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Putting Family at the Center

How one large urban district built and launched a robust family engagement framework

August 31, 2016
African American mother and her young daughter doing homework

How can we ensure that each and every family is empowered to support their student’s learning?

In the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD), a district of more than 131,000 students and the second-largest in California, I helped lead a systemic approach to family engagement that grappled actively with that question. Over the course of the 2015–2016 school year, in collaboration with district and family leaders, educators, and community partners, we developed a framework with four dimensions, to be integrated with the work of instruction, not positioned as a separate initiative.

There were valuable lessons everywhere along the way — first in developing the framework, and then in launching it into practice. I'll share those lessons below.

Developing a Framework for Engagement

"We gave parents an opportunity to share their hopes and dreams for their children, as well as their struggles and barriers. This interactive process put family voices front and center, inspired partnerships between educators and families, and led to action."

1. Collect Data: Family Engagement Survey 

  • Conduct annual district-wide family engagement survey to identify strengths and improvement areas by subgroup, school, and region.
  • At school-site level, design family engagement plan based on survey results, student academic needs, and/or design thinking.

2. Grow Family Networks and Leadership

  • Train existing and new family leaders to assume leadership roles.
  • Grow networks and relationships among families through community organizing and other established networks (e.g., parent-teacher associations, faith-based communities, etc.).

3. Use Design Thinking to Build Trust and Take Action

  • At school sites, ensure that educators listen deeply and build empathy for families in their community. (See below.)
  • Build collaboration among families, teachers, principals, and community partners to solve context-specific challenges and take action together based upon what families and students report.

4. Empower Families and Schools with High-Impact Home Strategies

  • Train schools, community partners, and family leaders to empower families with high-impact home strategies in all grades (e.g., reading and language development, communication on grades and coursework, and linking schoolwork with student interests and career exploration).
  • Create online resources to teach these strategies, and organize to reach all families, especially those who cannot come to school for workshops and other activities.
  • At schools, connect families in greater need to more intensive supports offered by district or community partners.

Putting the Framework Into Practice: Takeaways

Establishing a framework is not enough. As in many districts, family and community engagement was at the margins, separate from the central work of SDUSD. As we developed the framework, we also needed to develop awareness and an appetite for its implementation, so we piloted design thinking workshops to generate ideas and build relationships. We gave parents an opportunity to share their hopes and dreams for their children, as well as their struggles and barriers; teachers and principals gained a deeper understanding. This interactive process put family voices front and center, inspired partnerships between educators and families, and led to action.

It’s essential to work at both the district and school levels to generate a productive cycle of political will and impact on students. If you focus only on district-level work, high-level leaders won’t develop a vivid vision of how family engagement policies actually affect families and students. And working only at the local level means the work will likely remain local. Working at both levels brings family engagement to the center, away from the margins. For us, success at the local level brought awareness and gave the district the leeway to do more work locally, and this generated an incremental cycle of district- and school-level changes.

Implementation requires an investment in capacity building. SDUSD is making that investment, bringing on an executive director — a newly established position — to bring the framework to life, collaborating with area superintendents. Community organizers, another addition, will now join the teams already working with these area superintendents; they will focus on building family networks and training school staff.

Too often, the education sector puts families at the periphery of their children’s learning. If we really want to support all of our students, we have to pull these families back to the center. And that is exactly what we did at SDUSD. We hope this work inspires other districts to embark on a similar journey.

About the Author

Allison Rowland
Allison Rowland received her Doctor of Education Leadership from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2016. She helps districts and schools work productively within their political context and tackle the organizational learning necessary to strengthen student learning and support equitable educational outcomes. Follow her on Twitter at @RowlandAllison.
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K-12 Parenting and Community School Leadership