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The Case for Strong Family and Community Engagement in Schools

A roundup of the latest K–12 research reveals persuasive evidence
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About 50 years of research has revealed the striking benefits of schools actively partnering with families to improve their children’s learning. For some educators though, it was not until COVID-19 blew the doors off their schools and the walls off their classrooms that the penny dropped, as Sonja Santelises, CEO the Baltimore public schools and Harvard Graduate School of Education alum, described in Education Week that first bleak winter of the pandemic.

“During the pandemic, educators realized that families knew a lot more about teaching and learning than they had given them credit for,” especially when it came to understanding the needs of their own children, explained Karen Mapp, a senior lecturer at HGSE. She recently shared some of Santelises’ insights and many of her own during a virtual event about effective family and community engagement, hosted by the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s EdRedesign Lab. “Now, a lot of educators want to know more about how to engage families because of the lessons that they learned during COVID,” Mapp added.

Mapp, a renowned family engagement specialist who said she has encountered a fair share of resistance to her ideas over the years, makes a strong case for them in the new book Everyone Wins! The Evidence for Family-School Partnerships & Implications for Practice. She and co-authors Anne Henderson, Stephany Cuevas, Martha Franco, and Suzanna Ewert dive into the latest research and drill down on the same question that senior citizen Clara Peller asked in the infamous 1984 Wendy’s commercial, as Mapp recalled with a chuckle, “Where’s the beef?” In other words, for any remaining skeptics, who benefits from effective family-school-community partnerships and what is the return on their investment?

As the title of Mapp’s book suggests, the answer is everyone:

  1. Students who enjoy higher grades, better engagement and attendance at school, greater self-esteem, and higher rates of graduation and college/ post-secondary enrollment.
  2. Educators who have increased job satisfaction, greater success in motivating and engaging with students from different backgrounds, more support from families, and an improved mindset about students and families.
  3. Families that enjoy stronger relationships with their children, better rapport with educators, and that can navigate their school systems, advocate for their children, and feel less isolated.
  4. Schools because of improved staff morale and school climate, greater retention of teachers, and more support from the broader community.
  5. School districts and communities, which become better places to live and raise children in, have students with fewer suspensions and high-risk behaviors, greater participation in afterschool programs, and expanded family and youth involvement in decision-making.

"This is love-work, [you must] love fully the families and the children and communities you serve."

Mapp, a former deputy superintendent for family and community engagement in the Boston Public Schools, shared the following strategies for putting effective partnership into practice:

•    Successful family engagement requires resources, infrastructure, and leadership.

Parent and community ties need to be an essential ingredient, not an add-on. “It’s real when I see it on your budget sheets,” Mapp explained in the webinar. Collaborate with your community to tap into outside resources as well.

•    Educators need to be intentional about building relationships based on mutual respect and trust.

Schools have not valued all families, especially those in historically underserved communities that have experienced “generational disrespect.” Listen to all parents and offer opportunities to them for leadership. Efforts should focus on students’ learning and development. Effective family engagement is never weaponized.

•    Educators must be trained and supported to work with families from all backgrounds.

“A lot of unlearning has to happen around family and community engagement,” according to Mapp who said some educators have adopted “bad and ineffective strategies” shaped by systemic racism. Context matters and engagement initiatives need to be designed to work at the local level. Home visits may not be appropriate in some communities, for example.

•    Begin reaching out to families when children are young.

Help families navigate the school system from the beginning and continue to engage with them up to college and career. Don’t forget middle and high school parents who need help supporting their students as well, albeit in different ways than younger children.

•    Communicate clearly and consistently.

Messages need to be accessible to everyone, including families who speak different languages.

•    Don’t forget equity.

Educators should be sensitive about the realities of busy family life, including parents’ work demands and childcare concerns. Immigrant families can also face unique challenges.

•    Show some love.

Student-centered schools focus on what is best for the children and the community, not just the educators. “This is love-work,” explained Mapp. You must “love fully the families and the children and communities you serve.”

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