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Parents reflect on Harvard Family Engagement Institute and the work ahead


As part of the Road Map Project’s focus on parent engagement, a regional team attended the inaugural Harvard Family Engagement in Education Institute held in August 2014. The region’s 40-person group included parents, community-based organization leaders, teachers, principals, superintendents and school board directors. The primary goal of the institute was to equip participants with tools that help build practices and a culture for utilizing the knowledge families bring to improving student achievement. The participants are excited to continue building momentum in our region around this important work.

Two parents—one from Seattle Public Schools, the other Kent School District—who attended the institute as part of the “Road Map 40” graciously offered to share their reflections on the institute and the work ahead. Thank you, Christine King and Mai Tran! Please read on to learn about their journeys and perspectives.

Guest Blogger: Christine King

First, I would like to say thank you to the Road Map Project and Seattle Public Schools for this great learning and team-building opportunity. Wow, what an experience going to Harvard with 39 other dedicated people from South King County — teachers, administrators, family engagement coordinators, superintendents, school board members, community partners and families — to learn together about family engagement!

Being a parent in the public education system can be a challenge. Over the 11 years I have had kids in school, I have become increasingly engaged and increasingly committed to advocating for students through improved family engagement. Over the years, many outstanding teachers, parents and community members have taught me and led me along the way.

I started off volunteering in the classroom, cleaning up the art station and refilling the paper and paint trays. I then started volunteering with the PTA, helping with events and coordinating other volunteers.  But one of my children was struggling in school and I did not know what to do. No amount of PTA volunteering was going to help with that. Thankfully, my daughter had a teacher who I think fits the description of “natural ally.” This teacher reached out to me. She listened and helped me know how to support my daughter at home. She helped me to see when my daughter needed more help than she could get in her general education classroom. This teacher engaged me in the learning every chance she had.

Struggling to support my own children, I looked around our South Seattle neighborhood and I hoped for more success for all our students. Then I saw a news article about the Road Map Project. The description of the work being done inspired me. I went to one of the Education Results Network meetings. I remember Anthony Shoecraft standing at the podium talking about family engagement; he stated the difference between involvement and engagement. This was the first time I had heard someone make this distinction. This is, I have come to understand, an important distinction.

At Harvard, we studied family engagement. We learned about the Dual Capacity-Building Framework, and going Beyond the Bake Sale. We also learned about “natural allies,” like my daughter’s teacher, and assessing readiness. We learned about the evidence from the Consortium on Chicago School Research that shows family engagement is one of the five essential supports for school improvement. At Harvard, we also built partnerships, collective action and local energy for family engagement in South King County.

I came back from Harvard with my brain full and my head swimming. My learning at Harvard helped solidify for me how important it is for both school/program staff and families to have opportunities to build capacity for partnerships. It made clear to me how important it is to have shared learning and reciprocal value in the relationships. Both the staff and the family have to be valued in the relationship for what they truly bring. As a parent, I need to be a partner not a client. I need to be someone who staff do things with not for.

Many in the community were excited to hear about the learning that went on at Harvard and I think we are all excited to share what we have learned and to put the learning to work. My hope is that what we are now referring to as the “Road Map 40,” all of us who were able to learn together, will be a ground swell of teaching and learning for staff and parents throughout our region.  My hope is that becoming an engaged parent and engaging parents will become the standard for our region and we all will be able to support all our students in many new exciting and wonderful ways.

Now another school year is beginning. Children, staff and parents are back at the school together. I feel an invigorating energy in the air. There is a new energy for family engagement in my community — an energy that speaks to people in their native language and values different cultures, an energy that brings parents and staff together.

I look forward to the ongoing work and again I say thank you for the opportunity to learn together!

Guest Blogger: Mai Tran

When I was in school in Vietnam, I was always one of the top 10 students in my class. My father told me, “Keep up the good work! I will send you to America for college.” Twenty years later, I was in America but I didn’t have the chance to go to an American college yet. Instead, I decided to share my dream with my daughter. We agreed she must go to a university.

I have tried so hard to support her, to guide her and to find the best way to achieve higher education. It has not been easy. I unfortunately did not have good luck like other parents. No teachers reached out to me. I had to reach out to them. I learned day by day and was alone doing so. I wanted to be involved but after I paid for a PTA membership during the first school year, I never saw or heard from them again. Then the next school year, I wrote another check for PTA membership. I never attended any PTA meetings because I was never notified of when or where they were held. It may be that the invitations were sent home but I didn’t know what they were, or that I received phone calls in English that I didn’t understand. It could have been that the school didn’t need me there. I can never know.

I had been to many school conferences but the only sentence I really understood was, “Your daughter is doing well.” All I could do was to whisper, “Thank you,” and go home. There were a lot of questions in my mind but I didn’t know how to ask. An interpreter was never provided at that time. I can tell those with the same problem now, “Yes, I have walked a mile in your shoes. I have been through it. And now, I’m here to help.”

The Kent School District’s Parent Academy for Student Achievement (PASA) program is my dream come true. I decided to join the PASA program after learning its curriculum. A year later, I became a facilitator. It was interesting and I actually learned from my participating parents, too. I was selected to attend the Family Engagement Conference at Harvard. I had been asked to study the book Beyond the Bake Sale before leaving for Harvard. Thanks to Dr. Borishade who “strictly” made me do my “homework” until the last day in town. The book gave me a clear vision of how family engagement works and how important it is to build strong family engagement in each school, district and community.

At Harvard, I was among dedicated educators, administrators, superintendents, principals, teachers and parents. I was so nervous at first, and then I asked questions and shared my work experience and had good feedback from colleagues. I was so proud to share PASA with other national educators.

I have learned more about the recently released USDOE Dual Capacity Framework for Family-School Partnerships, and building the capacity for effective family engagement. I am also interested in the new tool for linking family engagement to student learning. One session, “Parent – Child Learning Clubs,” featured a great model to involve parents in their child’s learning. Mr. Ficken, principal at Emerald Park Elementary, asked if I could come to his school and help with Vietnamese parents. My answer is YES, Mr. Ficken! I’m glad you were there in the session.

My challenge before I went to Harvard was how to engage parents who don’t want to be involved. Some parents who are hard to reach might work two or sometimes three jobs, and don’t know or understand why their child is failing in school. I have some of the answers now. I will reach them when the opportunity comes along.

We are the parents coming back home from Harvard. We can do it. We can work together and find an effective way to engage the families. The knowledge we have gained at the institute, our own experiences and the great support from the Road Map Project will help us to succeed. We are the voices. We will shout out to all other parents, “Here is one of the best ways to lead your child to achieve higher education.”

I would love to have a place for all parents to sit down and share ideas with us about their children at home. How do they take care of them at home? What makes them proud of their child and how do they support those who have not found a way to express their needs? Parents, please share your dream with your child, their teachers and school staff. Please come in and share the partnership with our schools and demand that your children reach for the moon. Even with my struggles in getting involved with my daughter’s education, my efforts did pay off. In June this year, I got to see her on stage at Husky Stadium accepting her Bachelor’s Degree at the age of 21. I am one proud mother.

I also want to share with you that we are ready to expand PASA to 13 schools and to include the high school level this year. Go PASA!