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FINE Newsletter, Volume I, Issue 3
Issue Topic: Family Involvement and Out-of-School Time

Voices From the Field

Emily Schneider-Krzys, the Deputy Program Director of Citizen Schools in Texas, explains how the Citizen Schools program’s focus on creating networks, building intentional relationships, and establishing consistent communication helps to engage families and support student learning.

It’s 8:30 pm on a Saturday night, and I’m on the phone with Sean’s mother, Norma. Norma, a single mom, is in tears after receiving Sean’s report card and discovering that he is failing math. She tells me that, when she asked him about it, he refused to talk with her. Though I’m not a parent myself, I know I have a lot to offer Norma. As a Citizen Schools staff member, I am committed to providing support and resources to the families of students like Sean who attend our program.

Citizen Schools is a program that partners with middle schools across the country to expand the learning day for low-income children by providing relevant learning experiences through apprenticeships, a network of caring adults, academic support, and leadership development. Founded in 1995 and currently operating a network of 44 school-based sites in seven states, we believe that all students have the potential to discover a love of learning in middle school that will inspire them to succeed in high school, college, the workforce, and civic life.

We also believe that when families, teachers, and young people work together to come up with joint solutions, especially in situations where miscommunication and frustration have dominated past conversations, children learn valuable lessons about teamwork and communication. In fact, Citizen Schools uses a number of strategies to tap in to the assets of students and families and engage them in learning that cuts across school, after school, and home life:

  • Consistent communication – Citizen Schools Team Leaders make proactive calls to students’ homes and speak with their families at least every two weeks to discuss students’ progress in the program, current grades, upcoming events, recent successes, and any concerns. Additionally, Citizen Schools staff call home immediately if a student is absent from the program. Many families arrange to have Team Leaders call home any day the student does not complete all of his or her homework during the after school program in order to alert parents or guardians that academic work needs to be completed at home. This communication helps foster shared accountability among our staff, families, and students.
  • Intentional relationship building – Each month Citizen Schools families, students, staff, and volunteers participate in social events ranging from cultural potlucks, to which each family contributes a special dish, to community service days, at which families build new garden beds, clean up the school, or raise funds for the program. These events are heavily promoted, and attendance is set forth as an expectation when families enroll their children in the program. These monthly family events enable the influential people in children’s lives to join together to share a meal or experience and build relationships with one another.
  • Creating a network – Citizen Schools’ staff regularly schedule and facilitate family–teacher conferences to discuss students’ grades or behavior. For many families, especially those for whom English is a second language, negotiating school bureaucracy to find teachers’ contact information and navigating teachers’ schedules can be daunting. Similarly, with over 200 students in their classes, many teachers have trouble finding time or up-to-date contact information to reach out to families to discuss concerns. Citizen Schools’ communication with both teachers and families allows all parties to come together to problem-solve as a network of caring adults rather than as isolated individuals.

As I think about what to say to Norma, I reflect on Citizen Schools’ commitment to family engagement, which we believe is essential to helping our program support its students. I also think about the promise that Citizen Schools’ staff make to all the families with whom we work: that we will help them to succeed in school and in life—a service they will, in turn, “pay back” through their commitment to daily attendance and hard work on homework and academics.

At last, I offer Norma the following:

  1. I will set up a conference for Norma, Sean, Sean’s math teacher, and his Citizen Schools Team Leader on Monday so that we can all talk about Sean’s math class together (creating a network).
  2. I will talk with the volunteer who teaches Sean’s Citizen Schools robotics class—an adult whom Sean respects—and ask him to have a “man talk” with Sean about the value of math in his daily life and respect for his mother (intentional relationship building).
  3. I will instruct Sean’s Citizen Schools Team Leader to call home daily if Sean does not complete his math homework and when he has a quiz or test coming up, so that Norma will have a better sense of what is happening with Sean’s math class before grades are reported (consistent communication). 

As Sean and Norma’s story shows, Citizen Schools’ ability to build meaningful relationships among school-day teachers, community volunteers, students, and families uniquely positions the program to create influential, caring networks of adults to support students’ learning. By creating an informed, invested circle of influential people around each student, we guarantee that each child hears consistent messages about education from numerous caring adults—particularly Citizen Schools’ motto, that “hard work and focus lead to success.” 

This article is part of the August 2009 FINE Newsletter. The FINE Newsletter shares the newest and best family involvement research and resources from Harvard Family Research Project and other field leaders. To access the FINE Newsletter Archive, visit www.hfrp.org/FINENewsletter.

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