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It's elementary, but family matters

It's elementary, but family matters

SUNDAY, March 01, 2020
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PARENTING LOVELAND, Colo. - Soft instrumental music played in the background as families walked into the gym at Laurene Edmondson Elementary School about 5:30 in the evening. Dani Roquett, a school psychologist, held four colors of notes as she greeted kindergartner Ellison Hutt: "Hey, love. Do you remember what the zones are?"

Each morning, kids at Edmondson pick a color for the "zone" they're in that day - green for happy, blue for sad, red for mad and yellow for scared. This evening, the children showed their parents the routine. Ellison and her dad picked green; Ellison's mom took yellow, signaling to her daughter it was OK to be a little nervous at the big event.


The evening event was not the classic school fundraiser or social. No one from the PTA begged for donations; the kids didn't dance across the stage in costumes. The goal was to connect with busy families in a more meaningful way: showing parents what's happening in the classroom and, critically, how they can support learning at home.

The school calls the events, held twice a year, GET Togethers - Guaranteed Education Teams. The name captures Edmondson's intention to elevate parents as team members in their child's education.

In keeping with that spirit, the evenings are designed to be far more interactive than a typical curriculum night, in which teachers run through what they'll be teaching that year. Last fall, the students explained new homework policies. At another event, teachers taught parents math games to play with their children. In January, adults could attend two 30-minute workshops on topics including how to set limits and understanding trauma - topics the parents had suggested themselves.

Investing time and creativity in getting parents involved often pays off. Out-of-school factors weigh heavily on student success, studies show, and research indicates family engagement can lead to higher grades and test scores, improved attendance and better behavior.

And yet surveys suggest most teachers find it challenging to connect with families.

Many schools rely on traditional back-to-school nights or parent-teacher conferences to gauge whether parents are engaged in their children's learning. At schools where parents don't show up for PTA meetings or volunteer to chaperone field trips, it can be a blame game: Teachers think parents don't care, and families say they don't feel welcome or valued.

Laurene Edmondson Elementary wants parents to be partners in their child

But at Edmondson, the focus on building relationships is grounded in research showing that trusting relationships with families can improve learning outcomes. The 220-student school extends personal invitations to events, solicits parent input, communicates in Spanish and works to get families basic resources, including groceries, when they need it. In some cases, teachers and school staff even visit families at home, a practice that's gaining traction in schools, such as Edmondson, that serve vulnerable populations.

Laurene Edmondson Elementary wants parents to be partners in their child

"I have never met a parent who didn't care about their children or value education - but they may not show it in ways that white, middle-class people would expect," said Anne Henderson, a senior consultant for the National Association for Family, School, and Community Engagement, based in Alexandria, Virginia.

One study of 71 high-poverty schools found that when teachers were active in outreach to families, students' reading and math scores improved at a 50 percent faster rate in reading and a 40 percent faster rate for math. What worked? Meeting every family face to face, sending materials home for parents to use to help their children and staying in regular touch with families on kids' progress.

"The more we can educate parents and are all speaking the same language, the more powerful it is going to be for kids and easier to be moving toward the same goals," said Trish Malik, Edmondson's principal.

Initially, Malik relied on traditional meetings to get parent feedback. She convened a "school accountability committee" an hour before PTA meetings to make attendance convenient, but turnout was low. Malik said it felt like she was presenting information for a stamp of approval rather than having a dialogue.

"I felt very fraudulent saying I was going to get input from my parents when only one or two people showed up and they, honestly, didn't represent the majority of my population," she said.

At the same time, the school population was changing. By 2016, almost 70 percent of Edmondson's students received a free or reduced-price lunch and came from low-income families. A decade ago, less than a third of the school's students came from low-income families.

Malik brainstormed with her team about a more creative way to reach families. One that centered on listening. The idea for the GET Togethers emerged from parents' suggestions. They wanted meetings to be more interactive and to equip them to help their children with academics. Feedback generated changes in traffic patterns for drop-off and pickup and triggered the addition of more after-school programs.

The whole staff has embraced the effort to be more hospitable. The school's office manager, April Hoyland, says a cheerful hello to everyone who walks through the front door. "One of my goals is to learn every student's name and every parent's name," said Hoyland, who last year turned her desk to face the entryway to be more welcoming.

Colorado has been a leader in family engagement policy and provides support to districts to promote evidence-based practices. Last year, it established an Office of Family, School and Community Partnerships in its education department, led by Darcy Hutchins, who said having a dedicated role at the state level and legislation gives the issue traction.

"If a district is doing a family night or a carnival, I say that's a great starting point," Hutchins said. "I encourage them to look at the overall school population. Are you getting the two-parent white family, or are you getting everybody? When we say every, we mean every."

Several studies demonstrate the positive link between family engagement and student achievement. An analysis of 100 public schools in Chicago with strong parental involvement found that students were four times more likely to improve in reading and 10 times more likely to improve in math than at schools in which ties to community were weak.

Last year, Edmondson began offering home visits to all kindergarten families. About half of the families agreed to the 30-minute informal chats. Kindergarten teacher Erik Hagan said the meetings were invaluable to establish rapport and get a glimpse into his students' world. "Some parents can be intimidated by school and by us going to their home first and visiting with them, I feel it's more comfortable," Hagan said.

Once those relationships are established, educators said it's easier for teachers and parents to tackle challenges that may arise.

Tiffany Rodriguez and her husband are raising four children, along with three nieces and nephews, ages 3 to 16. She doesn't hesitate to text or call to alert the school before drop-off if her nephew is having a rough morning. "They are always on top of it, getting back to me if he still has a bad day, texting me, calling me - or letting him call me," she said. "They are respectful and kind and they love the kids."


Maria Carsi, another Edmondson parent, said she learned how to better communicate with her four children - and especially manage bedtime struggles - in parenting classes sponsored by the school district and promoted by family engagement liaisons at Edmondson. The six-week session, conducted in Spanish, her primary language, was held at the Loveland Public Library. As a bonus, the location prompted her to get library cards for the family.

Since trying these approaches to connect with families at Edmondson, informal parent perception surveys show the school is on the right track. While there have been no big boosts in test scores, growth rates in student achievement have increased slightly in recent years and the school has begun to meet state performance measures.

Robin Campbell, the mother of a fifth-grader at Edmondson, moved from California to Loveland because of its small-town community vibe. She and her husband regularly volunteer and attend Edmondson's evening events, because the message is clear that parents are welcome. "It's always, 'How we can help you at home and how you at home can help us at school,' " Campbell said. "It's a collaboration."