Why Schools Can’t Talk About Family Engagement Without Talking About Race

Last summer, not far from the doorsteps of Oakland Unified School District, a group of parents came together to build an academic program from scratch in an effort to close the gap between the education their children were getting in school and the education they deserved.

Leading this group of parents was Lakisha Young, co-founder and CEO of The Oakland REACH. For years, the parent advocacy group worked tirelessly to influence education policy and practices in Oakland. But as the pandemic pushed students outside the classroom, an opportunity emerged for families chronically underserved by their schools—specifically for Black and Brown families. She called it the Hub.

“Our families are fighting for a utopia that they have never experienced. So let’s build the privilege they deserve. That is the Hub,” says Young.

Piloted at the start of the pandemic, the Hub—which was only virtual given safety constraints—is an academic program that empowers families to exchange knowledge and resources to support their children’s learning and emotional wellness.

Young had already built considerable credibility with the district through earlier advocacy work and a city-wide literacy campaign conducted by the parent-powered organization. This year, the Hub is being offered as a virtual supplement within the district’s 2021-22 distance learning option. As a result, every K-8 family participating in the Hub receives support from a family liaison who helps families navigate distance learning and support families to meet their educational and personal goals. A group of so-called “Literacy Liberators,” made up of members of the community, provide culturally sustaining and systematic literacy instruction.

A critical component of Young’s organization success stems from listening closely to what families in the local community need. “We were already in an education crisis before we even hit a health crisis,” she says. In the Oakland education system, less than 30 percent of Black and Brown public school students are able to read at grade level. But those participating in the Hub can experience gains of more than 60 percent in reading. “We listened to our families and built solutions around that,” says Young.

Not Just a Local Issue

The hyper-local illustration of The Oakland REACH’s goal of better family engagement in student learning isn’t a one-off story. It’s just one example of an innovative response to a burgeoning challenge currently rippling throughout the country: equitable student support.

Currently, I work for the Christensen Institute, where my current research explores ways schools can activate the untapped potential of all students’ families as a way to scale the support students need, both inside and outside the classroom. My work builds on decades of research showing that family involvement—including supporting at-home learning, participating in school activities and monitoring academic and social activities—pays dividends across the developmental continuum, and is particularly beneficial for lower-income students for whom school may be one of many competing demands on their time.

Yet, there is an alarming trend of pulling back from in-person learning among Black, Brown and Asian families that has only been amplified during the pandemic. One reason for this trend is that families of color are noticing that they aren’t resourced in the same ways. “We hear parents in racially and linguistically diverse communities say that they are not receiving the same support and resources as other families,” says Vidya Sundaram, co-founder and CEO of Family Engagement Lab. Another reason is a sense of growing mistrust among Black families in schools’ abilities to keep their children safe from COVID-19. From inequitable social and academic support to a lack of confidence in schools’ safety protocols, families of color are opting to take matters into their own hands.

Because students and families receive direct access to the full-range of academic and wraparound services that schools provide through in-person learning, the disparity offers a sobering reminder that family engagement is as much a matter of equity as access to education itself.

Going Beyond PTA Meetings

Although family engagement is not a new phenomenon, facilitating opportunities for families to build trust with schools is an urgent need as students continue to vacillate between the classroom and their living room. While attending PTA meetings, student performances, and even occasional parent-teacher conferences may get families into the school building, these events rarely allow for the kind of interaction builds trust. For inclusive family engagement, schools need to create structures that deliberately leverage and involve all families, not just those with the comfort or ability to take the initiative themselves.

Fortunately, innovative models are emerging that equip and activate families as a source of support, information and resources—to schools and to each other—to ensure their childrens’ academic success and emotional wellbeing.

The Right Question Institute (RQI), for instance, focuses on sharpening families’ abilities to ask good questions relating to their schools—helping them to support, monitor, and advocate for their children. They scaffold effective techniques, such as trading off between open-ended and closed-ended questions, and reinforcing that no question is too simple. In turn, families are empowered to recognize their own expertise and amplify their capacity to engage meaningfully with teachers.

Similarly, Village of Wisdom is a program that recognizes that Black parents experience schools differently and can benefit from unique support. The national organization works with Black families to build their capacity to navigate and cope with racial bias and build community connections and advocacy skills. They host Family Learning Villages and Family Reunion Teach-Ins to equip families to advocate and access the resources inside and outside of schools that they believe their children need to thrive.

The Parent Institute for Quality Education (PIQE) is a national, social justice-focused nonprofit that helps build parents’ capacity to engage in their children’s education and strengthen parent-school collaboration. In partnership with 128 school districts in California and 380 schools across the nation, PIQE provides families with information and skills they need to advocate for their children through scores of hands-on workshops and seminars.

“Who has access to education options is predicated by your income and zip code level, and your ability to speak English in a way that is proficient enough to advocate for more choices,” says Gloria Corral, president and CEO of PIQE. “We need to think about multiple strategies to engage families in a way that is human-to-human. The takeaway? Focus on developing trusting relationships.”

In working toward equitable student learning, these innovative family engagement models are helping take what could have just been rhetoric to reality for students, and helping schools reap benefits previously untapped along the way. In every family lies a cultural wealth of resources and insights about what their children need to thrive.

“The most important systemic play is to integrate this model into how the school system does business,” says Young. Now is the time to amplify the wealth that sits within families and witness the tangible progress toward equity unfold.

Other news