Increasing Family Engagement in Diverse Schools

I know first hand what it is like to grow up as an English-language learner and saw what a difference it made to have parents who were able to connect and engage with teachers. On a very personal level I understood what we now know from decades of academic research: That family engagement is the key to greater learning outcomes.

As an adult, I have made it my life’s purpose to remove the barriers to family engagement. In 2015, I founded TalkingPoints, a non-profit whose mission is to drive student success by unlocking  the potential of families to fuel their children’s learning, especially in under-resourced, multilingual communities. We do this through a multilingual platform that helps teachers and families communicate in 100 different languages through two-way translated messages and personalized content.

One in four US children is born to an immigrant or refugee family. Over the course of our work in partnership with teachers, schools, and districts, we have learned a lot about increasing family engagement in diverse schools. These lessons are especially critical now that so many schools have shifted to remote learning. In fact, in our most recent TalkingPoints survey, the vast majority of respondents — 73% of families and 93% of teachers — said regular communications between teachers and families were more important now than ever.  (You can download the report detailing survey findings, Family Engagement and Covid-19 Distance Learning: Data & Insights from the Field,  here.)

Below are practical tips to help build stronger, more meaningful relationships in your school community:

  1. Two-way communications channels are critical. You cannot drive family engagement by relying on one-way communications channels. That’s not how relationships work. Families need to be able to respond, ask questions, express concerns, and provide feedback. They need to feel understood and heard. Encourage families to share information with teachers – 83% of teachers believe that because of their relationships with parents they are better informed about their students’ needs.
  2. Personalization is key. If your school community includes immigrant or refugee families or families from different backgrounds, remember that they are often used to feeling like outsiders in our schools because of the significant cultural, language or even educational barriers. They may assume or feel as if the flyers and messages meant for parents in general are not really meant for them in particular. Any efforts to personalize outreach and make individual families feel as if the message is intended for them, personally, is likely to pay off in spades.
  3. Text is best. If you want to reach all families, SMS texts are the most accessible approach. Older parents or those with white collar jobs might be used to responding to email, but younger families or those with limited devices are far more likely to respond to texts. In the TalkingPoints survey referenced above, we found that almost two-thirds of families preferred text messages when receiving communications from teachers. And while 33% of English-speaking families said that they preferred email, only 22% of Spanish speakers reported a preference for email. Spanish speakers were also more likely to prefer phone calls (9%) or video calls (6%) than English speakers (phone 4%; video 2%).
  4. Don’t let the language barrier (or perfectionism!) get in the way. Any communication is better than none. Families are usually quite grateful for any effort to communicate in their language. They feel heard, seen and cared for. If your school or district doesn’t offer easy communication methods or multilingual resources, encourage your teachers to at least try TalkingPoints when reaching out to parents. It is free for teachers. Check with your principal and district, too. TalkingPoints is already deployed across dozens of districts and schools nationwide and may already be available to your school.

Last spring’s distance learning has taught us more about the power of family engagement and strong home-school connections than the mountains of academic research papers written on the subject. Distance learning blurred the lines between teachers and families and increased empathy and understanding. Thrust into a more active role to help with their children’s online learning, parents realized teaching is harder than it looks. Teachers developed more empathy toward parents, too. Some had to wear their professional teacher hat while supporting their own children’s learning at home. Others got a better understanding of their students’ life circumstances after reaching out to ask about device and WiFi accessibility. Teachers learned which families had lost jobs and were struggling to keep kids fed and which were working double shifts and unable to provide supervision. Many teachers forwarded information on food banks; some even dropped off groceries. Remote learning underlined what we suspected all along: When it comes to raising and educating children, we are all in this together. And the “family engagement” muscle we all built this spring is the silver lining that will help us drive better student outcomes this fall and beyond.

Jan Harp Domene: A Legacy

It is more than a positive coincidence that as part of my responsibilities as chair of the Diversity, Inclusion and Outreach Committee, I am privileged to administer the Jan Harp Domene Diversity Award, named after past National PTA President, Jan Harp Domene.

