Coffee Break: Kenya Bradshaw on How to Know When a School Is Doing Family Engagement Right

Jan 17, 2018 12:00:00 AM

by Tanesha Peeples

I recently had a chance to talk with The New Teacher Project's Kenya Bradshaw. We talked about which school districts are doing things right, how to reach out to families and—the big question: coffee or tea?

Do you drink tea or coffee? How do you take it?

Definitely tea. I love tea. I take my tea with honey or cane sugar. I enjoy collecting honey from different cities.

Which districts are doing family engagement correctly? What are they doing?

There are districts all across the country that I believe are modeling authentic community engagement. District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), Brevard Public Schools in Florida, Lorain City Schools in Ohio, Tulsa Public Schools in Oklahoma and the Houston Independent School District in Texas, are just a few of the districts in the U.S. that are reimagining the role that families and communities can play as true partners to support all areas of district success. All of these districts have a few things in common. First, each superintendent prioritized family and community engagement as absolutely essential to the core work of the district, and they set clear and measurable goals which they track continuously through the use of data. Secondly, they engage families in almost all decisions facing schools and students. Nothing is deemed to small—from school lunch vendors, bus schedules and start times to strategic plans, academic initiatives and school-level improvement. Most importantly, they engage in a continuous healthy feedback loop in which they are building relationships with families, gathering their feedback and then sharing back details about how that feedback was used in the district or school’s decision-making processes.

How do you measure success? How do you know it’s working?

Many schools and districts simply tend to measure turnout at family events. But while it is important to monitor turnout so that you can further refine your outreach strategies, attendance at events should not be the only metric that is examined. Turnout is not engagement. Instead, districts and schools should monitor how families and community members are moving through the engagement cycle—from participation to advocacy and greater leadership. You should also monitor the impact of engagement efforts on student outcomes. Districts like DCPS and Denver Public Schools do a great job with this and have good data that shows the direct impact of engaged families on student reading and math scores.

Are teachers responsible for family engagement? Is that too much to ask of them?

Teachers have a crucial role to play in family engagement. They’re usually parents’ first and most trusted source of information about their child’s education. But this is not work teachers can do on their own. They need a support system around them at the school level and at the district level. One fairly simple way schools can provide that support is to make sure teachers have ready-made resources and materials that they can share with parents who ask about how they can get more involved in the school community. For example, schools can help coordinate a schoolwide calendar of events that’s published prior to the start of the year, so parents know when every spaghetti supper, reading night, math night and movie night is at the beginning of the year. Schools can also provide a set of suggested resources for how families can help student learning at home.

Do school districts really believe in family engagement or do they resist it?

I have never met a superintendent who said they thought community engagement was not important, but as with so many issues, actions speak a lot louder than words. And many districts’ actions reflect a discomfort with engaging authentically with their communities, or a lack of understanding about how to do it well. I’ve encountered many districts that don’t know how to effectively engage their parents or broader communities. And I’ve encountered others that do not invest in the professional development of the staff who oversee family and community engagement as they do with the staff of other departments—which suggests they’re treating community engagement as more of an afterthought, intentionally or not. This is unfortunate, because the data is so clear. Increased family engagement in education is linked to higher grades, higher test scores, better attendance, decreased suspension and expulsion rates and the increased likelihood of high school graduation.

Do parent-teacher associations work? Or do we need a different model?

Yes and yes. I believe in PTAs—as a former PTA president, I know the model is one that works. I also believe there is no one way we should be engaging parents, just as there is no one way we should be educating students. We need multiple models that are developed by and with communities—models that are constantly refreshed so that they evolve just as communities evolve. One new model that I am extremely impressed by is the work that Gary Briggs is leading in New Orleans, Ed Navigator. This model is where employers sponsor support for their parents to take parent support to them when and where it is convenient and to serve as a translator of information of some of the complex information that schools send. This work excites me!

How did you get into this work? What drives you to press on in the most difficult times?

This work began as a personal journey for me. My oldest niece, who is now 21, was in kindergarten and was not reading or writing. We kept being told it was OK and she would grow out of it, but we knew something was different and we kept asking questions until we got her the support she needed. I realized then that it was hard for parents and communities to navigate districts. I became a community organizer, and that is what drives me even in this role. I get the privilege of still going into schools and talking with parents, and I see so many who are struggling to get the support they need from their schools or get answers to basic questions. That’s a problem schools can solve, and we know that solving it would have a big impact on our students’ success. So to me, this work is social justice work, and it’s at the heart of our mission to end educational inequality.
Photo courtesy of Kenya Bradshaw.

Tanesha Peeples

Tanesha Peeples is driven by one question in her work—“If not me, then who?” As the former Deputy Director of Activist Development for brightbeam, Tanesha merges the worlds of communications and grassroots activism to push for change in the public education system. Her passion for community and relentless mission for justice and liberation drive her in uplifting and amplifying the voices and advocacy of those that are often ignored. Tanesha wholeheartedly believes that education is the foundation for success. Her grand vision is one where everyone—regardless of ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender or ZIP code—can have access to a comfortable quality of life and enjoy the freedoms and liberties promised to all Americans. And that's what she works towards every day.

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