Two elementary school principals who work in diverse communities share their experiences engaging families. As Peter Moran of Glenallan Elementary School, in Silver Spring, Maryland, and Katie Charner-Laird of Cambridgeport School, in Cambridge, Massachusetts talk about family engagement, particular themes emerge: the importance of commitment, teamwork, and deep respect for children and their families.
Interview conducted by Amy Shillady.
Can you share some strategies your schools use to engage families?
Peter: At Glenallan a bilingual parent–community coordinator organizes parent involvement meetings, helps plan family events, establishes links with community services and resources to help meet families’ needs. Teachers encourage families to visit the school throughout the year and work together to host family events usually at the beginning and at the end of the school year. For example, first grade teachers invited children’s families with Salvadoran roots to share their tradition of preparing pupusas with other first graders and their families. This was a fun event and children and teachers learned more about the families’ culture.
We also host themed events, such as family math and STEM nights. We provide materials for families to take with them to extend their children’s learning at home.
We’ve also restructured our PTA meetings which begin with a dinner. The PTA president and I speak briefly at the beginning, and then families take the lead. Children are welcome so that families don’t need to arrange child care. We also hold monthly parent involvement meetings in the mornings.
When we show children that we value their families, we build their trust in their teachers and the school. Children feel empowered. They are proud to introduce their parents to their teachers and friends. Families feel accepted and valued and better understand and support their children’s learning.
Katie: Cambridgeport has a family liaison whose is accessible to all families to support children’s academic achievement and help to foster communication and a welcoming school climate. This support takes many forms, and can vary from one relationship to the next within the school community.
One successful schoolwide strategy has been to deliberately link family and community events to student learning. We typically have a theme tied to events. For example, we host Spaghetti Dinner and Literacy Night. These events have two main goals: bringing our community together and cultivating a love of reading. Families and children attend, we eat together, and then we provide fun activities that promote children’s literacy skills.
At staff meetings, teachers talk about effective ways they partner with families. For example, recently one teacher shared how she sends out a short email to families every Friday that highlights what children learned that week. She explained that many families really value this communication. The other teachers liked the idea, and it caught on.
Our school has a strong philosophy about honoring and celebrating all the ways families are involved. Some families want to be involved in the life of the school—attending school events, volunteering for different roles, or running for the school council. Others are engaged in their child’s learning. This means transporting their children to and from school, helping them with homework, and getting them to bed on time. We value all the different ways there are to be a part of children’s education.
I try to draw on the power of teamwork. Teachers share good ideas and work together to plan engaging events. For example, if I hear one kindergarten teacher is planning an event, I may encourage the other kindergarten teachers to get involved. And after encouraging teamwork, I find it now happens naturally among teachers.
What is the school’s overall approach to respecting diversity? What are some specific ways the school promotes children and families’ different cultures, languages, and experiences?
Peter: We value children and families’ different cultures and experiences. We focus on culturally responsive instruction. Teachers learn about children and families through surveys they give them at the beginning of the school year. Families can share about their cultures, home languages, and how their children learn best. This helps families feel invested in their children’s education from the start. And this helps teachers learn about children and families’ unique strengths and needs, which shapes how they approach children’s instruction.
We honor families’ cultures by hosting events such as international nights. Children and families bring in traditional dishes to share, and they wear traditional clothing. Everyone eats together, and families talk about their cultures.
Throughout the year, teachers invite families to visit the classroom and share their cultures and experiences.
Katie: One of the challenges we have faced in terms of family engagement has been creating events where all families from different walks of life feel comfortable and welcome. We really try to get to know families to meet their specific needs. One simple way has been to offer events at different times of day to accommodate families’ different schedules.
For those who do not speak English, we provide translators at certain events, such as family nights and parent conferences.
What are some challenges you’ve experienced and how have you addressed them?
Peter: There are real barriers that prevent some families from getting involved. Families have different work schedules, so it’s really important to offer a range of times when they can participate. Many families also need transportation and child care, so arranging to have these covered during events is crucial.
Just putting out a flyer inviting families to come isn’t enough; we never met attendance goals with this method. We realized how important it is to personally reach out to families. Making connections and building relationships is how you get families in the door.
Communicating with a population that speaks so many languages can be challenging. Fortunately our parent–community coordinator provides Spanish interpretation and translation as needed. We also provide both English and Spanish translations of all written communication sent home to families.
I can think of many successes, but I get particularly excited when I think about the field trips the fourth and fifth grade students have taken to nearby universities. For the past three years, we’ve organized these trips so that children can visit college classrooms and the dorms, and speak to staff about college life. We see how excited they get, and it feels good to plant the seed that higher education is a long-term goal for them. Many children will be the first in their family to attend college.
Katie: It has sometimes been challenging to meet the different needs of families—given the wide range of their life experiences.
However, we recently started a summer reading program to help struggling readers. Although not a large number of children and families are invited to the program, there is a high rate of involvement, even from those families who don’t come to other school events. For this reason I consider the program a big achievement. One contributing factor to its success is that families receive a personalized invitation. And despite their differences, all families want to see their children succeed.
Do you have any recommendations and words of wisdom for other schools working to strengthen partnerships with families?
Peter: The first step is to be a learner. Really listen to what families are telling you. This is how you will understand families’ real needs. Once you hear about these needs, it’s important to do your best to follow through and meet them.
Also, focus on relationships. Capitalize on opportunities to build relationships. Celebrate parents. Highlight the great things their children are doing. Families love to hear positive feedback about their children, and this will increase their desire to become involved.
Katie: It’s really important to celebrate the various ways families are involved—both big and small. We need to stop focusing on parents’ deficits, on how families don’t participate or get involved when we ask them to.
Peter O. Moran, MEd, is the principal of Glenallan Elementary School in Silver Spring, Maryland. Peter focuses on teaming with teachers, parents, and students to develop a community school that strengthens relationships by learning about children’s cultures, interests, and backgrounds; increasing educational opportunities in science and engineering; and linking character development with academic excellence.
Katie Charner-Laird, MEd, is the principal of the Cambridgeport School (preschool–grade 5) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Katie works extensively in partnership with families, as the school was founded by parents and they are integral to its success. Cambridge- port was recently identified as the number two Dream School by the Boston Globe.
Amy Shillady was the previous editor of NAEYC’s peer reviewed journal, Young Children.
Adapted from September 2014 issue of Young Children, pg. 46 – 49.