Family engagement matters for student success
January 8, 2024
The following article was written by Karen Villalobos, Ed.D.
When I taught as adjunct faculty years ago, the required college coursework and what was needed in the classroom were not congruent. One semester I was asked to teach a class on beginning literacy. I taught an entire group of teacher candidates how to teach digraphs and blends based on the syllabus requirements, but spent little time on relationships and engagement and why they mattered; as the semester progressed students lamented about the lack of practicality of some of the courses in their credential path. I couldn’t argue with them.
After that first mediocre class, keeping in compliance with curriculum and university requirements, I began bringing in guest speakers to talk about what beginning teacher candidates really needed to know. Whether the guest was a site principal, superintendent or curriculum coach, they always shared the same thing: Relationships were the fundamental difference between a successful teacher and one who struggled in their educational career. (Note: In this article the terms parent, family/families and supporter are used interchangeably as inclusive language for students who may not have, live with or be involved with their parents or family members.)
Research by Kathleen Hoover-Dempsey, Joyce Epstein and Karen Mapp shows effective family engagement accomplishes five things:
  1. Raises student achievement, improves behavior and student attendance rates, decreases dropout rates and improves the emotional and physical well-being of children;
  2. Assists in the assessment of a child’s school readiness as well as decision of students to pursue higher education;
  3. Creates a greater equalizer for students, contributing to their increased academic achievement, regardless of parent education levels, ethnicity or socioeconomic background;
  4. Raises student academic achievement so substantially that schools would need to increase spending by more than $1,000 per pupil to receive the same results; and
  5. Creates positive benefits for children that span the life of a student.
Working in teacher training programs for over a decade I found my passion, and ultimately my doctoral dissertation, “Engaging Families: Training Beginning Teachers How to Engage Families” and researched what teachers need to do to engage parents/supporters at a deeper and ultimately more successful level.
Beginning teacher statements like, “I feel the pre-service coursework prepares me for English learners and special populations, but not specifically for working with families” helped me focus findings on what teachers needed, and I was able to take the research and create learning seminars for my family engagement case study.
Here are four things from my dissertation study we implemented at Twin Rivers Charter School to engage students and parents/supporters:
1) The reflective teacher journey. One can’t fully understand how to engage others until they’ve reflected on their own journey. Journaling about where a teacher grew up, their own personal feelings about school and education, school attendance and how their parent(s)/supporters engaged in the school community are an important start. As research and demographics show, California teachers do not always represent the student demographic sitting in their classrooms. This doesn’t mean they can’t be advocates and allies for every student. Once teachers have reflected on their own backgrounds, they are m ore likely to be open to their own biases and preconceived beliefs about parent/supporter engagement in the school setting.
Replicable takeaways:
  • Take time at staff meetings to discuss implicit biases, own them and move on with a purpose. Take the “buts” out of the conversation; give the “whys.” Use research to foster interest and understanding. Be courageous in expectations and kind to differing beliefs and backgrounds.
No social media post, school-based parent communication messaging system, text or fancy newsletter will ever take the place of a face-to-face interaction.
2) Family/supporter engagement. The research is very clear on this. No social media post, school-based parent communication messaging system, text or fancy newsletter will ever take the place of a face-to-face interaction or phone call. Research shows the Hispanic culture predominantly views school fliers (e.g., school event fliers, requests for volunteers in the classroom) as “for your information,” not an invitation to participate or engage. Read that again. Well-intentioned staff who communicate from their own level of comfort (social media platforms) are likely missing out from many of their parents/supporters because they do not interpret the message the same as the deliverer intended. The medium is always the message.
Replicable takeaways:
  • Make personal invitations whenever possible. When our school moved to one-time morning drop-off and dismissal times, we were given the gift of additional access to families. We saw a 200 percent increase in attendance at ELAC meetings during the 2022-23 school year. Our ELD teacher worked with teachers and staff who personally interacted with every family through individual phone calls (translated if needed) or the school pick-up line to share information. Our ELAC meetings no longer became “FYI” notices, they were personal, sharing the importance and value of each parent/supporter’s engagement.
