Photo Courtesy of St. Stephen’s Youth Programs
By Karen Levin
The Family Engagement panel at EdVestors’ 18th Annual Showcase featured a variety of speakers who highlighted the importance of the continuing partnership between parents, schools, and communities. Speakers included Estephany Almanzar, a parent organizer at St. Stephen’s Youth Programs and parent of a student at Blackstone Elementary School, Ada Avelar-Martinez, Resource Center Coordinator at St. Stephen’s Youth Program, Steve Desrosieres, Family Education Coordinator at Boston Public Schools’ Office of Family, Student and Community Advancement, Clara Lucien, Second Grade Teacher at Kenny Elementary School, and Liz Steinhauser, Director of Community Engagement at St. Stephen’s Youth Program.
The panel overviewed Boston’s history of education (Steve Desrosiere explains in detail here), describing how parents have had central roles in organizing and advocating for their children’s education. They expanded on meaningful ways to involve and collaborate with parents in providing a more effective and hands-on approach to education for students and families.
Parents in the classroom, Teachers in the Home
As education in Boston turned remote in March of 2020 amidst all the challenges of teaching and learning in a remote environment, one bright spot was that parents were able to see directly into their children’s classrooms. Parents were naturally more involved in their child’s classroom (Zoom-rooms) as teachers saw into students’ homes. Second grade teacher, Clara Lucien, of the Kenny school expressed that “without family support a lot of the work we did would be really hard.” Ms. Lucien shared that her typical math class is very interactive. She worked this year on developing her own teaching and as a 2020 Zeroing in on Math Teaching Fellow to ensure the knowledge from parents was brought into remote classrooms. “Math should not only feel like words or symbols on a page or a screen” Ms. Lucien says, “but should be viewed kinesthetically, comprehensively, and critically.” That task, though difficult in the remote/hybrid classroom, has been made possible through partnerships with parents.
Parents as Partners
While COVID created a virtual window into classrooms, St. Stephen’s Youth Programming has, for some time, operated as a bridge for parents and teachers in their Parent Mentor Program. Through their program, parents are trained and paid for collaborating 2 hours a day, four days per week in the classroom in additional to weekly training. This partnership between parents and teachers turns schools into vibrant centers of community and has greatly enhanced the experience for students, teachers, and parents in the education process. SSYP Parent Mentor Coordinator, and former Parent Mentor Estephany Almanzar said “Before, I was just dropping my daughter off and going to work. I didn’t really know what was going on in the school.” Now, with experience as a parent mentor, Estephany is more involved in her daughter’s education. By working in the classroom, in addition to being closer to her daughter’s education, she is able to provide support for groups of students in writing, math, and reading.
When parent engagement is strong, schools do better. Test scores, grades, and student perceptions of themselves as learners are all higher. Parents are more confident in connecting and teachers are more confident in communicating. This all leads to better results as research has readily shown as family-school-community partnerships and family engagement improve student achievement.
Amplifying Voices and Equitable Access
Director of Community Engagement at SSYP, Liz Steinhauser often discusses with parents their rights and how to advocate for what they want. During the pandemic, SSYP helped parents organize around safe school facilities, language interpretation, and compensatory services. Progress was made in all areas, with language interpretation resulting in a huge win for families who are multi-lingual. Estephany said she is now able to use her voice more effectively with the support of interpretation services.
Given the unprecedented nature of the changes to school, Boston needed to hear from the most important stakeholders, students and families. SSYP and parent advocates organized and worked to ensure BPS facilitated meetings in 9 different languages so more families are able to actively participate in the process. As a multi-cultural city, Boston’s families communicate in a variety of languages. For teachers, school leaders, and district leaders it is imperative to prioritize language interpretation so those we serve can communicate and share their thoughts on education issues. Parents and families cannot participate if they cannot understand, and leaders cannot lead if they do not hear from a diverse and representative group of stakeholders.
To best serve our communities, we need to adequately reach them
This past school year has been an important learning experience around accessibility, especially for organizations that do not frequently facilitate multi-lingual meetings. We have learned the intricacies and limitations of simultaneous translation via video conferencing, and the importance of interpretation and translation services so information can be shared in multiple languages. Flexibility has been another aspect that has been illuminated a bit more through the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, families were often expected to arrive within a given time slot during the afternoon or evening for parent-teacher conferences. Video conferencing has allowed for flexibility in the timing of connecting, removed the barrier of travel for families and teachers alike, and allowed for more frequent communication between families and educators.
Collaboration between teachers, school leaders, and families has been critical during the pandemic and we must collectively continue to build upon it. Parents always have, and will continue to be an essential part of the educational process. The Family Engagement panel made clear the importance of parent engagement, the role of teachers in communicating with parents, and the power of parent advocacy as well as a model for effective parent engagement that places parents into the classroom and enables their voices to be heard. From a teacher’s perspective, Ms. Lucien describes that “deeper engagement with families has helped more teachers to see the impact of collaboration” and that there is now heightened significance in finding ways to better communicate with parents and families.
Want to see and hear more from Showcase? Click here to view the recording and full Showcase playlist.