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Engaging families

Engaging families

A playbook for better family partnerships

Kentucky School Advocate
November 2021

Josh Shoulta
Staff writer

The National Association for Family, School and Community Engagement defines family engagement as “a shared responsibility in which schools and other community agencies and organizations are committed to reaching out to engage families in meaningful ways and in which families are committed to actively supporting their children’s learning and development.”

Kentucky was one of only a dozen states to receive a U.S. Department of Education Statewide Family Engagement Center grant in 2018 to create family engagement resources for the state’s public schools. As the grant recipient, the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence serves as the central hub for the new network of state and regional partners charged with building public schools’ capacity to foster impactful relationships with families. The grant represented an ambitious new phase in Kentucky’s efforts to design a better process for families, communities and schools to work together to improve student learning. Not just by encouraging more family engagement but by changing the way education leaders think about it altogether.

With support from the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE), Prichard partnered with Louisville-based National Center for Families Learning, Learning Grove in northern Kentucky and Berea College’s Partners for Education. Each would target schools in their area offering, among other things, technical assistance, professional learning, facilitation of conversations and the development of resources. The result is the Kentucky Collaborative for Learning and Families, which has now helped districts serve more than 45,000 families.


“One organization by itself doesn’t have all the answers – you must learn who knows what pieces of information and then have open and honest conversations about what the needs are,” said Prichard Committee Family Engagement Director Brooke Gill.In September, Prichard announced 60 schools in 22 districts – identified by the partners – as members of a new group, the Family Friendly Schools Learning Network. Over the next three years, these schools will pilot family engagement best practices while their administrators will be given access to special training curriculum and resources.

“The learning experience will be a combination of group learning sessions, small group coaching sessions and increased awareness and access to resources and services that increase family engagement,” Gill said.

The schools’ use of these resources will be carefully documented. Over the course of their three-year commitments, participating schools will take part in an annual survey conducted by the Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools at New York University, evaluating the schools’ progress. What researchers glean from this information will eventually benefit all education stakeholders.

Natasha Stein, assistant director for the Division of School and Program Improvement at KDE, said there’s good reason for educators to make family engagement a priority.

“There is overwhelming evidence that family engagement increases student success and the attendance of all students, while helping the school improve its systems,” she said. “It is critical that organizations meet at the intersection of family engagement to ensure lifelong success for all students.”

Pilot schools were given first access to the collaborative’s new Family Engagement Digital Playbook. Packed with self-assessments, checklists, videos, downloadable templates, helpful links, strategies and activities, the playbook takes a topical approach to creating connections between schools and families.

The e-publication was authored by Kathy Burkhardt, senior director of NaviGo College and Career Prep at Learning Grove and former Erlanger-Elsmere Ind. superintendent. Prior to her retirement, Burkhardt spent nearly three decades as a teacher, principal, curriculum consultant, assistant superintendent and 11 years as superintendent, making her an expert on what family engagement is and is not.

“It’s a meaningful conversation, not an event,” she said. “And it’s tapping into a family’s wealth of knowledge. They know their student best, so if we’re not asking them what their students’ strengths are, what they’re struggling with, their gifts, their talents, then how are we supposed to help those students be their best?”

Prichard Committee President and CEO Brigitte Blom, who was elected to the Pendleton County Board of Education when her oldest child was in kindergarten, understands the important role school boards play in family engagement.

“Kentucky’s school board members are uniquely positioned to engage in their communities and develop strong relationships with families,” she said. “By strengthening the voices of parents, grandparents, caregivers, students and other members of our public school community, we can build a system of education that inclusively takes our state to the next level of economic prosperity.”

Family first  

Prior to his retirement, Daviess County Schools’ board chairman Dale Stewart served as a teacher and administrator in the district for 29 years, much of that time as the principal of Apollo High School.  “From day one, I would close my daily announcements with ‘Always an Eagle family,’” Stewart recalled. “26 years later, that’s still the slogan for the school. That’s very humbling.”

