To increase students’ academic growth, educators are working more closely with children’s first teachers – their parents.
Wenden Elementary School teachers visit each student’s home before school starts to get to know their families, build up trust, better understand students’ lives, and determine if special student services are needed in this predominantly Hispanic, high-poverty La Paz County community, said Dr. Gloria Dean, school principal and district superintendent.
“In the past our schools have held open houses, parent-teacher conferences, and invited our families to carnivals, curriculum nights and science fairs to name a few events,” said Jessie Arroyos, principal of Coolidge Unified’s Heartland Ranch Elementary in Pinal County. “This year, we are excited to have partnered with the Arizona Department of Education and WestEd to develop Academic Parent-Teacher Teams.”
Academic Parent-Teacher Teams were developed by Dr. Maria Paredes in 2008 for use in the Creighton Elementary School in Phoenix to engage parents in their child’s learning by partnering with teachers to examine individual student’s test data, set goals for academic growth, and learn methods to use at home to boost achievement.
Why is family engagement so important?
“When families feel welcome and respected, they are more involved and supportive,” said Rhonda Chavez, director of federal and state programs at Balsz Elementary School District in Phoenix. “Meaningful family engagement provides parents and caregivers with the tools they need to support their children.”
Students are more successful when they see parents and teachers working together on a common goal, Dean said.
“Research shows evidence-based family engagement practices positively enhance student success in school and after graduation; positively influence student grades, attendance, social skills, and strengthens a school’s climate and reputation within the community,” said Raquel Alvara, education program and family engagement specialist at the Arizona Department of Education.
To engage families it’s important to tailor activities to the community’s strengths and needs, said Dr. Anthony J. Perkins, superintendent of Peach Springs Unified School District in Mohave County.
“At Peach Springs, we have it built into our mission, vision and goals that at minimum once a grading period we will do a big family event,” Perkins said. “We’re trying to do different things to get our community involved.”
In late September, this small, rural school in a predominantly Native American community will host an astronomy night where an NAU professor will lead a discussion, students and their families can look at stars and planets through telescopes, and then visit over dinner, Perkins said.
Wenden Elementary hosts parent nights four times a year where families learn how to help students with math and reading, Dean said.
“In the spring at the last one, we do a cultural night where staff, parents and community members set up little booths to share what they enjoy with others and celebrate our cultures,” Dean said, noting she helped students decorate cupcakes, one family taught kids how to make tortillas and another showed students how to do origami.
What are schools doing that works?
Balsz schools have become community hubs of engagement, Chavez said. Each morning, three community liaisons arrange presentations where family members learn about topics ranging from financial literacy to early childhood development.
“Our schools provide family tours to help orient parents with the school campus, schedules, policies, procedures, expectations and to encourage a partnership in their child’s education,” Chavez said. “Each school hosts family nights twice a month to celebrate student success and family involvement.”
Parent advisory groups meet with Balsz school leaders to celebrate strengths and solve problems, and generous partners and corporate donors routinely coordinate days of community service and neighborhood beautification, Chavez said.
Balsz and Wenden schools already use Academic Parent-Teacher Teams, and Heartland Ranch and San Tan Heights in Coolidge Unified are now using APTT and WestEd consultants’ strategies to support students’ academic goals.
“It is our hope that family engagement will increase because our traditional parent-teacher conferences will now be transformed and will allow our families and teachers to become partners in educating our children,” Arroyos said.
About 87 percent of parents volunteer at Wenden Elementary, every flier goes home in both English and Spanish, parents are surveyed regularly and parents meet with administrators at an informal coffee once a month, Dean said.
“It takes us to reach out to them,” Dean said. “We can’t just expect them to come. They need to feel welcome.”
After-school tutoring is available twice a week for all students, students can use the teacher-monitored computer room when classes end since many families in this rural area do not have Internet service, Dean said. Students have access to Internet-based educational resources such as Scholastic.com, Starfall, Education City, FunBrain, Storyline Online, National Geographic and Accelerated Reader to develop their skills, Dean said.
Peach Springs students can use Lexia and Achieve3000 online learning programs from home to enrich what they learn at school, and “we recognize those kids’ after-hours work at our honor roll assemblies,” Perkins said.
As part of a program called “Personal Responsibility In Daily Excellence,” students turn in their homework each day, write down assignments in their planner so parents know what they’re working on, and behave in class, Perkins said
If students do not have their homework or planner, they stay after school an hour that day for homework help, and if they misbehave, they attend character education, Perkins said.
“It is important for schools to align family engagement programs and activities to school improvement goals,” Alvara said. “It is the Arizona Department of Education’s mission, through cross-division collaboration to support and guide schools in this effort.”
The ADE developed its family engagement initiative in 2012.
“With the recent National Family Engagement Framework, Partners in Education, A Dual-Capacity Building Framework for Family-School Partnerships, ADE is acknowledging and taking efforts in placing family engagement as a higher priority within education reform efforts,” Alvara said.
The ADE Family Engagement Project Team’s program specialists and agency partners – including two members from First Things First who will provide early childhood expertise – will help support family engagement activities at Heartland Ranch and San Tan Heights schools for the next three years.
“The additional support and resources from Arizona Department of Education have allowed us to think creatively outside of the box on how to partner with our families and to gain new perspectives from the experiences they bring to us from across the nation,” Arroyos said. “In addition, they have helped us find partnerships within our community to help bring more resources to our families.”
ASU’s University Service-Learning and ADE are also developing an internship for students to help plan family-engagement activities for the project.
“It is important that the schools see our commitment, and by working collaboratively, it will provide the best outcomes in supporting and enhancing their family engagement efforts,” Alvara said.
PBS American Graduate Day filmed part of this video at Balsz Elementary.