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Good Governance for School Boards

Trustee Professional Development Program


Module 9 — Family and Community Engagement

Last updated in September 2019

Family and Community Engagement
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IN THIS MODULE, TRUSTEES WILL EXPLORE:

  • the many stakeholders involved in public education
  • key concepts and benefits of parent & family engagement in education and how this can be promoted
  • benefits of community engagement and how this can be promoted
  • the trustee’s role in facilitating parent, family and community engagement in education

INTRODUCTION

The involvement of parents, family and community in the life of schools enriches the learning environment. Active community involvement helps to create strong, democratically engaged communities. Parent and family engagement in children’s education both at school and at home makes a strong contribution to student achievement and well-being. Strong partnerships between home and school have a positive impact on a child’s success and well-being.

The term “parent” is used in this module to represent, parents, guardians, caregivers and all with an interest in a child’s education. “Family” is used in this module to embrace the diversity of parental and extended family structures in Ontario homes, including other adults who are caregivers and play an important role in a child’s life. The terms “engagement” and “involvement” are used interchangeably. The module will explore the vital importance of parent and family engagement in education and the role of communities in supporting a vibrant public education system.

Strong school-community partnerships are good for schools and good for the communities they serve. Each school is a rich community resource with assets that include its facilities, equipment and materials, entertainment (sporting or artistic events), human resources (both the staff and the students), programs for students, and courses for the broader community. There is high correlation between parent, family and community partnerships and student achievement. Regardless of parents’ own socio-economic background, experiences in school or their own educational backgrounds, all parents can and do support their children’s success. Parental involvement at school is also linked to greater participation in the community. However, partnerships between parents, community groups and schools need to be real partnerships. Schools that engage parents and the community help build and sustain confidence and support. Respect and trust are built when parents and members of the community are invited into the school.

The advantages of collaborative approaches work in two ways. The school benefits as do families and the community agencies, institutions and other groups. The capacity of the community to understand and serve the needs of students and their families increases as a result of engagement in the school. Similarly, awareness of and access to services for children and families are increased.

Module 7: Exercising Authentic Governance: The School Board’s Role as Policymaker identifies the board of trustee’s role in articulating policy on parent and community relations as a central governance responsibility of trustees. Boards can promote healthy partnerships with parents and communities through:

  • policy that helps ensure accessible and welcoming climates for parents and community
  • ensuring that the public has open access to relevant information about educational policies, programs, and services
  • encouraging meaningful opportunities for input and advice into decision making

The engagement activities of the board of trustees are focused at a system level through the structures the board puts in place for consultation and information-sharing.

STAKEHOLDER AWARENESS

Parents and families: The number one constituent group. Involved parents and families can effectively advocate for schools with the general public. Often, informed parents and families are among the best ambassadors. Parents want to know what their child is learning at school, how their child is progressing, and how they can help their child at home.

Facilitating ongoing involvement with parents and families, is a major contributor to schools’ and students’ success. When families are actively involved in schools, teachers learn more about the students in their class, and students are more able and willing to learn.

Students: An often overlooked group. Students are at the centre of our work in education. Fostering student agency and listening to student voice are critical elements of school improvement. Students will be more involved and supportive of the school board if they understand the goals and purposes of education beyond their own personal course of study.

Community (parents and non-parents without children in school): This group receives most of its information from the news media, neighbours and relatives. It’s important to find ways of informing and involving this large sector of the public about the goals and values of publicly funded education.

Employees: Principals, teachers and every other employee of the school board need to know and understand the board’s key goals, issues and opportunities. They need to know how they can enter the dialogue and the importance the board of trustees places on helping stakeholders do so. Staff play a key role in promoting parent and family, as well as community partnerships. Principals in particular, are leaders in the school community and are often the positive, welcoming face of the school. Through their work in setting budget and policy, trustees can build principals’ capacity to engage with families.

French-language communities: For French-language school boards in Ontario, it is particularly important to build links with other services and agencies in the community to promote understanding and support for the role of publicly funded education in strengthening French-language education and culture. This will help to reduce the assimilation of francophone students and enrich sustainable development for all sectors of that community.

