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Coming Full Circle: Drawing On Personal Experiences to Create a Vision for System-Wide Change
Mishaela Durán, MEd, is the Interim Executive Director of the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA) in Alexandria, Virginia. The PTA is the largest volunteer child advocacy association in the nation and seeks to serve as a powerful voice for all children, a relevant resource for families and communities, and a strong advocate for the education and well-being of every child. In this Commentary, Durán sets the stage for this special issue about the emerging leaders in our field by getting at the heart of why family and community engagement is so important in education: it gives students the opportunity to succeed.
My vision for family, school, and community engagement is deeply rooted in my background and my experience as a former student and teacher, as a caregiver for my youngest brother, and as an advocate for children and families. My experiences have shaped my philosophy for implementing effective family engagement in practice and policy, both in education and within other systems serving children and families. This vision is grounded in system-level reforms that engage the most underserved children and families in developing solutions in partnership with agencies and community-based organizations.
THE POWER OF ENGAGEMENT IN SUPPORTING A STRUGGLING FAMILY
I grew up in a rural part of Arizona near the Navajo and White Mountain Apache reservations in a small ranching community located in one of the poorest counties in the nation, where per capita income hovers below $9,000. I attended a Title I school for seven years and greatly benefited from the school’s strong commitment to family and community engagement. Even though our community struggled, and some of us did not have access to running water, electricity, or telephones, the values and conditions for effective family engagement existed and improved student achievement.
At my school, all staff members—the principal, teachers, and support staff—were committed to family and community engagement. While my family struggled with poverty, mental illness, and the child welfare and social service systems, the school community cared for me, challenged me to reach my highest potential, and created a welcoming environment for my family.
Due to my mother’s mental illness and repeat institutionalizations, I was placed with a dozen foster families between the ages of 4 and 13, essentially growing up in the child welfare system. The educational outcomes for foster children are dire: After being shuffled from school to school, most kids disengage, drop out, and completely disconnect from postsecondary education and the workforce. I was fortunate enough to escape the typical fate and ultimately completed both Bachelor’s and Masters’ degrees at Ivy League schools. Social scientists would attribute my educational achievement to resiliency. I attribute it to a strong school community, where the principal provided resources so that I could serve in the student council, my basketball coach mentored me on and off the court, the school secretary picked me up every day and drove me to school, the bus driver volunteered to be my foster parent, and my teachers placed me in the gifted programs even though my test scores never quite made the cut. My family also felt welcomed at the school, despite their involvement with the social service and welfare systems and my father’s status as a high school dropout and a construction worker. Even though many communities would have viewed my parents as “problem” parents, my parents were always treated with respect and valued as partners in my education and as contributing members of our small community.
Unfortunately, when I began high school years later in a different city, my family encountered what Dr. Mapp at the Harvard Graduate School of Education calls a “fortress school”—one that does not welcome all parents and keeps them out of decision-making processes. I recall my first day of high school as if it occurred yesterday. Even though my father’s own reading and writing skills were at a sixth-grade level, he knew how to navigate the school system and had moved us to a location barely within an affluent school district’s boundaries so that I could have the best educational opportunity available. But when my father demanded during registration that I be placed in honors classes, the school personnel’s reaction immediately, and clearly, conveyed to me that the school had written my family and me off. My father had come to school dressed in his work boots and clothes, dropping me off before he clocked in at his job site. The high school personnel’s interaction with my father was dramatically different from that of my previous school. I saw them eyeing his worn out boots, his patched jeans, his tattoos, and his dark skin and I realized that, no matter how well intentioned my father was, they would not value his input about my educational needs. I was never placed in honors classes. I disengaged, was kicked out for truancy, and dropped out of high school a year later. I eventually re-engaged, enrolling in a Title I high school where there were inspiring teachers who connected learning to students’ intellectual interests and who could discreetly identify student needs and support students’ families by connecting them to community resources.
ENGAGING FAMILIES TO GIVE TROUBLED YOUTH A SECOND CHANCE
My vision for family engagement is informed by my experience as a teacher as well as a systems reformer in the juvenile justice field. I became a teacher at a juvenile corrections facility, which warehoused over 500 boys. My students at this facility were among the brightest and most intellectually curious students I have ever taught. Unfortunately, the public school and social service systems had written them and their families off. My fellow teachers complained about my students' parents and repeatedly asked why they should even bother trying to teach when the kids would just end up in prison. The families were not invited to consult with teachers about their children’s educations, or anything else for that matter. When students turned 18, they were immediately discharged to their last residential address, without a plan to reenter their family, school, or community.
