Both the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, among others, are sending their resources to family-engagement initiatives. This is partly because of ESSA. The Every Student Succeeds Act directs “states and districts to develop plans to work with families and surrounding communities,” and that requirement has created a need for guidelines that schools and districts can use.
The effort is also being made because research has proven time and again family engagement is an incredibly powerful tool for shaping a student’s development, performance, and success throughout life. And, the Carnegie Corporation points out, “studies by the Global Family Research Project and other organizations confirm that the achievement gap between lower- and higher- income students is largely tied to an ‘opportunity gap’— differences in families’ ability to access learning and enrichment experiences both in and out of school.”
Getting family “stakeholders” (i.e. parents, guardians) more involved is key to closing that gap, Ambika Kapur, an education program officer at Carnegie Corporation, says. “The more we went deeper in learning about research about successful educational reforms, we found that the greatest influence on students is the family.”
Attendance – Families are a major factor in combating chronic absenteeism, reports The 74, and initiatives like parent text messaging programs have proven to be successful.
Data sharing – Schools should not only share information and data with families, they should make data easy to understand. Confusing language, jargon, and English-only approaches do little to involve families.
Academic and social development– Children learn constantly, even when they’re not in school. Families should be encouraged to supplement a child’s learning with a focus on literacy, STEM, and relationship-building activities at home.
Digital media – Teaching children safe and smart digital media skills should be a joint effort. Families can support learning with apps at home, and schools can use mobile to bolster communication between home and school.
Transitions – It’s especially important to re-engage families between elementary, middle, and high school years as engagement typically decreases as children get older.
Central to moving forward in any of the five areas above is acknowledging that extra care needs to be given to disadvantaged families. “It is crucial to recognize that poverty, racial discrimination, and immigration policies make it increasingly difficult for families and communities to build equitable learning pathways for their children,” the report says. While increasing family engagement is a shared responsibility between families and schools, educators should be challenged to ensure “that all families, not just economically advantaged ones, have what it takes.”
The need for an equitable approach is especially clear in the enrollment cycle. The very nature of the process brings families and schools together, creating multiple potential touchpoints for increased family engagement.
Consider Carnegie’s recommendations on data sharing. The report highlights findings from EdNavigator that stress how “economically advantaged families start mapping out their children’s long-term education pathways through high school and into college very early on, and there should be support for lower-income families to do the same.” Empowering families with clear information and user-friendly tools makes it easier for them to participate in school choice. This can be done via unified enrollment or a single application tool like MultApply that eases the burden of applying or with a SchoolFinder that informs families on school options.
The effectiveness of these policies can be seen in Chicago, where SchoolMint helped Chicago Public Schools unroll unified enrollment-style for incoming 9th graders this fall. The 91% participation rate is being championed as a huge step towards equity. And in New York, the Carnegie report applauds New Visions for Public Schools for “reframing success not just as immediate performance, but more broadly in terms of what is necessary to achieve the student’s longer-term goals, such as selection for a middle school science magnet program.”
Digital media is another opportunity for enrollment. Carnegie finds that, in immigrant Latino families, “older children, at the request of their parents who may not be fluent English speakers, might be asked to use online tools to search and find information (…) they ordinarily would not explore on their own” – and the resulting pressure to navigate or translate these complex worlds can become a stressor on children. It’s key then for all forms, websites, applications, and materials in the enrollment process to be made available in every language spoken in a school’s community. And it’s why a multilingual family experience is a cornerstone of SchoolMint enrollment products.
For districts and schools, the task at hand is great. But so too is the payoff when they make the investment. As the Carnegie report points out, improving family engagement in any of their top five areas creates a “cascade of broader effects.”