Policy-makers: Comprised primarily of legislators and locally elected officials. Seeking opportunities to exchange information between board and municipal officials can help build meaningful connections and support ongoing collaboration in the service of students.

Special interest groups: Directors and board members can spend an inordinate amount of time and resources responding to small but vocal and energetic groups. These voices deserve and need to be heard, but should be balanced with other groups as well.

Community agencies and services: Building partnerships with agencies such as those providing children’s mental health services, local police services, multicultural associations, Indigenous organizations and religious communities is critical to the role of publicly funded education in serving the needs of the whole child.

Business leaders: Most business people know the skills needed for success in the twenty-first century work environment and are willing to advise and support boards of trustees in their multi-year strategic plans.

PARENTS AND FAMILIES - PARTNERS IN EDUCATION

Parents in Partnership: A Parent Engagement Policy for Ontario Schools (2010) formally recognizes and supports a vision of parents as both valued partners and active participants in their children’s education.

In Ontario’s education system, all partners acknowledge the positive impact of parent engagement on student achievement and well-being. Students are supported and inspired to learning in a culture of high expectations in which parents:

  • are welcomed, respected, and valued by the school community as partners in their children’s learning and development
  • have opportunities to be involved, and also a full range of choice about how to be involved, in the educational community to support student success
  • are engaged through ongoing communication and dialogue with other educational partners to support a positive learning environment at home and at school
  • are supported with the information and tools necessary to participate in school life

The policy provides the vision of parent involvement, sets out four strategies to support parent engagement, and includes an action plan for schools, boards and the Ministry of Education. The policy also showcases some of the many exemplary practices across the province.

The evidence of the benefits of parent and family engagement in their children’s education is compelling. Parent engagement in their children’s learning positively affects student success for children of all ages, in particular leading to:

  • improved academic achievement
  • greater cognitive competence
  • greater problem-solving skills
  • more school enjoyment
  • consistent school attendance
  • fewer behavioural problems at school

Studies show that children whose parents are involved demonstrate stronger social and emotional development including:

  • more resilience to stress
  • greater life satisfaction
  • greater self-direction and self-control
  • greater social adjustment
  • greater mental health
  • more supportive relationships
  • greater social competence
  • more positive peer relations
  • more tolerance

These advantages continue throughout childhood into adulthood.[1] Whether the activity is in the school or in the home, parents who are authentically engaged in their children’s education, contribute to their success.

ENGAGING PARENTS AND FAMILIES AS PARTNERS

Engaging families brings benefits for students, parents and the schools. The role of the board and its members is to ensure that schools and, in particular, school principals are supported in their efforts to engage families in the life of the local school.

Benefits for Students
  • it is easier for children to learn when they get encouragement from home
  • they will do better and achieve more when their parents are involved
  • students see that parents value education and have high expectations for their success
  • children get access to more activities in and out of school when there are more adults to help
  • their concerns can be sorted out more quickly when their parents have a positive relationship with school staff
  • they are happy when their parents are enjoying events in the school
Benefits for Parents
  • their children do better when they are involved
  • they are better able to help and encourage their children when they understand the system and have more information about their children’s education
  • parents can build their own confidence and skills as parents and adult learners
  • where there is a positive relationship between parents and their child’s school there are benefits for everyone
  • parents get reassurance that their children are receiving a good education when they are involved and engaged in the process
Benefits for Schools
  • parents bring skills and experience which complement teachers’ skills and expertise
  • parents contribute their time and skills, so together parents and teachers are able to do more activities with pupils than teachers can do on their own
  • pupils’ learning, attendance and behaviour improve
  • parents have ideas about how the school can best support the children and have opportunities to make suggestions
    • teachers have people with whom they can talk over ideas and get help when developing plans for the school
    • parents can offer schools greater understanding of the learning styles and life conditions of each student and therefore help teachers in their efforts to provide differentiated instruction
    • the ability of parents to use effective learning strategies at home with their children is enhanced
  • parents can give advice and help around reaching out and engaging other parents