  • Look for student engagement opportunities. Our ELD teacher, with the support of the administrative team, created interactive agendas that included professional development topics, celebrations and student involvement. Students practiced parts of the meeting agenda to present to the ELAC community. Not only were the EL students using their voices, they were engaging in ELD standards of speaking and communicating.
  • Every day, every student’s parent/supporter is called when they are absent. Office staff engage with finding out why (illness, etc.) and provide strategies and resources to ensure every student is on campus ready to learn.
  • Attendance meetings happen in real time. When a student is truant, a meeting is called. When attendance falls below 90 percent, a meeting is called. These meetings act as solution seekers.
3) Communication. Even in its infancy, social media communication tools were not mentioned as an effective method to increase family/supporter engagement. In fact, the research is beginning to show parents are growing apathetic of school communication platforms, ignoring important and well-intentioned communication tools.
Replicable takeaways:
  • Know when a communication should be a phone call or face-to-face. As an administrative team, we expected that important (read: possibly contentious) communication happened via a phone call or face-to-face.
  • Classified staff were given time built in their day to communicate with families (PBIS blue communication forms). We strived to have communication come from a person before a form. When we stayed true to this expectation, we found our parents were less reactive and more supportive.
  • Our staff were given additional art and music prep time to engage in parent communication, in addition to regular Parent Square, newsletters and Instagram posts. The expectation was that teachers call home or interact with each family/supporter before Parent/Supporter-Teacher Conference week.
  • If an email or text was going to be longer than three sentences, it needed to be a phone call. As educators, our attempt to write a thesis about something that happened at school about the parent/supporter’s child inevitably turned into a letter writing campaign back and forth; shockingly, we rarely “won” those interactions.
  • When the bell rings at 2:45, every person, administrator, paraprofessional and teacher who is not with students is outside. While this was never the place to have a parent/supporter-teacher conference, it was a place to smile, engage a family and interact, building engagement across our community.
4) Parent/supporter-teacher conferences for all. All families sign up and attend parent/supporter conferences in TK-fifth grades. When teachers finish the week, they share any students who did not have a parent/supporter in attendance. The next week, our office staff makes calls to schedule those conference times. One-hundred percent attendance and engagement is our school-wide expectation. For middle grades, teaching staff get together to meet with families they select as a middle school team (25-30 students). This ensures a concerted effort to meet families/supporters whose students may need more support. Families who do not attend conferences are called individually by each home room teacher. The level of engagement at the middle school level looks different, but continues to be a valuable form of engagement.
Replicable takeaways:
  • Support scheduling to ensure families/supporters are considered when implementing best practices like Parent/Supporter-Teacher Conference Week.
  • Engage all staff in initiatives that require 100 percent attendance. Get their buy-in by including them in the planning and implementation of schedules.
Training beginning teachers during my dissertation process was easy compared to teaching (talented) veteran teachers. What engagement looks like has changed in the last few years, there’s no denying that. But pivoting to research-based practices and providing time and resources to these practices is one way to ensure students and their families/supporters feel engaged and included. We’ve seen success — school-wide engagement is up, as well as student attendance. When our staff realized that these ideas actually brought ease to their day-to-day interactions and increased engagement, they were more confident and empowered, and that’s a win for family engagement and ultimately, for student engagement.
Karen Villalobos, Ed.D., was the principal of a 2023 California Distinguished TK-8 elementary school in northern California, which was recognized with many honors including Green Ribbon School, PBIS Platinum, Middle School Alliance Schools to Watch, and CDE Pivotal Practice. She was recognized as ACSA’s Superintendent/Principal of the Year in 2023 and is currently writing a book on her educational journey, transformational leadership and engaging families.