Many in PTA knew Jan, particularly during her time as National president (2007-2009). My involvement with Jan began when I was appointed as an At Large Board of Directors member by president Shirley Igo. I quickly got to know Jan through her many PTA activities in California and nationally. She immediately impressed me as a knowledgeable, passionate and dedicated PTA advocate.

When I first joined the Board, I thought I would serve a couple of years and be done with National PTA. That changed after I had a heartfelt conversation with Jan, who helped me understand what PTA volunteers bring through their time and talent. I now understood why she gave so much of herself to PTA, and she became an inspiration to me about how to make a difference. I’m now well into more than 16 years of volunteering for National PTA.

Knowing Jan made my PTA time so much richer, and well before becoming president, Jan demonstrated her commitment to diversity through her words and actions. She and I shared many goals in bringing more diversity into PTA, seeing it as a real opportunity to grow PTA and continue to have it be relevant to the needs of children and families. It was no surprise that Jan made diversity a key priority during her presidency, supporting the Urban Family Engagement Initiative and Emerging Minority Leaders program. I know that Jan was personally responsible for mentoring, encouraging and developing new leaders for PTA.

We miss Jan deeply after her unexpected passing, but there is no better tribute than the award named after her. It is a core program of the Diversity, Inclusion and Outreach Committee, and it has been very rewarding to recognize the diversity efforts of PTAs at all levels. More than recognition, the chance to promote high quality work is especially valuable. The Award fits in with the Diversity Toolkit to welcome many underserved communities. The Award winners have shown what can be done with imagination and dedication in building bridges to the families and communities they serve.

Sharing these success stories is a resource in itself – PTAs understand the value of learning from each other. The programs that are recognized are highlighted at National PTA Annual Convention & Expo at the Awards Ceremony, and at the following morning’s Diversity Breakfast. We have featured a winning program in depth at the breakfast, hearing directly from those involved how they built their accomplishment. Last year our State PTA winner, the Real Talk from Florida shared their excitement and passion about their program, and we all left with new insights to take home. Our council/district/region winner, Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District Council PTA and our local unit winner Garfield Elementary PTA were also honored the breakfast and Awards Ceremony.

We continue to grow the Jan Harp Domene Diversity Award – for the first time this year, National PTA will be giving $1,000 to the winning PTAs at the state, regional / district /council, and local levels as well as offering the application in Spanish. It is a major investment in recognizing the role of diversity, and what it brings to PTA.

Those who already know PTA understand its value – our true mission now is to bring that message to more communities, and encourage our entire PTA family to make diversity a special effort. We know, as Jan Harp Domene did, this is what will make us all a stronger PTA community.

Checking in with one of last year’s winners:

Garfield Elementary PTA’s Co President, Rocio Munoz has been hard at work since winning the 2017 Local Unit JHD Award. “JHD opened up many doors for our PTA, giving us visibility in local media and bringing forth new partnerships. The Corvallis-Albany branch of the NAACP found out about our national award and our efforts toward diversity and inclusivity and recognized us at their meeting. We didn’t realize the great resources and grant opportunities National PTA has to offer or that our efforts could go beyond PTA. This was an eye-opening experience! Since JHD, we’ve been awarded 3 additional grants!” Read more about Garfield Elementary: http://www.gazettetimes.com/news/local/naacp-honors-garfield-pta-for-diversity-and-inclusion-award/article_d9a9a31a-37ef-511f-b6b1-522d4e552cb2.html.

Frank Kwan is a PTA leader and the Chair of the Diversity, Inclusion & Outreach Committee. 

Honoring Jan by Honoring Diversity and Inclusion

At the end of February, we lost a tireless advocate for this association, but most especially someone who had devoted her life to making the world a better place for our children. During its March meeting, the National PTA Board of Directors approved the recommendation of the Diversity Committee to name an award focused on diversity and inclusion for Jan Harp Domene. Nothing, absolutely nothing, could be more fitting. Jan had a deep seeded passion for ensuring that everyone was included and treated with respect and fairness. She was someone who did not just ‘talk the talk’ – no, Jan did much more; she ‘walked the walk.’