The work of Ken Leithwood et al in School Leaders’ Influences on Student Learning: The Four Paths outlines the “family path” and its role in supporting student achievement.[2] The ministry’s Parent Engagement Policy refers to this work: “Many families have questions about how to relate to and support their children’s learning from the early years through adolescence. Various activities such as workshops for parents can strengthen parenting skills related to their children’s education and provide parents with a greater understanding of their options for involvement.” (p.12)

Joyce Epstein, a renowned authority on parent/family involvement and building educational partnerships, has created a framework of six types of parent involvement.[3] The board of trustees can set policy and budget to support this type of involvement:

  • Parenting
  • Communicating
  • Volunteering
  • Learning at home
  • Decision-making
  • Collaboration with the community

Parenting - This approach involves school boards and their schools in helping families establish home environments to support children as students. Most school boards provide information on their websites about services for families in the community and provide tip sheets to help with issues that arise in the daily lives of families. Additionally, through EarlyON Child and Family Centres free, high-quality drop-in programs are available for families and children from birth to 6 years old.

Communicating - This strategy involves the design of effective forms of school-to-home and home-to-school communications about school programs and children’s progress. In addition to report cards and parent-teacher interviews, effective communication involves regular sharing of student work via folders or online portfolios and encouragement of parent comments; curriculum nights; information about school policies, programs and events; regular newsletters; phone calls; e-mails; online access to information. In many communities, school boards will also accommodate first language needs through translations of board and school communications and using interpreters for critical meetings and interviews.

Volunteering - An important school-based involvement strategy is recruiting and organizing parent help and support. Most boards have a volunteer policy and post information on their websites about how to get involved.

Learning at home - This strategy is about providing information and ideas to families about how to help students at home with homework and other curriculum-related activities, decisions, and planning. Many boards through their websites provide families with information on skills students need for various subjects at different grade levels; they publish homework policies and tips and resources for helping with homework.

Many school boards run annual parent conferences on topics that support them in helping their children to be successful in school. Such opportunities may be an initiative of the board of trustees, but are typically run by board staff, through a partnership between staff and trustees, or the Parent Involvement Committee (PIC). Boards also encourage schools to have information nights on key issues of interest and may suggest topics and speakers.

Decision-making - There are two formal groups that support parent engagement and board decision-making: at the school level, school councils; and Parent Involvement Committee (PIC)s at the board level. In Ontario, by ministry regulation, every school has a school council with strong parent representation and each board has a Parent Involvement Committee (PIC). The mandate and structure of each group is set out in Ontario Regulation 612/00: School Councils and Parent Involvement Committees.

School Councils: Improving student achievement and promoting accountability are among the key purposes of a school council. School councils are made up of individuals representing parents, the school, and the community. They provide advice to principals and, where appropriate, to the local school board. Part of a school council’s advisory role is to ensure their school responds to local needs and reflects local values.

Parent Involvement Committees: The role of a PIC is to support, encourage and enhance meaningful parent involvement to improve student achievement and well-being throughout the board and its schools. PICs are formal parent-led committees and important advisory bodies to the board. They are a vehicle for the participation of parents at the board level. PICs advise the board about how to develop strategies and initiatives to effectively engage parents in improving student achievement and well-being and how to effectively communicate these with parents.

While school councils are school-based advisory structures, PICs focus on matters that affect more than one school.

Other Committees: In addition to the PIC, boards of trustees are also required to establish an Audit Committee and a Supervised Alternative Learning Committee with representation from individuals outside the board. Each board must also have a Special Education Advisory Committee with parent representation that makes recommendations to the board of trustees about the establishment and development of special education programs and services. Boards through their websites and local school communications make families aware of who their parent representatives are and what the process is for becoming a member of a council or committee.

Many boards will also have a number of community advisory committees such as an Indigenous Advisory Committee or an Equity and Inclusion Advisory Committee.

