Authentic family engagement begins with partnering with parents

How can early learning programs create an open environment for parents to become equal partners at their child’s school?

This was the topic of conversation at the Educare Learning Network’s first Intensive Family Engagement Institute held in Oak Brook, Ill., on November 6-7, 2017.

The two-day institute brought together 120 staff, parents and partners from Educare schools across the country to reflect and learn together. Participants collaborated to discuss school data that informs family engagement practices at the schools and a logic model and theory of change about intensive family engagement. They also identified areas for improving practice and developed school action plans that will ultimately lead to improved outcomes for children and families.

Refining and sharing Educare’s approach to intensive family engagement

Parents and school staff had the opportunity to explore and provide feedback on Educare’s refined approach to intensive family engagement.

“Educare has intently focused on defining our approach to intensive family engagement in the last few years,” said Portia Kennel, senior advisor for the Buffett Early Childhood Fund and founding executive director of the Educare Learning Network. She described how the Educare model has evolved from focusing on parent involvement to family engagement, and that the Network continues to test, learn and advance this approach.

“Because we are a learning Network, we have an obligation to share with each other and to share with the field what we’ve learned,” Kennel said. “It’s time to take these ideas and implement them in the community and share with each other and the field.”

Building parent-staff relationships

At the institute, parents and school staff reflected on the importance of establishing strong relationships with each other and partnering together.

“These are intentional relationships that create a strong bond between our children, parents and Educare,” said Jaime Monroe, Educare Winnebago parent.

Building mutual trust and relationships with school staff can also be a big step in parents’ journey as advocates for their children.

Educare Denver parent Rex Canady shared how he has carried his experience at Educare with him as his child transitions to elementary school. He wants to gather other K-12 parents to advocate for more open staff and parent communication, as well as more opportunities to be involved at their schools.

“Hopefully we have empowered many of our families to go and advocate because they have had those earliest experiences as a parent in Educare,” said Nick Wechsler, program director, Educare Learning Network.

Continuously improving family engagement

School teams, including school leaders, master teachers, family support staff and parents, provided feedback on the new family engagement logic model that will help Educare to improve its approach.

School teams also collaborated on how to continue to improve at their individual schools. Each school left with the start of action plans to reach short and intermediate-term goals for their children and parents.

“Our team was excited to devote two days to exploring how we can enrich our family engagement practices and culture,” said Chris Amirault, school director at Educare Tulsa at MacArthur. “We returned with some challenging, but well-defined problems to address, and we’ve already made plans for a small number of powerful solutions that we’re rolling out in our professional development training.”

Amirault said his school’s complete family engagement plan will roll out in the coming weeks. “We’re sure that we’ll be able to partner more effectively with the families we serve as a result!” Amirault said.