advisory councils.Several years ago, only a few parents would show up to most Bakersfield City School District events. Now, these meetings and activities are attended by hundreds of parents who also serve on advisory councils.
Superintendent Harry “Doc” Ervin, Bakersfield City School District

Superintendent Harry “Doc” Ervin, Bakersfield City School District

A surge in family engagement has fueled a major turnaround in student achievement at the Bakersfield City School District in California, this month’s District of Distinction winner.

Several years ago, only a few parents would show up to most district events.

Now, these meetings and activities are attended by hundreds of parents who also serve on advisory councils and regularly attend various support sessions at the district’s 34 family centers.

This summer, parents played a key role on a task force that developed the district’s COVID reopening plan, Superintendent Harry “Doc” Ervin says. “We told parents, ‘You have to play a role,’” Ervin says. “We cannot be the biggest elementary district in the state and be considered one of the lowest-performing.”


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Prioritizing parent engagement

When Ervin became superintendent in 2014, about eight of the district’s schools were considered low performers. One condition that stood out to him was a lack of parent involvement, which both he and the state of California consider a crucial factor in student success.

Ervin and his team hired a family engagement advocate for each of the district’s 43 schools. They also put four new area administrators in place to oversee parent involvement initiatives.

Ervin also created a superintendent’s parent advisory council.

The district began recruiting parents by making it clear that they would have a chance to participate in both their child’s education and district operations, says Dee Dee Harrison, the coordinator for family and community engagement.

The district further strengthened these relationships by offering classes on parenting skills, technology, financial literacy and other areas of personal growth.


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These learning sessions end with a parent graduation ceremony that children can attend.

“Parents are able to have dialogues and realize they’re not in this alone, that they’re struggling with the same types of things,” she says.

These events—which also include parent cafes and parent universities—have allowed families to make crucial connections with educators and with each other. This has, in turn, led to higher participation in PTAs, booster clubs and other school organizations, Harrison says.

The district also gathers parent feedback frequently. In a spring 2019 survey, for example, more than 90% of parents said they feel welcome at their student’s school. Another 86% said they were satisfied with the response they got when contacting their school with questions or concerns.

“A lot of parents really want to be a part of the work we do,” Harrison says. “There’s the excitement of getting involved, of being empowered, and knowing their voices matters.”

‘We have to have parents on campus’

The fact that 88% of Bakersfield’s students receive free or reduced lunch doesn’t discourage the district’s educators from promoting parent involvement and high achievement, Ervin and Harrison say.

Another crucial step in increasing family engagement is making it a priority at every level of the district, from the central office to school principals to classrooms, Harrison says.

“Just because we want parents there doesn’t mean they will come,” she says. “When you have the support of district leadership, it trickles down and schools understand we have to have parents on campus. Our people have to believe this is good work.”


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Since the initiative began in 2014-2015, chronic absenteeism has dropped from 15.85% to 12.5% in 2018-19.

At the end of each meeting or event, Ervin says, educators reinforce for parents four important concepts:

  1. Parents are educational ambassadors.
  2. Parents are essential to building a culture of high expectations.
  3. Parents are partners in the educational process.
  4. All decisions focus on the best interest of kids.

“Just because we’re a large urban district doesn’t mean we can’t operate as a high-performing district,” Ervin says.