Collaborating with the Community - This strategy seeks to identify and integrate resources and services from the community to strengthen school programs, family practices and student learning and development. School boards provide families with information on community health, cultural, recreational, and social support. Some specific initiatives include summer programs for students, intergenerational programs, community use of schools and involvement of community volunteers who are not parents of children in the board’s schools.

PROMOTING FAMILY AND COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT

An ongoing challenge for school boards is to have in place effective strategies for involving families who, for a number of reasons, may feel disengaged from the school system. Barriers for these families could include language, poverty, discrimination or lack of familiarity with the Ontario school system.

Steps to eliminating barriers for disengaged families across communities could include:

  • building awareness of the perspectives and experiences of the board’s communities particularly those that are most reluctant to engage with the school system
  • ensuring there is professional development for staff and trustees to strengthen cultural sensitivity and increase parent liaison skills
  • providing friendly accessible information through community leaders that will encourage participation on Advisory Committees (e.g., Indigenous Learning, Equity and Inclusion, etc.) and community liaison groups
  • ensuring there are staff who can support pro-active outreach to specific communities that are not currently well represented on school councils, parent involvement committees or present at school events
  • going out to the community to hold meetings or events, e.g., a “town hall” in a specific community’s meeting place or a “reporting to parents” evening in the community; solicit input that is community-initiated, not just input the board requires on a specific issue
  • encouraging participation of extended family members including grandparents who are often guardians or caregivers
  • bringing the community into schools as role models for students, e.g., Artists, First Nation Elders, Métis Senators

Community engagement in public education values the right of community members to have input into the decisions that affect the lives and education of the community’s children. It is the process of building relationships with community members who will work with the school board as an ongoing partner, and support its mission with the end goal of making the community a better place to live.

The Education Act underscores the importance of community engagement when the board of trustees sets strategic directions and establishes its goals. Trustees are expected to consult with parents, students and constituents of the board on the board’s multi-year strategic plan and the board of trustees is obligated to make its constituencies aware of the plan and report on progress with regard to its implementation. The plan demonstrates the board’s responsiveness and accountability to its community and reflects community values and priorities.

Community engagement is not an exercise in public relations; it is a collaborative process aimed at reaching a shared understanding of preferred solutions to identified problems or key community needs and priorities.

It is important to recognize, however, that the community is comprised of a diverse range of people whose views will vary and even be in conflict with each other. The job of trustees is to listen to all the voices, not just the loudest, or the ones they most agree with. Having listened, the board of trustees then has the responsibility to make decisions that will be in the best interests of the entire school board community. It goes without saying that the board’s decisions will not find favour with absolutely everyone who provided input. The challenge at that point is for trustees to be well-equipped to provide the rationale for the decision made by the board and be able to respond to community questions.

Inviting Public Input

Trustees have an important role to play in informing school councils and community members about how they can influence decision-making at the board level, either through public deputations or through board advisory or consultative committees. All school boards have procedures for public deputations to the board of trustees or its standing committees. Boards also have advisory or consultative committees to represent the viewpoints of parents, other community members, and students. The goal in all cases is to invite public input in a way that is focused, inclusive, time-efficient, and accessible.

The Ministry of Education’s Multi-Year Strategic Planning: A Guide for School Board Trustees, released in 2017, is a resource designed to support boards of trustees with their responsibility to develop, implement, and monitor a multi-year strategic plan.

This guide makes a distinction between two types of engagement with stakeholders: ongoing community engagement and formal stakeholder engagement. It includes questions such as:

  • What is the level of parent and community engagement in our board?
  • What have we done to identify and remove barriers that prevent marginalized families from becoming more involved?

For more information about the MYSP process, please refer to Module 6: The Strategic Role and Multi-year Strategic Planning.

SUMMARY OF STRATEGIES FOR COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT

Be committed. A boards of trustees should not simply view community engagement as one of its projects but as a way of doing business.

Be accountable. Let the community know that the board leadership is committed to engaging with them and be clear about roles and responsibilities for maintaining communication. Let the community know that their input makes a difference in outcomes and keep them informed of the progress in strategic planning efforts.

Be transparent. Board information, business practices and decision-making processes should be highly visible, easily accessible and accountable and open to participation.