The sentiment is shared 19 miles down the road at Whitesville Elementary, where the school’s social media, email signatures, newsletters, student materials and even the entryway wall are emblazoned with “The Whitesville Way.”

“Family. Leadership. Excellence. That’s the Whitesville Way,” said Principal Tricia Murphy, noting that the placement of “family” as the slogan’s first word was no accident.

The emphasis reflects a broader strategy to connect families with what is going on inside the school.

“We hosted a lot of events,” Murphy said. “Wonderful events that our staff went above and beyond to create great experiences for families, but not necessarily experiences that led to additional connection with the school.”  

In recent years, she said, the events and opportunities for families have become more intentional, designed to promote interaction at home that connects to learning in school. That meant integrating books and an at-home pumpkin decorating activity to corresponded with the school’s fall festival, or games and discussion topics for families to use during the school’s Red Ribbon Week. Whitesville also finds ways to involve families each month when students are introduced to a new word and social-emotional tool.

The focus on family engagement isn’t unique to Whitesville. Thirteen schools in Daviess County were named to the Family Friendly Schools Learning Network. That level of commitment is being cultivated at the district level by Federal Programs Coordinator Shelly Hammons and Literacy Intervention Coach Shiryl McAdams.

“We can’t just invite families to come in for a meal or a movie or a trunk-or-treat,” McAdams said. “We have to link it to learning, because we cannot have a partnership with our parents if they don’t understand what’s happening in the classroom.”  

Hammons and McAdams have spearheaded efforts to help educators learn how to develop family partnerships. What began as a faculty-wide book study of “Powerful Partnerships” quickly evolved into learning opportunities with actionable steps. The district introduced a second text, “Beyond the Bake Sale,” and opened it up all staff – teachers, administrative personnel, cafeteria staff, etc. – from the 13 participating schools. Participants are now being challenged to periodically implement strategies from the books and reflect on their impact.

Hammons noted that improving family engagement doesn’t have to mean doing more, especially when educators are already being asked to do so much.

“We’re already doing this,” she said of fostering family partnerships. “How can we change what we’re already doing; a small tweak to what already exists in the structures that already exist to meet more of the parents’ needs.”

Evaluating engagement    

For public schools across the country, the pandemic revealed the value of family engagement, a lesson not lost on Washington County Schools Chief Academic Officer Cherry Boyles.“Just like every other school, last year we realized the great significance of having strong family partnerships when our students were learning from home,” she said. “During the pandemic instruction, we had more interactions with families and caretakers than we had had previously.”

Fortunately, the district had previously decided to prioritize engagement with families and part of that desire for renewed emphasis has come straight from the top.

“For the last couple of years, the school board has really encouraged the superintendent to have a district focus on family engagement,” she said.

The board of education even folded the issue into the superintendent’s evaluation. Now, family engagement has earned a perennial place in the district’s improvement plan.

Washington County Schools faculty and staff take part in an Aug. 18 professional development day on family engagement. (Photo provided by Washington County Schools)

 “We’ve previously had components of family involvement in our improvement plan,” Boyles said. “We just happened to have board members who were asking us to do better.”The desire to take engagement to the next level made Washington County a prime candidate for statewide support. All four of the district’s schools – two elementary, a middle and a high school – were selected to take part in the Family Friendly Schools Learning network.

That meant access to resources and the opportunity to work with family engagement coaches from the National Center for Family Learning and the Prichard Committee. Like with other participating schools, the work began with a self-assessment of how the district’s schools were approaching relationships with families. A daunting process, but one that Boyles and her colleagues found beneficial.

“Our teachers and administrators went through and began to look through the lens of these indicators – the components of family engagement – and it helped us identify areas of growth,” she said. “We determined it was important to start with some small steps, but with some vision behind it.”

The district created school and district-level engagement teams. Administrators took part in a book study of “Power of Partnerships,” with some board members reading along. And leadership ensured that every educator understood and bought into a more intentional brand of family engagement.