Since I had grown up in the foster care system, I knew all too well that my parents were often seen as the problem, when in fact they were my strongest supporters. These systems—child welfare, public housing, and other social service systems—only saw deficits, such as my mother’s bipolar condition and her receipt of welfare and food stamps. What the systems could not see was that she was also my first teacher who taught me how to read well before kindergarten. The system often labels parents who face challenges as “bad” parents who are incapable of loving and caring for their children, and they assume that children want to sever all ties with such parents. This is far from the case—many of us go back to our families because we know that they do love and care for us, and we understand that they faced insurmountable challenges that were beyond their control. My own experience forced me to search for a different approach to working with families as a teacher at the juvenile corrections facility. I spent hours reading my students’ social files and communicating with their families so that I could be a more effective teacher and so that my students had viable options for re-engagement and success when they returned to the community.
After I left teaching in correctional facilities, I worked for several years with Congress and the Administration on child and youth-related federal policy. I later joined the District of Columbia’s Department of Youth Rehabilitative Services, a cabinet-level agency established by the mayor to replace the deeply-troubled Youth Services Administration. My work with the agency involved helping to implement a systems reform of the one of the nation’s worst juvenile justice systems, attempting to shift it from a correctional model to a rehabilitative model that was strength-based and family-focused.
This reform effort highlighted what family engagement should look like on the ground, how it can be systemic, and how advocacy organizations must play a role in driving the vision for family engagement and wholesale reforms. In partnership with the child welfare and mental health agencies, community-based organizations, and the family court judges, we implemented a new model for managing troubled youth, called family group conferencing. This moved the system from a traditional social work model, where a case manager makes all of the decisions, to one in which there is shared decision-making among all stakeholders—including youth, their families, caring adults in the community, non-profits, and other agencies. We also brought in a parent “watch-dog” group and provided the group members with unfettered access to the facilities so that they could shine a light on system weaknesses that we needed to immediately address. Many of the strategies that we implemented could also be applied to the school context to help empower families to become informed and make decisions that benefit their children.
TAKING ACTION: PARENTS AS ADVOCATES FOR SCHOOL REFORM
The importance of family engagement came into even sharper focus for me when my 16-year-old brother arrived on my doorstep—having dropped out of school and become homeless after witnessing substance abuse at home—and I became a parent overnight. I scoured the public school system in Washington, D.C., for the best educational opportunities that would meet my brother’s needs. After being turned down several times, I finally enrolled him in a public charter school that focused on college preparation and service learning. The teachers were excellent and willing to partner with us and, as a result, my brother ended up graduating at the top of his class with multiple scholarships to pursue college. This was a success for everyone, especially given that my brother had dropped out of school, but it took a tremendous amount of advocacy. In contrast to the teachers, the school leadership did not welcome families, made many assumptions about the families they served, and had school-wide policies and systems that created significant barriers to family engagement. The school administration’s rigidity led to poor outcomes, rather than the thoughtful solutions that the students, families, and teachers had to offer. Had I not been as well informed and comfortable advocating for my brother’s needs as I was, his outcomes would likely have been quite different. It should not take professional experience with systems reform and advocacy work for a parent or guardian to be able to partner with schools and shape educational experiences to meet students’ needs.
My experience as a caregiver for my brother also taught me that it is essential for parents to advocate for sustainable reform that persists over long periods of time. That understanding has affected my priorities in my current role as Interim Executive Director at the National PTA. National PTA has a rich advocacy history, beginning in 1897 when our founders advocated closing down child labor camps and placing children in schools so that we could have an educated citizenry and strong democracy. Often, advocacy is measured by a change in legislation or a successful litigation. For the National PTA, this is just a first step. The real work and advocacy occurs during the implementation phase of such changes. When families and communities are engaged in advocacy, the reforms outlive one-term administrations, ever-changing political shifts, and the flavor-of-the-month initiatives. Indeed, systemic and integrated family and community engagement is the only way to sustain these reforms and ensure meaningful implementation that improves outcomes for children and families.
All of these experiences have informed my overall vision for family, school, and community engagement: that all child- and youth-serving systems—foster care, child welfare, juvenile justice, and schools—build off of the strengths of each child and family, partner with families to identify needs and develop solutions, and connect children and families to the supports to meet those needs. Family and community engagement starts before birth and lasts well into college and the workforce. It occurs in all contexts and spaces where children learn—whether in the school, place of worship, or afterschool program. It is a shared responsibility, with families, students, schools, agencies, and community-based organizations working together as partners to meet the critical needs of individual students, families, and communities. Most importantly, family and community engagement is systemic and is thoughtfully integrated into all child and youth-focused initiatives.
For more information about how Durán and the National PTA are helping to build the field of family engagement, please see the following resources: