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Module 9: Family and Community Engagement

In This Module, Trustees Will:
  • Explore key concepts of family involvement and engagement in education
  • Explore winning strategies for engaging communities
  • Examine their role in facilitating parent and community engagement

Introduction

The involvement of family and community members in the life of schools and in the education of their children enriches the learning environment and directly contributes to student achievement. The family supports the student emotionally and physically and the trust they have in the school to also support their child has a positive impact on the child’s success and well-being. Active community involvement also helps to create strong, democratically engaged communities.

The module The School Board’s Role as Policymaker, identifies the board’s role in articulating policy on parent and community relations as a central governance responsibility of school board members. School boards can promote a healthy partnership with parents and the community by: - Ensuring through policy that schools and the school system are accessible and welcoming to parents and other members of the community; - Making sure the public has open access to relevant information about educational policies, programs, and services; and - Establishing mechanisms that offer meaningful opportunities for input into decision making at the school and board level.

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.

The term “family” is used in this module to embrace the diversity of parental and extended family structures in Ontario homes. The module will explore the vital importance of family engagement and involvement in education and the role of communities in supporting a vibrant public education system.

Families - Partners in Education

In September 2010, the Ministry of Education released Parents in Partnership…A Parent Engagement Policy for Ontario Schools. The policy articulates the following vision:

“In Ontario’s education system, all partners acknowledge the positive impact of parent engagement on student achievement. 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.”
What the Research Says

The evidence about the benefits of families being involved in their children’s education is overwhelming. Research shows that parental involvement in their children’s learning positively affects the child’s academic performance in both primary and secondary schools, leading to

  • higher academic achievement,
  • greater cognitive competence,
  • greater problem-solving skills,
  • greater school enjoyment,
  • better school attendance, and
  • fewer behavioural problems at school

Studies show that children whose parents are involved demonstrate:

  • greater 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,
    • more successful marriages, and
    • less delinquent behaviours

These advantages continue throughout childhood into adulthood[1].

With regard to specific impact on student achievement, the positive effects of parent involvement were borne out in a meta-analysis conducted through the Harvard Family Research project[2]. Two particular aspects of this analysis of the results of existing studies are important to note for school boards concerned with encouraging family involvement in diverse communities or family populations that are hard to reach. The analysis found that parental involvement revealed a consistent and positive impact across racial and ethnic groups. A further pertinent finding was that strategies to enhance family engagement where it is currently minimal or not present are effective in creating positive change. This underscores the importance for school boards and schools in finding ways to encourage engagement of families who may not currently be directly involved in their children’s education.

There is high correlation between 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.

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

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 in School Leaders’ Influences on Student Learning: The Four Paths outlines the “family path” and its role in supporting student achievement. 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.”

Joyce Epstein, a renowned authority on parent/family involvement and building educational partnerships, has created a framework of six types of parent involvement:

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

Henderson, Mapp, Johnson and Davies in their book Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family School Partnerships describe four different kinds of schools. In a Partnership School, families and communities work closely with the school to ensure that every student succeeds. In an Open-Door School, while parents may be involved in many ways, parental attendance at school events and activities could be improved. In a Come-if-We-Call School, parents are welcomed by the school when they are invited for a specific reason. Staff and administration in Fortress Schools believe that parents belong at home, not in the school. In order to achieve the goals of education in Ontario, (Achieving Excellence, Ensuring Equity, Promoting Well-Being, and Enhancing Public Confidence) and considering the research on the impact of parent and community engagement on student success, it is essential that school boards foster a district culture with high expectations for parent and community engagement in which Partnership Schools are the norm.

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. Through Parenting and Family Literacy centres, boards will also provide parenting supports for families.

Communication

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 folders 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 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 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. Common suggestions are: preparation of arts and crafts supplies; classroom reading buddies; membership on school council or attendance at school council meetings; fundraising; field trip supervision; welcoming new families, providing help with translation/interpretation; helping with the school’s environmental program, e.g. garden planting or recycling; assisting in the library; speaking to students on Career Day.

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 on helping with homework; they have parenting and family literacy centres and run family fun with literacy or family math evenings; they offer summer learning packages.

Many boards run annual parent conferences on topics that support them in helping their children to be successful in school and also cover themes such as peer pressure in the teen years or children and the internet. Boards also encourage schools to have information nights on key issues of interest and suggest topics and speakers.

Decision-making

The inclusion of families in local school decision- making and in contributing to the school improvement plan is an important aspect of parent involvement. It is a strategy for developing parent leaders and representatives. 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 role of a PIC is to support, encourage and enhance meaningful parent involvement to improve student achievement and wellbeing throughout the board and its schools. PICs are formal parent-led committees and important advisory bodies to the board. Many boards will also have community advisory committees such as an Aboriginal Advisory Committee or a Race Relations Advisory Committee. Each board also has a Special Education Advisory Committee with parent representation that makes recommendations to the governing board 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.

Collaboration 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. 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.

Community connections were common in many districts no matter what their strength. More unique to strong Ontario districts, however, was the sense of importance both district and school leaders attached to their relationship with these local community groups as part of their efforts to accomplish the district’s mission and vision. The label “community schools” was widely used in these strong Ontario districts in reference to their schools. (From Strong Districts and their Leadership, page 21.)

Eliminating Barriers to Family Engagement

An ongoing challenge for school boards is to have in place effective strategies for involving families who, for a number of reasons, feel disengaged from the school system. Barriers for these families could include language, poverty or newness to the school system. In the case of some newcomers to Canada a barrier might also be a culture of suspicion of authority or a culture of a high level of deference to teachers at the expense of expressing their own legitimate concerns. They may have had negative experiences with government bodies or school systems in their country of origin; they may have had little experience of any school system as a result of lengthy periods spent in refugee camps. Many families struggling to make ends meet may be balancing multiple jobs and shift work; this makes it harder for them to find the time and opportunities to engage with the school.

First Nations families have strong traditions about involvement of parents in their children’s education. Engagement with the provincial school system may, however, be difficult: “First Nations people have suffered at the hands of education systems for well over a hundred years………Parents whose school experiences have been painful are uncomfortable involving themselves in their children’s education…..Disillusionment with the school can be (deepened) by the uneasy response of teachers and principals, many of whom do not know how to approach First Nations parents, seek their input and establish positive reciprocal relationships with them.”[3]

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 to strengthen cultural sensitivity and increase teacher-parent liaison skills
  • Providing friendly accessible information through community leaders that will encourage participation on Aboriginal Advisory Committees and community liaison groups
  • Where it is feasible, 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 First Nation 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 parent/guardians
  • Bringing the community into schools as role models for students, e.g. Artists, First Nation Elders, Métis Senators

Community Engagement

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 schools board as an ongoing partner, and support its mission with the end goal of making the community a better place to live.

Amendments to the Education Act in 2009 underscore the importance of community engagement when the elected board 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 elected board 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.

“A board/director leadership and governance team must develop a plan for creating (and regularly updating) a vision that “fits” its community and is consonant with high standards for children. Public engagement and community mobilization are keys to defining priorities, setting goals, and creating an educational vision, all of which must be tied to quality education for all children. Perhaps the most important task of every board/director team is to lead the community to face the problems and assault the barriers that are blocking the potential of its children. That kind of leadership can inspire and engage citizens, staff, and students – neighbourhood by neighbourhood, using whatever means possible – to create a community vision and long-range plan[4].”

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 the members of the board is to listen to all the voices, not just the loudest, or the ones they most agree with. Having listened, the board then has the responsibility to make a decision that will be in the best interests of the entire school board district. 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 the members of the board to be well-equipped to provide the rationale for the decision made by the board and be able to respond to community questions.

When engaging in consultation it is important for the board of trustees to be clear about why they are consulting. Is it a “listening” consultation or a “telling” consultation? If the participants believe the process is a “listening” one when in fact it is a “telling” one, the scope for false expectations and conflict is high.

Listening

A listening consultation takes place at the beginning of the process that will lead to a decision on a particular issue. The purpose is to collect as many options, and as much evidence about the impact of the options, as possible. Every option is analyzed publicly during the consultation using the evidence that is available. Goals are evaluated and community feelings are assessed in what is a very open-ended collaborative process. It is also made clear that, ultimately, it is the governing board that will make the decision. This type of consultation can be lengthy.

Telling

A telling consultation takes place towards the end of the process when the board is clear about the direction that will be taken. Option identification and evidence-gathering will have taken place internally. The goal of “telling” consultations is to ensure that the action to be taken is well understood by those affected, that there are few disruptive rumours floating around, and that there isn’t any major factor that was missed by the internal process. This type of consultation is usually short and straightforward.

Winning Strategies for Community Engagement

A report prepared for the Alberta School Boards’ Association summarized findings in the literature on public engagement that highlight successful elements in any community engagement effort. These are provided here in an adapted format:

Important principles and practices:

Be committed. A school board should not simply view community engagement as one of its projects but as a way of doing business. It is a purposeful management tool.

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

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

Build trust. This means building or rebuilding relationships with constituent groups including employees, 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 existing 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. On-line media helps 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 terms if absolutely necessary and then define them. Many an effort has been waylaid due to misunderstanding of key terms. Boards could make it a matter of policy that all their documents are to be written in simple, clear language.

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. 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 invite confusion and grandstanding.

Establish a clear, open process. Initiate and publicize widely designated input/discussion opportunities. Invite key groups who are likely to question a proposed effort or direction.

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. This eliminates some note-keeping, cuts down on mis-understandings about what was actually said, and ensures that many people have an opportunity to offer their point of view.

Promote civility. The process for dialogue should contain suggestions for protecting the right to disagree and to be civil in debate.

Emphasize local ownership. Articulate and promote the notion that people have ownership over the issue, process and product for discussion and ultimate decisions to be made.

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.

Discover new ways. Be creative in the methods used to encourage stakeholders to become actively engaged the board and its schools. From parents and senior citizens to the business and religious communities, 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 welcomed as the board’s customers or are they made to feel like they are intruding?

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. E-mail is a powerful, low-cost tool that can be used to connect with families, community members, businesspeople and others. E-mail responses on issues cannot be considered a representative sample of opinions but they are a convenient way to communicate with diverse audiences.

Study circles. Study circles are a semi-structured, multi-step method that convenes policy-makers and the public over extended periods in small-group discussions. Policymakers say study circles give them the opportunity to understand a variety of perspectives about key issues and to receive a reality check on their policy direction.

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 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.

Keen awareness of all publics

Parents and families. The number one constituent group. Involved families can effectively advocate for schools with the general public. Often, informed parents are among the best ambassadors. Most parents want to know three things:

  • What is my child supposed to be learning and doing?
  • What progress is my child making?
  • How can I help my child?

Facilitating ongoing involvement with families, with a clear focus on improving student achievement, is perhaps the most critical step schools can take to engage the community. 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. Encouraging family directories to help parents communicate among themselves is empowering and further strengthens the building of a school community.

Community/lay people (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 in the goals and values of publicly funded education.

Students. An often overlooked public. They will be more involved and supportive of the board if they understand the goals and purposes of education beyond their own personal course of study.

Employees. Principals, teachers and every other employee of the 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 places on helping other stakeholders do so too. Staff play a key role in promoting community partnerships. Principals, in particular, are leaders in the school community –building their capacity to engage with families and supporting them in being the positive, welcoming face of the school is a vital investment for the board to make.

French-language communities. For French-language 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, reducing assimilation of francophone students and enriching sustainable development for all sectors of that community.

Policy-makers. Comprised primarily of legislators and locally elected officials. The less involved and informed they are, the greater the influence of single-issue, special interest groups.

Special interest groups. Many a director or board member spends an inordinate amount of time and resources responding to small but vocal and energetic groups. They deserve and need to be a part of the process and debate.

Community agencies and services. Building partnerships with agencies such as those providing children’s mental health services, local police services, multicultural associations, aboriginal organizations, 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 in their strategic plans for student achievement.

Conclusion

“It takes a village to raise a child.”

  • TRADITIONAL AFRICAN PROVERB

In public education terms this truism reinforces the necessary partnership among families, schools and communities in giving children the best possible start in life as well as the skills and knowledge to achieve success in an increasingly complex global environment.

Other Resources

Equity and Inclusive Education in Ontario Schools, Guidelines for Policy Development and Implementation (2009) www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/policyfunding/equity.pdf

Parents in Partnership, A Parent Engagement Policy for Ontario Schools (2010) www.parentinvolvement.ca/Ontario%20Parent%20Engagement%20Policy%20Sept%202010.pdf

Ontario First Nation, Métis and Inuit Education Policy Framework (2007) www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/aboriginal/fnmiFramework.pdf

Sound Foundations for the Road Ahead, Fall 2009 Progress Report on Implementation of the Ontario First Nation, Métis and Inuit Education Policy Framework (2009) www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/aboriginal/SoundFoundation_RoadAhead.pdf

Handbook on Citizen Engagement: Beyond Consultation, Canadian Policy Research Networks (2008) www.cprn.org/doc.cfm?doc=1857&l=en accessed October 31, 2010

Aménagement linguistique: A Policy for Ontario’s French-Language Schools and Francophone Community www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/document/policy/linguistique/guide/index.html

Best practices in public engagement, Alberta School Boards Association (2009) www.asba.ab.ca/files/pdf/best_practices_report.pdf accessed October 31, 2010

Useful and practical public feedback on community engagement in education is also found in:

Summary Report: Summit on Public Involvement in Public Education, Alberta School Boards Association (2009) www.asba.ab.ca/files/pdf/summit_summary_report.pdf

Notes

Effective practices of many school boards in Ontario were relied upon in the development of this module. This is gratefully acknowledged by OESC-CSEO.


  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. 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).  ↩

  3. Engaging first Nations Parents, Lise Chabot, chiefs-of-ontario.org/Assets/Engaging%20First%20Nations%20Parents.pdf accessed October 8, 2010  ↩

  4. Thinking Differently: Recommendations for 21st Century School Board/Superintendent Leadership, Governance, and Teamwork for High Student Achievement, Richard H. Goodman and William G. Zimmerman, Jr. http://www.nesdec.org/research_dev/ThinkingDifferently.mht  ↩