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3. Embracing a New Normal:

Toward a More Liberatory Approach to Family Engagement __________________________________

The three federal stimulus bills passed by Congress in 2020 and 2021 provided $190 billion to schools through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund. This tremendous infusion of one-time funds offers schools and systems a historic opportunity to invest in high-priority areas. To support systems seeking to invest in family engagement, we offer the following recommendations for building the infrastructure to support the organizational conditions described in the Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family-School Partnerships (Version 2).

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These recommendations from the Carnegie Foundation written by Dr. Karen Mapp and Eyal Bergman, are meant to help schools and systems overcome the resistance to change that has inhibited effective practices to date and to build a new model for family engagement through a liberatory vision of public education.

Make time during the workday for family engagement. 

We urge states and districts to provide protected time for educators to partner with families. Building relational trust takes time, and the sector has historically underinvested in this area. During remote learning, many schools and districts have added family outreach time into teachers’ weekly schedules. At the very least, this time should be preserved. Teachers’ unions and systems leaders have an important role in advocating for this time allocation. In several cities, family outreach time has been included in collective bargaining agreements. In schools across America, teachers are paid as part of their regular contract to conduct home visits or meet one-on-one with families at the start of the year. If schools do not o er protected time, family engagement will likely continue to be seen as an add-on to educators’ already busy schedules.

 

Invest in professional learning (and unlearning) to shift mindsets about families.

Deeper partnerships start from an asset-based view of families, so school and system staff need professional learning experiences designed to counteract the prevailing deficit-based view. This involves unlearning — becoming aware of an existing mental model and beginning to shift toward a new one. Catalyzing this type of mindset shift requires direct contact with families. While it is important to understand research and best practices, the most effeffective professional learning involves educators interacting with families directly in ways that ip the existing power dynamics. The goal should be to build trust and to experience a new type of interaction. Home visits and other eye-opening “seminal experiences” offer rich learning opportunities, especially if educators use those experiences to reflect on their current practices and iteratively develop new strategies.

 

Invest in ongoing guidance to incorporate new mind- sets into existing routines and practices.

Professional learning experiences can lead to real change if they are complemented by ongoing support and coaching from content experts. Given that a liberatory approach to family engagement is new for so many educators, systems need to find ways to o er them continual guidance. Schools already have structures for this type of support; it is akin to a district math coach delivering professional development for a school and then following up with grade-level teams during their protected collaboration time to help them embed their learning into their day-to-day teaching habits.

 

Create senior-level positions dedicated to family and community engagement.

School systems need leaders to marshal this work. If states and systems want to raise the bar, they should invest in sta to elevate family engagement and integrate it into their strategic plans. Many school districts have created cabinet-level positions reporting directly to the superintendent or CEO. We see such investments as part of a zero-sum game— either family engagement work wins out in terms of funding and priorities, or it does not. Schools and systems are complex organizations with many competing priorities, so any issue not funded and designated as a top priority gets relegated to the morass of bureaucratic to-do lists.

 

Focus family engagement efforts on staff development.

Most family engagement work in America is family-facing, with staff planning and executing family events or support initiatives. That approach is not wrong, but it is incomplete because it fails to build systemic, inte- grated family engagement practices. It also emphasizes assimilation, positioning educators as the providers
of information and families as the receivers. Systems that want to elevate family engagement should focus resources on building the capacity of all staff to improve their family engagement work.

 

Integrate family engagement into equity agendas.

Family engagement is equity work at its core. We see authentic family-school partnership as a powerful lever for addressing inequities in schools and communities. At the same time, we believe schools and systems will continue to struggle to enact equity efforts if their sta are disconnected from the communities they serve. Building trust and deepening relationships with families of di erent races and ethnicities creates openings to address biases and assumptions, but only if educators are supported to unpack what they’ve learned about themselves through their collaborations with families. Equity agendas should emphasize this type of work because it helps educators see families of different races and ethnicities for their brilliance and for all that they do to support their children — and paving the way for them to recognize how racialized power imbalances between home and school in uence their work.

 

Develop authentic family engagement policies and metrics.     

As the old saying goes, what gets measured gets done. Leaders who truly want to elevate family engagement will apply the same tools they use to advance their other priorities. That means creating policies that support a liberatory vision for family engagement and articulating specific, measurable expectations for the system’s improvement over time.