You have recently had the opportunity to read about her many accomplishments, as well as her contributions as our National PTA President, 2007-2009. What I want to offer is some insight into Jan as a person worth knowing, as well as to Jan my friend.

I first met Jan when she served as NPTA Secretary-Treasurer during Linda Hodges’ administration (2003-2005). As Tennessee PTA president, I had the chance to work with her on a number of occasions and even had the good luck to have her serve as Nat Rep to one of our conventions. What I remember best about those first interactions is Jan’s warmth and sense of humor. Being around Jan could be such fun!

In the years that followed, our relationship grew from mere acquaintances to one of complete friendship. We traveled together, roomed together on occasion, sat up late into the night sharing our lives – in essence we shared a special bond, a deep friendship. There is something so remarkable about a person who can at once lead an association such as ours and also sit with you deep into the night to share all your secrets. But that was Jan!

More than that, Jan taught me many things about what it means to be a leader. It was her passion to ensure that the National PTA Board began to reflect the children and families of this country. Jan showed me that diversity does not just happen – we must work to make it happen. With each appointment to the Board and to committees, she made a conscience choice to guarantee that we would begin to set a standard for others to follow. It left an indelible mark on how I would choose to lead in the future.

When I got the call that Jan had died, I was speechless, shocked – it had to be a mistake. Her husband, Greg, asked if I could share some thoughts about Jan at her memorial. To say that it was one of the toughest things I have ever done would be an understatement. How do you sum up such a special gift as Jan in just a few minutes? Here are the words I shared at the memorial:

To know Jan meant so many things — above all was her love and devotion to Greg and her family — and her passion for her work.

Jan never went in to anything unless it was to succeed. She did not know the word “failure.” She could be a tough task master in the very best way — especially, when it came to PTA — and her passion for its ideals, and for our work.

Yet, she could be extremely thoughtful, especially in the way she could remember the little things.

In early December, we were able to spend one of those ‘perfect’ days together. We went to Newport Beach to have lunch and shop – it had been such a long, long time since we were able to spend that kind of time together. In the evening, we went to dinner at a favorite restaurant, Lin Chin’s, with Greg, Kris, Cali, her favorite niece, and friends – the family. And I was part of the family – we had such an incredible time — food, fun and laughter — it was quintessential Jan!

As she took me to the airport the next morning, she gave me an early Christmas gift – a Lenox china star, which reads ‘Believe.’ Jan believed in her family, in her mission as an advocate for children…..Jan believed in me.

I want to share her note with you, because it is so ‘her’ – “Remember we have a whole country of children depending on us and the work we do. Stay focused on them — and always believe in yourself. I am always here for you….Whatever!”

Her legacy is in the family that she loved ….in her California roots….it is in her tireless devotion to every child in this nation. Jan served as our National PTA President – one of only handful of individuals that have ever held that honor. She has left an indelible mark on an association that would not have been the same without her leadership.

Jan believed in the ‘all’ – not just the ‘one.’ She believed in the ‘end’ — not just the ‘beginning.’

Most of all, she showed us the value of a “single” life and how important each one of us truly can be in making a difference.

Our memories of the people we have loved are truly how we keep them alive. I have wonderful memories of Jan – our friendship wasn’t always smooth, but that is what made it all the richer. She was in many ways the big sister I never had – as I was part of her family, she was part ours. Mary Frances’s wedding would not have been the same with her and Greg!

It would mean the world to Jan to know that she will be remembered to future generations of PTA leaders and members through this award.

My friend, Jan, made a difference to me – much more importantly, she made a difference in PTA that will only continue to enrich and grow our association until we finally are truly reflective of the children and families that we choose to serve. Just as she dreamed!