By CSBA President Xilonin Cruz-Gonzalez
It’s often said that parents are a child’s first teacher. Most parents embrace this role but look forward to a break from those duties when their kids are at school. This year, there’s no reprieve for the vast majority of California’s parents and caregivers as more than 95 percent of the state’s students began the 2020–21 school year with distance learning. While students receiving on-campus instruction has increased slightly since then, most families are contending with online learning for the indefinite future. This reality means that schools must place additional emphasis on engaging parents and caregivers and helping them support students.
Research shows that parent engagement efforts have profound and positive effects on a student’s scholastic experience. Schools that prioritize strategic parent engagement see gains in student achievement that correlate with the level of parental participation. This is doubly true now that barriers associated with distance learning have deprived many students of in-person instruction.
Inequity in our society and our schools predates COVID-19, but the pandemic is exacerbating the problem and creating greater challenges for our schools. The families who are most likely to bear the brunt of this economic downturn are often the same families who are on the wrong side of opportunity and achievement gaps. They are frequently families with two working parents and limited funds for tutors or time for “pods.” They are often the families who lack broadband access or enough devices to allow their children to participate fully in distance learning. As a result, these families are at risk of becoming disengaged from the school system with children who are losing ground to the standards they need to master for academic success.
Even in more affluent areas, families are struggling to juggle the demands of their regular jobs and navigating their children’s distance learning. The potential for people to check out from the public education system, and for those of means to find another way to educate their child is tremendous. This is a critical moment. Public schools are auditioning for the public’s trust right now. Succeeding in this audition begins with strong parent engagement so they appreciate our values, they understand we have their children’s best interests at heart, they know our plan for student success and they have faith in our ability to make it a reality.
There are ways we can assist parents, lighten their burden and empower them to be even more effective partners in their children’s education. In addition to providing a platform for parents to share their experiences, the National Association for Family, School, and Community Engagment provides recommendations for effective engagement during the pandemic. The list is comprehensive, and I encourage you to read it in full on their website, but also want to share key points here because they are so valuable.
- Champion equity and diversity: Include the perspective of a wide range of families when developing engagement plans, communicate in their preferred language and method, and collect and analyze disaggregated data so you can offer differentiated supports.
- Value and support families as decision-makers: Develop two-way communication about familial needs and provide a menu of options so parents and caregivers can choose one that makes sense for their circumstances.
- Build the capacity of educators to effectively engage families: Provide educators the time, resources and professional development to establish and strengthen relationships with students and families.
- Provide families with access and resources to be learning partners: Offer training, resources and tools that reinforce how parents can support learning at home and strive to provide all families with access to technology that supports distance learning.
- Support family well-being: Leverage partnerships with community-based organizations, private companies and other governmental entities to address needs which can undermine familiar stability and interfere with learning, such as food and housing insecurity.
No list of strategies will work perfectly for every school, but there are universal themes in effective parent engagement that can serve as a foundation as you devise a plan tailored for your community. If you haven’t developed a comprehensive parent engagement strategy, now is the time to start. If you haven’t revised your existing strategy to account for the impact of COVID-19, there’s not a moment to waste. This is a defining moment for public schools. The families we serve need help and are watching carefully to see how we respond.