In Burrell School District, where educators are introducing competency-based learning with sixth grade students and planning to roll it out for seventh grade, the new approach necessitates a new understanding among parents.
In Cornell School District, where a sharp demographic shift has swelled English Language Learners from a few students five years ago to 10% of the student population, educators find themselves trying to reach parents whose own language barriers limit participation in their children’s school activities and future planning.
Though the issues confronting these districts are very different, both see increased efforts to engage families as part of their approach to tackling them.
The two are among six districts getting support for their work on family engagement as participants in our Collaborative for Student Success, an initiative that the Richard King Mellon Foundation has funded as part of its priority to stimulate economic mobility for youth in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties.
Others in the group are Deer Lakes, Greensburg Salem, Jeannette City, and Woodland Hills school districts. These districts are looking to increase family engagement for purposes ranging from communicating about a shift to Standards Based Learning in Greensburg Salem to reducing absenteeism in Woodland Hills.
The value of developing and undertaking the initiatives in collaboration can’t be overstated, according to district leaders.
“It’s huge,” said Woodland Hills Curriculum Director, Eddie Willson. “It’s just the sheer level of knowledge in the room when we gather; you’ve got decades and decades of experience in the room, as well as the fact that it’s a very solutions-oriented group.”
Burrell’s Director of Curriculum and Development, Autumn Turk, Ed.D., agreed.
“I love that we get feedback from each other when we share out what our plans are,” she said in a recent interview, noting that working on common problems with multiple districts across two counties also fosters “a renewed kind of energy.”
Additionally, Turk said she benefits from working with community partners the Consortium has brought in to assist the Collaborative, including evaluators from Indiana University Pennsylvania and media specialists from SLB Radio, which will be producing audio recordings that capture student and community voices.
In Burrell, plans are to increase family engagement through small group meetings and follow-up surveys across communities with widely varying socio-economic profiles, Turk told those attending the Collaborative’s February meeting. The idea is to build connection by meeting parents where they are rather than on site, which can be intimidating for some and raise barriers like transportation for others, she said.
Although any increase in family engagement that the community meetings stimulate will help build understanding of changes the district is making, the main purpose of the meetings is to elicit issues and concerns on parents’ minds, Turk said.
Cornell has used surveys to assess families’ interests and needs and now plans to offer English language classes to parents in partnership with Literacy Pittsburgh.
The language barriers for Cornell’s immigrant families have stood in the way of “even the simplest district messages, like weather delays or school bus route changes,” Kris Hupp, Director of Technology and Instructional Innovation, said in an interview following the Collaborative’s February meeting. “And then, of course, there are even deeper conversations [needed] around academics.”
The English language support is designed to “help connect with them,” Hupp said, and to help the families connect, not only with their children’s schools and teachers, but also with a variety of resources, “everything from food to the internet.”
Participating in the Collaborative has helped, he added. “It’s given us the chance to really step back and look at the issues and really be strategic.”
The give-and-take of the group “is always helpful to get some fresh perspective,” he added. “Even though the context is different in some ways for different districts, it’s similar enough, and it’s always helpful to find out what’s working for other districts.”