Schedule public forums appropriately. At forums, consider limiting verbal input to three to four minutes per person, and invite presenters to provide a short summary to serve as the “official record” of their presentation.

Build trust. This means building or rebuilding relationships with constituent groups including board staff, students, parents, volunteers, community members and business leaders.

Know the board’s communities. Get to know stakeholders thoroughly. Take the time to gather more information if it is needed.

Make effective use of all communication vehicles. Don’t underestimate the power of clear, succinct messages in parent newsletters and the local media. Take advantage of every school gathering. Ask to speak at local civic organizations. Most people want to know what is going on and want to support public education.

Use technology and online communities. Social media platforms help give voice to citizens who care about public schools but do not want to attend public engagement activities.

Be clear and use simple language. Every message should be viewed as a “report to the shareholders.” Don’t assume prior knowledge. Every message should stand on its own. Only use educational jargon and acronyms if absolutely necessary and then define them.

Use graphics and lists where appropriate. Key information in point-form or conveyed through an appealing graphic is more user-friendly than dense text.

Deliver key messages in ways most likely to reach the target audience. Audiences want to hear what the core message is. They don’t want it buried in the process that was followed.

Frame the essential questions to guide dialogue. Reflective thinking can be enhanced by pointed questions. Invite key constituents to respond to these questions. Wide-open public forums may invite confusion and grandstanding.

Have a clear challenge process after decisions are made. After any public debate is complete and decisions have been made, ensure that the process used to reach the decision is known. If individuals still object to the outcome, make sure everyone knows in writing what the challenge process is – if there is one – and make it available to the unhappy stakeholders.

Explore new tactics. Be creative in the methods used to encourage stakeholders to become actively engaged in the board and its schools. From parents and senior citizens, to business and community organizations, take the necessary steps to target information to them and invite their increased awareness and participation in ways that work uniquely for them.

Have welcoming schools. How do people in the community feel about approaching the schools? Are they made to feel welcome or are they made to feel like they are intruding? If there are safe-schools requirements for entering a school (e.g., doorbells, buzzers) ensure the reasons behind these policies are clearly explained.

EFFECTIVE PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT TOOLS

Communications and public engagement audits. Use these analyses and reports to list and assess what has already being done on all fronts, and where the gaps are in processes or relationships. One component of the audit is a review and analysis of all written materials prepared by the jurisdiction for consumption by the schools’ many audiences.

Strategic planning sessions, town hall meetings or community conversations. Open dialogues foster trust and collaboration, shared goals, and strategies.

Collaboration between schools, service-providers, businesses, etc. Shared resources and collaboration enhance learning, strengthen connection, and produce mutually beneficial results for students, schools and the community.

Public information-sharing on student achievement. Communities must be informed of and understand student achievement data in order to understand and support school and board strategies for improvement.

E-mail and Social Media. E-mail is a powerful, low-cost tool that can be used to connect with families, community members, businesspeople and others. Additionally many boards are also engaging with their constituents using a variety of social media. See Module 18 – Social Media for more information.

Community participation in school board meetings. School boards need input from the community to inform and support decisions. Inviting the community to participate in board and committee meeting discussions is one way of doing that. One way is to include public Q & A sessions at meetings and to have guidelines for delegations.

Communication with elected officials and policymakers. Take advantage of opportunities to inform and solicit the input of other elected officials and policy makers at various levels of government.

NOTES


  1. Research drawn from: (Cotton & Wikelund, 2001; Stelmack, 2005 (Fan & Chen, 2001) (Feinstein & Symons, 1999) (Melhuish, Sylva, Sammons et al., 2001) (Allen & Daly, 2002), (Desforges & Abouchaar, 2003)

  2. School Leaders’ Influences on Student Learning: The Four Paths, Kenneth Leithwood, Stephen E. Anderson, Blair Mascall and Tiiu Strauss

  3. Epstein's Framework of Six Types of Involvement, Joyce Epstein, https://www.sps186.org/downloads/table/13040/6TypesJ.Epstien.pdf