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Three Ways to Make Every Family in Your School Feel Seen, Heard, and Valued

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    Maureen Nesslerode, Principal, Campbell Elementary

“Don’t give up. Do it for Freddy!” Students cheered as their peers ran laps to support a friend who was fighting cancer.  Families and staff from Campbell Elementary, the school I lead in Arlington, Virginia, lined the school track, shaking colorful posters and holding back tears. For two years we had focussed our social and emotional learning on perseverance. Now our students were demonstrating this character trait in the real world. Students had received pledges based on the number of laps they ran. As the students ran more and more laps, Freddy’s family would be able to pay the rent and purchase needed essentials. The students ran hard in the June heat. As some students grew tired they pushed themselves to speed walk for the duration of the race.  After the run and other fundraisers, including a Mother’s Day sale of teddy bears in the community, a group of Latinx mothers presented me with a stack of cash. We were all astounded at how much they had raised to help Freddy’s family; there wasn’t a dry eye.

While fundraisers might be commonplace in a lot of elementary schools, Campbell  doesn’t usually engage in gift wrap sales or canned  soup drives.  We are a public, Title 1 school. Fifty-four percent of our students receive free or reduced-priced meals. Forty percent are English Language Learners. Twenty-two percent receive special education services. We’ve avoided placing the burden of giving money on our families. Furthermore, as an EL Education network school, our students engage in service learning and environmental stewardship through projects like creating pollination gardens as part of a unit on the contributions of bees in our ecosystem. Students, alongside their teachers and parents, serve their communities by building things, creating public service announcements, and beautifying our eco-friendly campus.

The fundraiser for Freddy was different because its goal was to raise money, but its purpose was an authentic local service: helping a friend and his family motivated our students and their parents.  Upper- grade students who were members of the running club stepped up to lead the cause. They promoted the after-school event by hanging posters around the school, created a banner that was used as the finish line, and more. Teachers and administrators took their cue from parents, who came up with creative ideas—like selling teddy bears—to bring in more dollars. Everyone wanted to help, and students, teachers, and families came together as one school family to take care of Freddy’s family.

Developing a culture of caring and connection is no accident, especially in a school as diverse as ours. We work every day to bring families into the social and academic life of the school so that every family’s struggle or accomplishment feels personal. Here are three ways we ensure that every member of the Campbell family feels seen, heard, and valued.

Freddy’s Fun Run. Photo Credit: Laura Rush

Communicate in Ways that Give Access to All Parents

When several Spanish-speaking parents asked for a Thursday morning parent meeting for parents who work in the evenings, we said, “Yes.”  The administrative team provided a space and attended the sessions weekly.  School and district leaders met with parents to provide information and also to ask parents how local problems, such as transportation, impacted Spanish speaking and immigrant families.  Spanish-speaking parents became consultants and problem-solvers—leaders of our community.  In addition to being presented in Spanish, the Thursday morning meeting  feels different than a PTA meeting. Everyone sits in a circle. There are no minutes  There are rarely powerpoint presentations. It’s casual. The principal serves as the host, but doesn’t present. (Some English-speaking parents who came to the Thursday morning sessions even noted that listening following the meeting in Spanish helped them understand how Spanish speaking parents might feel at an English dominant meeting).

Thursday Morning Parent Meeting. Photo Credit: Maureen Nesselrode

At Campbell, parents can choose from a variety of preferred methods of communication.  Some parents read the classroom newsletters, while others benefit from text messages reminders in their language of choice, or see photos on Twitter. Some parents are able to attend evening PTA meetings, while others prefer to attend virtually due to childcare needs. In a 2020 parent survey, 95 percent of Campbell parents reported that language was not a barrier for communicating with the school.

Celebrate Learning With Parents

At Campbell learning is public. Parents are regularly invited to celebrations of learning where students share books they’ve written or projects they’ve created.  They are active participants in student-led conferences, which can be conducted in a family’s home language. The students themselves create handmade invitations and bring them home to their parents.  Spanish-speaking translators accompany parents as they navigate open-house style events. Each Friday, a school wide assembly is held in which students and classes share their learning. All student groups from the Safety Patrols to the Math Dice team represent the cultural composition of the school. Parents serve as an authentic audience for student events such as concerts, poetry slams, and  geography bees.  Parents  learn alongside their children in family STEM challenges and field trips. Honoring parents as learners means that they get to be role models for their children and are proud to support their childrens’ own academic efforts at home and at school.

Embrace Family Expertise and Contributions

At Campbell we recognize that parents can also be excellent teachers! We value their expertise and create opportunities for them to contribute their skills.  A parent who works in the technology industry might want to help during the annual Hour of Code. Another group of parents might want to prepare food for a school event.  Parents can share cultural experiences, knowledge of careers or serve as guest speakers. Grassroots parent leadership, not administrative leadership, is the strongest lever for inclusivity and engagement in our school.

There are many ways to reduce barriers for multilingual parents, including providing translation and making events inclusive of families, not just adults. For example, at Campbell, the PTA auction event is a family-friendly daytime event on school grounds.  Some years Central American families have provided pupusas, while live entertainment is provided by a bluegrass band featuring a Campbell parent. These strategies make the event less intimidating and more accessible to families of all income levels.

All families have a place in our schools and all parents can contribute in some way. Although the examples I’ve described took place before sweeping social distancing measures were in place, ensuring that all families are seen, heard, and valued is still our approach to family engagement—on campus or virtually.  When we see families as learners, teachers, and contributors to the school community, they are eager to support one another just as they did Freddy’s family. Our job as school leaders is to hold the doors of education open wide and to invite every family to join in.

Maureen Nesselrode has been the principal of Campbell Elementary School, an EL Education network school in Arlington, Virginia, since 2012.  She is currently pursuing a second Master’s Degree at George Mason University.  She was named the Arlington Public Schools Principal of the Year in 2020.