“Every teacher and every administrator in our district had foundational training,” Boyles said. “The language around family engagement. The components of family engagement. Everyone realizes we have goals that we are working towards.”

Perhaps the most motivating aspect of the engagement work, for Boyles, is its correlation with equity.

“It connects so very well. As we’ve talked to our principals about goals that they might set in terms of equity, their approaches towards equity goals become family engagement goals” she said. “Family engagement best practices will really help us address equity concerns.”

One (professional development) day at a time
Dayton Independent’s elementary, middle and high schools were selected to take part in the 60-member Family Friendly Schools Learning Network. While the district had previously worked with Learning Grove, the network’s northern Kentucky regional partner, it was Dayton’s interest in professional development that made it an intriguing candidate to pilot the new programming.


Over the past several years the district had worked on curriculum, instruction, bought learning software and made other instructional improvements, said Superintendent Jay Brewer.“One area that we hadn’t put as much focus on was trying to look at better ways for our educators to engage our families,” he said.

Emboldened by what he learned from Learning Grove, Brewer asked the school board for three professional development days in 2021-22 for teachers to focus on family engagement. The board said yes, a fact Brewer credited to the trust built over his decade of service as superintendent.

Dayton has completed the first of the three professional development days. Many of those who took part in the initial training left pleasantly surprised.

“You mean, you’re not going to tell us what to do?” Brewer said of the teachers’ reaction to the training. While the district provided the framework and resources for improving family partnerships, the educators themselves determined the best ways to achieve meaningful, productive relationships with families.

“Our classroom teachers are truly the experts,” he said. “What I am affording them is the opportunity to come to the sandbox and start creating what they feel is beneficial.”

The district plans to evaluate the effectiveness of its event-based programming such as parent nights and parent-teacher conferences.

“Those are a lot of the traditional things we have seen done over the last 30 years,” he added. “They are beneficial, but what could we do differently if we got out of the box?”

Family Engagement Digital Playbook offers school interactive resources in the forms of self-assessments, research, videos, downloadable templates, strategies, activities and more. (Photo provided by Prichard Committee)

For one, how educators talk about family engagement needs to change, Brewer said.“Our language matters,” he said, citing how Dayton evolved its approach to visits to students’ homes at the start of the year. “Ten years ago, we called them home visits. They were done mainly to verify residence. Perhaps not the best first experience.”

Now they are called “welcome visits,” designed to greet families, share information and launch relationships.

Brewer also recommended using the term “family-teacher” conferences instead of “parent-teacher,” to be more inclusive of students’ caretakers or guardians.

That thinking has extended to engaging with families whose students have individual education plans. Virtual meetings may have at one time been viewed as less personal, but the pandemic showed the ease in which technology has allowed parents, teachers and administrators to connect.

“Our parents found that to be a much more effective way to get the meetings done,” he said. “Parents communicated more confidently than in-person for what may otherwise sometimes feel like an interrogation.”

Families can participate virtually without having to take off work, find childcare or worry about transportation. By eliminating these obstacles, and the stress that comes with them, families are more comfortable participating in conversations about their child’s needs, he said.

New resources for Kentucky Family Engagement in Education Week
As part of its efforts to highlight the impact of family engagement, the Kentucky Collaborative for Families and Schools has declared Nov. 15-19 as Kentucky Family Engagement in Education Week. During the week, the collaborative will host podcasts and trainings, encourage social media challenges and virtual school events, and showcase engagement resources – including the Family Engagement Digital Playbook.

This spring, the collaborative will invite schools to apply to be “Family Engagement Certified,” a designation based on criteria aligned with the playbook’s areas of focus which include relationship building, communication, shared responsibility, advocacy and community partnerships.

To learn more about the collaborative or to access Prichard’s online engagement resources – including the new Digital Family Engagement Playbook – visit prichardcommittee.org/familyengagement.

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