Engaging Families and Communities as Indispensable Partners
The past 18 months have made clear just how blurred the lines are between young people’s home lives and school lives
— and how indispensable families and community partners are to the success of both individual students and schools.
During the pandemic, parents and grandparents organized and supervised their kids’ learning in ways they never had
before. In some districts, schools became community hubs, connecting families to services and directly dispensing
supports like grocery gift cards, books, and study kits. Zoom-based lessons gave teachers a glimpse into their
students’ home lives, and vice versa. Community-based organizations, such as the YMCA and Boys and Girls Clubs,
provided safe spaces for kids to learn, making their staff partners in student learning.
As we shift from pandemic response to recovery, education leaders must build on lessons learned during the pandemic
and continue to establish and maintain strong, two-way relationships with families and the school community.
Education leaders should consider leveraging federal recovery dollars to:
“Education leaders should reach out to
families and the community-based organizations that support
them to find out which services and initiatives were most helpful and which can be improved.”
Find Out What Worked for Families This Year and What Can Be Improved
Families in each community are best positioned to tell education leaders which 2020-2021 initiatives to continue.
Education leaders should reach out to families and the community-based organizations that support them to find out
which services and initiatives were most helpful and which can be improved. This outreach should be the start of an
ongoing and sustained feedback loop that allows education leaders to get regular feedback about community needs and
services being offered.
Share Information in Multiple, Easily Digestible Formats, and Translate It into Multiple Languages
A key lesson of the pandemic is just how imperative strong communication between schools and families is to student
engagement and success. Parents and grandparents could not ensure that their kids logged in to remote classes if
they did not know when or where those classes would take place. They could not support their children in completing
and submitting assignments if they did not know what was expected of their kids or how to use the school’s remote
Of course, the need for strong communication is not new, nor will it end as we shift from pandemic response to
recovery. In fact, in a recent survey of Massachusetts families, 93% indicated that frequent updates about how their
child is doing academically would be useful in helping their child catch up.
Education leaders can leverage federal dollars to maintain and strengthen communication with families by, for
qualified interpreters or contracting with interpretation service providers to ensure that
all communications can occur in a family’s preferred language and interpreters and live translations are
available for all relevant meetings;
- Establishing or maintaining an education navigator program (see these examples
Tennessee, and Salem, Massachusetts) to stay in regular contact and maintain two-way communication with
- Establishing or maintaining hotlines that families can call with questions or problems;
- Training educators in culturally responsive communication and setting clear expectations for
regular outreach to families;
- Purchasing technology infrastructure to make it easier for educators to reach
out to families in multiple formats, in their home language; and
- Creating additional communication channels to different communities through the use of
one-to-one phone calls, text messaging, hotlines, emails, community newsletters, partnerships with
community-based organizations’ communication networks, home visits (if safety allows), and establishing
relationships with local radio and TV stations, including linguistically diverse media.
Continue to Leverage Technology and Provide Training to Families on How to Use It
This past year, districts worked to ensure that all students had the devices and internet access needed to
participate in remote learning, helping to bridge the long-existing digital divide. They also offered training and
other support to families on technology use. Even as more students return to in-person learning, access to devices
and the internet will continue to be critical to students’ academic success and families’ ability to access
important educational, social, and health services. Districts should continue to invest in one-to-one device access
for all students, work with their city governments to ensure high-speed internet access for all families, and offer
training and technical support to help all families — including those who do not speak English and those who are
housing insecure — use technology.
“Districts should continue to invest in one-to-one device access for all students,
work with their city governments to ensure high-speed internet access for all families,
and offer training and technical support to help all
families — including those who do not speak English and those
who are housing insecure — use technology.”
Education leaders should also continue to leverage increased familiarity with technology to improve communication
and connections between schools and families. For example, this past year, virtual back-to-school nights and
parent-teacher conferences significantly increased participation in some districts, removing barriers, such as
transportation and the need for child care, that often hamper families’ ability to attend. District and school
leaders should continue to offer virtual engagement options for families, such as hybrid back-to-school nights, Zoom
meeting options, and hybrid school committee meetings. Importantly, virtual options will not negate scheduling
challenges (such as work conflicts) for families. Education leaders should strive to offer a variety of meeting
times to families, including times outside typical work hours.
Do Not Discontinue Resources Offered to Families This Year
In focus groups conducted by MassINC earlier this year, parents expressed appreciation for all of the additional
resources offered by their schools this year, including school supply kits (paper, markers, etc.), grocery gift
cards, and free flu shots. One parent noted that “There are a lot of needs and people’s pride get[s] in the way and
they don’t ask for help, but [schools should] have those [resources] available for families that do need it.” Many
of these needs predate the pandemic and will likely continue to be a reality for many families. Schools can use
federal dollars to continue to provide these relatively inexpensive, but highly valuable supports for families.
Establish or Maintain a School’s or District’s Role as a Community Hub
Schools cannot, and should not be expected to, solve all of society’s challenges or meet all of the needs of
students and families. In many communities, however, schools are key points of regular interaction with families.
This means that schools are well-positioned to function as connectors between families, community-based service
providers, and other agencies. A school social worker, for example, might not be in a position to help a family
navigate an eviction threat — but they could connect the family with a local housing advocate.
District and school leaders can leverage federal funding to build their capacity to serve as a community hub for
families. Education leaders can take the following steps:
- Conduct an assessment of community assets — e.g., organizations and other resources that can
help support families. These should include after-school/out-of-school time providers, local health clinics,
faith-based organizations, housing and economic security organizations, etc.
- Establish a district-level rapid-response team whose job it is to connect families with
services in the community and statewide. Note that districts will need to find state and local funding to
support any new roles/positions after federal funds expire.
- Provide training to all staff involved in connecting families to services
outside the school system on protecting family privacy and safety, particularly when any family
member is undocumented.
|Questions to Ask as an Advocate:
- How did you gather input from families about what worked for them this year and what could be
improved? What did you learn?
- How are you meaningfully communicating with and receiving feedback from parents and families?
- How are you ensuring that families hear from you and can communicate with you in their preferred
- What resources can/will you continue to provide for families? How will you make accessing
resources easier for families?
- What structures are in place to help connect families with other organizations/resources in the