Why Have Family Engagement Centers?

Almost everyone universally accepts the failure of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). When I first began teaching, the cornerstone education legislation of George W. Bush hung heavily over every pedagogical conversation I had. We teachers could not wait for NCLB to be repealed.

No Child Left Behind was replaced by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) which was then replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). While there are legitimate criticisms of each of these iterations of similar education initiatives from the federal government (eg. over-emphasis on standards testing, inflexible mandates for local schools), there are a few positives, including the Parent Involvement Program (a component of every education act in the past 12 years).

The requirement that every school that qualifies as Title I (as determined by high numbers of students receiving free or reduced lunch) have a Parent Involvement Program is one of the best aspects of the ESSA. Unfortunately, it seems that some schools simply open a Parent Center, hire someone to run the program, and check off the boxes to ensure compliance. However, some schools exceed expectations by creatively seeking ways to “involve parents.”

I wanted to offer the perspective of a teacher with regard to the Family Engagement Center (or Parent Center) at Cross Keys High School. At our school, the CK Parent Center is always bustling with activity, and I have to think that these efforts truly are making a difference in the level of parental involvement I have experienced at CKHS.

Cross Keys: A Robust Parent Involvement Program

Last week, I happened to stop by the CK Parent Center. Inside, parents were enjoying a cooking class promoted by the Latin American Association, one of our school’s closest partners. A nutritionist from the University of Georgia was teaching parents how to prepare a variety of delicious food, and parents were eagerly listening and laughing with one another.

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I asked Angelica Rosso, our Parent Involvement Program coordinator for the Region 1 schools in DeKalb County, how often they do these kinds of things, and she told me they have events like this every week. Another time I stumbled into the CK Parent Center, and preschool-aged children and their parents were working on making crafts together, while yet another time, I saw parents gathering for an English class during the middle of the school day.

Parent Involvement Programs might be a requirement, but I feel that Ms. Rosso takes our parent engagement program to a new level. There are requirements that include distributing information to parents, creating a forum for parents to voice concerns, and holding meetings to allow parents to have a voice in allocating Title I funds (read more here). However, as Ms. Rosso and other parent leaders, including Elizabeth Aleman and Maria Cisneros, realize, creating opportunities for authentic community is a necessary component of a successful parent engagement program.

Not only does our Family Engagement Center comply with the regulations, but they try to create a space where parents feel welcome. Parents feel comfortable coming to the school for a cooking class or a craft workshop, and this translates into more parents attending other school events like PTA meetings, parent conference nights, and public meetings.

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To check out more of what’s going on in DeKalb County Schools Family Engagement Centers, click here.

Program Coordinators are Key to Parent Engagement Success

As Title I schools continue to find ways to comply with the ESSA, I believe we can emulate the programs that Ms. Rosso has made available at our school’s Parent Center in other schools so that they, too, can reap the benefits of increased parental engagement. As a recent AJC article pointed out, CK Principal Jason Heard credited the increase in high school graduation rate (and even more recently, its increase in its CCRPI score) to the robust CK Parent Center.

Ms. Rosso, who lives in the Cross Keys cluster, has been the Family Engagement Center coordinator at CKHS for the past two years; but before that, she was the coordinator at our feeder middle school (Sequoyah MS) for two more years. Her sustained level of involvement – from the middle school to the high school level – has created a culture where close, personal relationships translates into higher academic gains.

Especially when working with a school that has high numbers of parents who speak a language other than English (in our case, predominantly Spanish), it’s important for schools to hire Parent Involvement Program coordinators that speak the language of its residents, and – when possible – live within the community they serve. In this way, schools can more easily reach parents because of the following:

1. The coordinator understands the inner workings (both assets and challenges) of the neighborhood they serve.
2. The coordinator does not have to cross a language barrier to communicate with parents.
3. The coordinator is viewed as “approachable” by the community.
4. The coordinator uses his or her social capital (i.e. connections with business, individuals, non-profits) to create strong community partnerships within the school.

I know there are many other schools that have thriving Parent Centers (including DeKalb County Schools), and I would love to hear from you about your experiences with those other schools. Mandating specific activities for the Parent Involvement Program will not be universally effective, as our communities differ from school to school. But sharing best practices with others (and exploring how we might adapt them for our community) will help our Parent Centers become an integral part of the fabric of our schools, not just another aspect of a federal mandate.

Does your school have a Parent Center? What do they do that is effectively engaging parents? Please send comments or questions to rebekahcmorris@gmail.com, and I will share those in a later post.

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