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Drawing on Parents’ Strengths: The Role of Districts and Schools in Empowering Families to be Effective Partners in Learning
Voices from the Field
Trise Moore is the Family Partnership Advocate for the Federal Way Public Schools district in Federal Way, Washington. In this article, Moore discusses her work in the district’s Family Partnership Office to promote strong partnerships among parents and district- and school-level staff.
MY VISION FOR THE FAMILY ENGAGEMENT FIELD
My vision for family, school, and community engagement focuses on enhancing parents’ strengths as partners in their child’s education. This means exposing them to new knowledge so that they can become more informed, prepared, and empowered to improve their child’s long-term academic success inside and outside of the education system. We need to move from a deficit model, in which we focus on what families don’t know or do, to a strength-based model, where we recognize that families want to help their students succeed academically and need targeted information and support to put that desire into action. Many middle- and higher-income parents whose children enjoy academic success seem to have access to an “invisible list” of questions and things to do to help support their child’s growth from birth through college. They know what they need to do to help their child succeed, what they should ask of the school in support of that, and where to find the resources needed to enhance their children’s learning. Their social capital, positive experiences with the school system, and economic position allow them to navigate toward success for their children with relative ease. I would like to see all families—especially those who do not have these built-in advantages—understand what they need to do, what they need to ask of the school, how to find necessary resources, and how to share their input when needed to ensure their children are academically successful.
Right now, in most school systems, the information parents get about what they need to do—and how they can partner with the school—is pretty random. Some information comes in from the local level and some from the state and national levels, but parents don’t really know how to connect or apply this information to their own efforts to promote and support their child’s academic success. Meaningful family engagement is about much more than just disseminating various pieces of information about student and school performance. It’s about helping families understand how to plan for their student’s long-term academic success, how to expose their student to a variety of positive learning opportunities that may not always be provided through the school system, and how to ask the right questions of the right people—at the school, district, state, and national levels—about what needs to happen for their child to succeed academically. My vision for family engagement is one that allows parents to:
CURRENT EFFORTS TO ADVANCE THIS VISION
In my role as the Family Partnership Advocate for Federal Way Public Schools, I help to coordinate district- and school-level family engagement strategies. More importantly, I work directly with families to help them develop their leadership skills and learn how to become advocates and partners in their children’s learning; these families can then reach out to other families to help inform, prepare, and involve them as active partners, as well. These parent partners also work with school staff to help staff engage with families and provide meaningful information about how parents can take more active partnership roles in support of their child’s educational growth.
We (myself and other parent advocates) help parents develop a plan to support their children’s success by walking them through a set of five questions that relate to each parent’s long-term goals for their child’s education, the resources/contacts they need to help the child realize these goals, actions the parent plans to take to support the child’s growth, supports that the parent needs from the school to enable these efforts, and an assessment of the child’s interests and as well as challenges to be addressed. Working through these questions allows parents to develop a better sense of the questions they need to ask of teachers, other parents, and principals in order to plan the ways they themselves can help their child succeed.
We also offer a series of workshops and additional resources that help families and school staff understand what they can do to facilitate meaningful family engagement that impacts student learning. One set of workshops, “What Every Parent Wants to Know,” gives parents a chance to ask the principal, school staff, and other parent leaders questions about academic practices and resources, and to learn specific strategies that families can use at home to support their children’s learning in the academic areas of greatest need. We offer similar workshops for teachers to give them the opportunity to ask questions and collaborate with each other on how to effectively link family engagement to learning. We also hold advocacy partner workshops for parents that help them understand how to be effective advocates for their child; the workshops help parents identify their child’s strengths and interests and teach parents how to interact with school staff to troubleshoot academic concerns and find solutions. All of these workshops and resources are designed to give parents access to the information they need so that they can become active partners with teachers and other school staff in helping to promote their child’s achievement.
We also help to translate and disseminate the information that comes from the State and U.S. Departments of Education so that our families and school staff can learn from these data. Through this and other data-sharing efforts, our families become aware of the bigger academic picture. All of these efforts, individually and collectively, help our parents have a better, more contextualized understanding of what’s happening at the school and district level, and the policies and practices that will directly impact their child on some level.
CHANGES STILL NEEDED TO HELP ENABLE THIS VISION
Families need to share their ideas about how school staff can more effectively connect with them to support their children’s success, and educators need to see parents as partners and as part of the solution to student success, rather than as part of the problem. Too often, parents give up, thinking that educators don’t view them as worthwhile partners in student learning. As a result, many parents feel like they’re not invited to the table, or that they would be imposing on teachers if they tried to take a proactive role in supporting their child’s growth. A judgmental and condescending mindset towards parents can contribute to a lack of positive family partnerships and involvement, often resulting in lower student achievement gains. Some parents want to be involved but can only be involved in non-traditional ways, so they are often discounted because they don’t enter the school doors at the times designated by staff to be most important. When school staff start to recognize that parents can be positive partners in promoting student learning, they will reach out more, and start to change the culture of the school so that families understand that their input is wanted and needed. When partnerships between families and school staff are more intentional and positive, and use a strength-based model, I believe we’ll see greater achievement gains for more students.
In addition, policymakers need to consider the importance of family engagement in education reform, and their discussions about improving student achievement should focus not only on what teachers need to do to help improve the system, but also on what families need to know and what they can do to support their children’s learning. Policymakers often focus on making sure that teachers know how to teach and that they’re reaching the students most in need of high-quality instruction, but there also needs to be an additional component to these discussions—namely, how parents should be respectfully, intentionally, and proactively included in the conversation about what’s helpful for their child.
For more information about how Moore and her district are helping to build the family engagement field, please see the following resources: