What I Learned: My School's Eye-Opening Family Engagement Assessment

My superintendent’s favorite quote is “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” His next favorite? “Relationships, relationships, relationships. Everything’s about relationships.” And he is right: I have spent the last three years working alongside our staff to build a school culture of joyful learning, whether that learner is a teacher or a student.

The work has paid off in many ways. Our teacher turnover has decreased significantly. Staff members feel appreciated and heard, and our sense of purpose and joy has been renewed, at least on most days!

So when our relationship-driven superintendent called to ask if I would be interested in participating in an assessment to gauge our family and community engagement practices, I was all in! Most of our measures of family and community engagement had revolved around yearly surveys required by our state, and tracking the attendance at various events. While those provided interesting information, I would not say that information moved us forward in any meaningful way.

Although things were going well inside the building, I knew it was time to work on the perception outside the building. Our school is a large Title I elementary school. In fact, 93% of our 830 students receive free and reduced-price lunch, and 52% of our students are from native Spanish-speaking homes. We consider our diversity our strength, but that strength is not without its challenges.

An eye-opening beginning

At the onset of our assessment, our staff and parents were given surveys to complete, but before the results were even in, Jenni Brasington, Scholastic Director of Consultative Services, arrived for the site visit. I had told no one she was coming, but I confess, I did put some mints on the front counter with a sign that said “Thanks for your commitMINT to your child’s education!” To be honest, I was not sure what the building had to do with family engagement. I figured the mints would earn us a few points! Right? Umm…not really. I do not think she was fooled. As we met each other for the first time, Jenni began to walk back through the front doors. “This assessment begins in the parking lot.” she said. “Think about a new parent driving up, parking, and walking up to the front doors. Do you have that image in your mind? Now…turn around.” 

Immediately, my heart sank. I saw it. And it was not good. In fact, it was bad. Really bad. Every single sign on the door was negative. NO Smoking! NO student may enter the building until 8:05. NO loitering. No, No, No. I groaned. Seriously? Why had I never noticed these signs before today? Truly, it was embarrassing! I sure hoped she noticed my mints, because this was not going well. 

I would love to say things got better on the front hall. They did not. As I proudly showed off our displays of parent information brochures, Jenni asked how parents would know the brochures were for them. While the door had a plethora of signs, our brochure display had none. And the brochures were dusty, because no one knew they were free. (No wonder I never needed to replace them.) While these oversights were cosmetic and fairly easy things to fix, the significance of such oversights was not lost on me. We spent the next hour walking our building and talking about how the environment could assist in our efforts to engage parents in student learning.

So, what does family engagement mean in our school?

With surveys and the school visit behind us, Jenni’s final interaction was a professional development day designed to meet the needs of our school. One of the most powerful aspects of the day was an exercise that revealed our beliefs around family engagement. In a high-poverty school, blaming low academic achievement on a child’s home environment is all too easy and can lead to lowered expectations and excuses from staff. I have fought that mindset and felt confident we were winning.

As a result of the training, I realized that our deep belief in our students did not necessarily extend to our families. The survey revealed that we did not give our families enough credit. Including me.

Our beliefs were limiting our results. And our beliefs were a very slippery slope. If we did not believe our parents had the ability to help their children academically, how quickly could we accept that, by extension, our students do not have the ability to achieve? As I asked that question aloud to our staff, I think we all internally acknowledged our conflicting emotions. What better place to start the change process than acknowledging our biases? Jenni gently challenged those biases and beliefs while guiding us to see new possibilities. “Isn’t the very act of getting a child to school every day a form of engagement?” Jenni asked. Well…yes.

As we began to see engagement in a different light, one not focused solely on family attendance at events, but engagement in their child’s learning, we were ready explore and define family engagement in our school.

While we did not end the day with a completely nailed-down definition, we did have some solid takeaways. We circled common words that emerged from each group’s conversation, clarified that family meant any significant adult in our students’ lives, and decided that our definition would be a declaration which started with the words “At Selma Elementary, we believe…" We are in the process of getting parent, family, and community input to ensure that our mission statement is a collective one that represents the beliefs of our entire community.   

Selma Elementary today

Walking into our school today, visitors comment on our multilingual “welcome” word cloud at the entrance that once shouted NO! and the parent brochure display has signs in English and Spanish. Perhaps the quickest change were the bulletin boards that now showcase student work with standards and objectives displayed. While these may seem like simple cosmetic changes, the intent behind each change has been purposeful. We want our community to feel welcome, we want parents to feel supported and valued, and we want our walls to share our greatest priority: student learning.

We have increased the number of pictures and videos that highlight student learning on our Facebook page and Twitter account, and we ask questions in our posts to open up the dialogue between home and school. We are planning student-led conferences—both in real-time and virtually—for parents who cannot attend in person, because as one teacher said recently, “a lack of presence on campus does not equate to lack of engagement.”

And just this past weekend, over 1,100 people attended our first ever Community Day, hosted by the seven schools in our area. Families visited booths about coding, fire safety, plant growth, and a host of other things. The three local town councils and the chamber of commerce partnered with us to make the event a success. New connections were made and commitments for support were offered as we made visible the wonderful things happening in our schools.

With the help of Scholastic, the landscape of family and community engagement within Selma Elementary and our community is shifting.

Click to learn more about the role of welcoming, information and communication in family engagement. 

Photos via Suzanne Mitchell