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Engaging Families: Tips from EL Schools

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    Ben Smith

As schools host back to school nights, parent conferences, and open houses, they sometimes struggle with not just getting parents into school, but getting them involved. So we asked the principals in our EL Mentor Schools: “What do you do to engage families in your schools? How do you connect families to supporting student achievement?”

Here are two excellent responses – one from an urban high school in Massachusetts and one from a rural elementary school in Washington.

From Meg Campbell, Executive Director of Codman Academy Public Charter School in Dorchester, Massachusetts: To increase family engagement in our school, we open our Saturday courses to parents on a space-available basis and offer a Wednesday evening drop-in studio art class open to parents and students. Getting parents into local media to recognize their work on behalf of the school is helpful too. For example, see this article from our local newspaper.

Another thing we've done for years is offer two different Parent Awards - with plaque and names engraved. One is for the parent/guardian who most supports his/her child, and one is for the parent/guardian who most supports the school. It's practically like winning the Academy Awards. It’s a big deal to the winner.

Finally - our social worker organizes workshops each year with guest speakers/demonstrations including talking to children about topics like sex and healthy cooking. We've done lot of education - led by students - to get parents on board with going Junk Food Free, for example. Click here to read more about the Junk Food Free program.

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From Valerie McKern, principal of Kettle Falls Elementary School in Kettle Falls, Washington: We are trying to increase our family meetings this year and are including topics like “4th grade Parent/Student goal setting using the standardized test scores” and “Title 1 and special education parents…How can you help with homework?”

Once a month, we have "Coffee and Crew" with the principal. It is one hour on a Friday morning. We offer day care, with 4th graders reading to preschoolers. The intent is to educate parents about EL at our school. Each session uses instructional practices that are used in the classroom and focuses on a section of the Core Benchmarks. Recently, we answered the question "What is an Expedition?” by creating posters focusing on embedded literacy, science and social studies topics, high quality products and fieldwork, experts, and service-learning. These are hung in the main hall with the note, “Created by KFES Coffee and Crew parents.” Every month will be a different topic and display.

School designers from across the Expeditionary Learning network also weighed in with these additional ideas:

Parents as experts

In many EL schools, parents are brought in as experts, offering knowledge to individual classes or serving as liaisons between the school and the surrounding community. One school ran an “urban expeditions” program where parents introduced teachers to city neighborhoods. Another school brought in parents to interview for a project on ancestry.

Making it easy on parents

Many schools try to go the extra mile to make it easy on their parents to attend evening gatherings. This may include having pre-signed letters verifying attendance for those parents who need them for their employers; being intentional and clear about what events are and why they are important; and offering transportation, childcare, and of course food.

Learning for the whole family

In addition to using parent events to explain the EL model and how it works in a school, some schools are offering parents the opportunity to get involved in other ways through parent study groups on educational and parenting topics, filling out surveys and forms together when language or literacy issues may be obstacles, or creating parent work groups to do gardening, committee work, or coordinating school events.

What works in your school? How do you get families engaged in supporting student achievement? Please weigh in with your thoughts in the comment box below.