Approachable, Focused and Consistent: Putting Equitable Family Engagement at the Forefront of School Communities

By: Amy Melik and Sarah Said

We know that family engagement is important.  We need to find a starting point and we need to develop plans in order for families to have more opportunities to be consistently engaged in the school community.  Creating networks for parents to be engaged has been on the radar for many schools. Depending on the state or the community make-up of families, these organizations may take the form of a Bilingual Parent Advisory Council, Parent Equity Committee, or a Parent Teacher Association.  Whatever it may be called, we need to assure that all parents are given the opportunity to have their voices accounted for in schools. Our networks need to be approachable, focused, and consistent with engaging families.

Step One: Be Approachable

Being approachable means that families are able to have dialogue with us and that they are comfortable with us.  There is a “confianza” or “trust” between families and the school.  How do we support families in being heard?  We need to be approachable. Families can be honest and give us suggestions and feedback. It may not always be what we want to hear, but a lot of times-- listening to families is what we should hear, starting with the “why” of family engagement.

As we have conversations with families and our school community, we need to marinate in the “why” of family engagement.  In our conversations, we need to use data to explain the importance of working together to facilitate the discussions on how critical it is to have parent voice in the school community.

We need to share the legal aspect of the importance of family engagement with everyone as well.  Conversations about guidelines for parent engagement in the Every Student Succeeds Act will help people know the “why” behind family engagement. Also in many states, it there are explicit laws that define what Bilingual Parent Advisory Councils (BPAC) should look like. For example, see Illinois’ rules and regulations here

As we support families in learning our “why” for having them being engaged in the school community, we also need to know their “why”. We need to gather a list of families need to support and empower in our schools and then and learn where the families’ passions lie.  This will support our family engagement planning for the year. We can do this a variety of ways. We can use polls via technology like Talking Points, a translation communication application that allows  to communicate with parents via text message. We can reach out via  paper surveys, interviews, and just have simple conversations. This can tell us what interest our families but also, we can learn the best time to reach families and invite them to meetings. 

When having the first formal meeting, we advise that first meetings start off with listening sessions.  There are many creative ways to have listening sessions. Amy’s school likes to use “pluses and deltas” to drive conversations about school improvements, Sarah’s likes to use “glows and grows”. Whatever you use, it is always best to start parents off in smaller group conversations then have them move to larger groups to be able to really capture parent voice, focusing on what they see as current strengths and current opportunities to support the children.

After you facilitate a discussion to capture families’ voices, you NEED to act on it.  We will warn you that not acting on a stakeholder’s voice, they will not trust you and not want to engage in your community.  How do you act after the conversation? As you are having your conversation you work with your families to understand the trends of what is priority in their discussions. This is called a needs assessment. You evaluate the trends, discuss those trends, and create focused goals together.

In our conversations with school and district communities in the past, we have noticed some trends in needs assessments:

  • Need for materials that are more culturally responsive: i.e. native language resources, diverse books, and activities
  • Older students needing more access to planning for college
  • Professional development for parents on supporting children in the home
  • Staffing needs to be more diverse to reflect the school
  • The school environment as a whole needing to reflect and be more responsive to the student population
  • School data showing discrepancies between communities in the school
  • Equity in policies, procedures and programs in the school community
  • Conversations about equity and representation amongst communities within the district i.e discussions amongst stakeholders, school board members, students, etc. 
  • Need for more family engagement within the school community

Step Two: Create Focus through Vision, Norms and Goals

These discussions at your parent group can help create a larger vision for your parent organization.  This vision can then drive more short term goals. This vision needs to be created by all involved through a variety of listening sessions and conversations. It cannot be created overnight. Here are examples of vision statements from parent organizations:

“The Bilingual Parent Advisory Council (BPAC) will promote a  family and school engagement environment for bilingual parents that promotes supporting families of bilingual students through outreach, advocacy, empowerment of bilingual parent voice, and promoting a school community that is culturally responsive.”

“The Parent Equity Council (PEC) will provide a forum for parents to discuss and advocate for a community that is inclusive and provides opportunities for all students to be successful.”

“With the support of parents, staff and students, our group exists to advocate for the creation of an environment that embraces student individuality through the development of social, emotional, and cultural competence.”

Later your group can create bylaws or norms that will keep them focused and dedicated to their work. These norms, as we will call them in this article, can be about determining how you can communicate with each other, stay on task, ensure that all voices are heard and make decisions, for example.  You have to be organized through common agreements like these in order to work to achieve a common vision.

After a vision and group norms are established and the group is investing in work with families, the group then needs to create short term goals that they can accomplish during the year. Goals need to be focused to support the great work these family engagement groups will do. They need to have input from families, school staff and school/district leadership. Here are some examples of specific yearly goals for parent organizations:

“Our team will support creating awareness for culturally responsiveness in schools by supporting a school identity festival and monthly cultural exhibitions in school assemblies.”

“We will support parent workshops on three topics this school year that support bridging the achievement gaps between communities in our school.”

“We will work with the school counselors to create multilingual resources to help high school families complete FAFSA applications.”

After creating these goals your work will need to then reflect those goals. Your role will be to help make sure that your organization does veer away from the path. Give your group tasks or action items that need to be completed and have them have an understanding of when and how those tasks have to happen. One suggestion is to have one task or action item per meeting to be completed to start.

Step Three: Be Consistent

In order for any group to be successful, they need to be consistently engaged.  Family engagement is more than a one time thing every year. Read more about this going beyond an event-focused approach for family engagement here. We have to work with families to assure that they can be dedicated to the goals that have been set. In the beginning, teachers and school officials may have to do heavy lifting for the group. You may have to guide and support fundraising, keeping the group on task, recruitment, training, and supporting.  You will probably have to facilitate the first meeting or two. But, you will eventually be able to recruit and elect parent leaders who will steer and navigate the group through a gradual release of responsibility process. 

Over time, the organization will develop and parent leaders will grow. Even if you don’t succeed right away, you need to then evaluate the mistakes we are making and then try again.  Read more about common mistakes that districts make and how to avoid them here.

Final Thoughts

If you want to be successful with your organization always remember this:

  • Keep decision makers in the loop regarding goals and involve them in critical decisions
  • Assure that you are using the proper channels and multiple modes for communication
  • Listen to parents… hear them
  • Be culturally relevant
  • Give parents an outlet to run with their ideas

If we keep these tips in mind, parents will feel empowered to help support and make changes in your school community. Parents want to be engaged, and they need a forum or a network to support that engagement.

To Further Your Learning:

Blog on Building Family Partnerships From Talking Points

Resource Compilation from Teaching Tolerance

WIDA: Language Focused Family Engagement


See our set of professional learning offering options.





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