Illinois PTA has focused on creating meaningful family engagement for years, as truly engaged families can make a significant difference in student success. National PTA recognizes its importance, too, having launched The Center for Family Engagement four years ago. Now, a new report from our friends at Learning Heroes further supports what PTA has been saying for years—meaningful family engagement is critical to student success and schools need to get better at it.

Unlocking the “How”: Designing Family Engagement Strategies That Lead to School Success builds on past Learning Heroes research to highlight the importance of building family-school partnerships. Teachers, administrators, and families all want to build better and stronger relationships between home and school, but are often at a loss about how to do so. This report works towards answering that “how” question.

While family engagement has long been recognized as an important part of student success, it has far too often been rendered to a simple checkbox item on a teacher’s to do list: send home a classroom newsletter. Despite its importance, most teachers never receive any instruction in how to engage families—not during their teacher training and not during continuing professional development. Most rely on learning from what fellow teachers do.

The approach featured in the report recognizes that creating meaningful family engagement requires building capacity on both ends of the process, with both teachers and families. The report identifies three pillars of an effective strategy to create meaningful family engagement:

  1. Place trust and teamwork at the center of the home-school relationship.
  2. Anchor family engagement strategies in student learning and well-being.
  3. Invest in building systems and structures that enable this work.

Pillar 1: Trust

Trust comes from working together, but far too often the conversations between teachers and families are brief, infrequent, or negative. Add to that the myth that families of color or with low incomes do not value education (73% of teachers believe “some families are just not interested in supporting their child’s education,” while 78% of Black and 87% of Hispanic parents believe it is “absolutely essential” or “very important” that their child goes to college), and trust can be hard to find or to build.

Among the approaches identified in the report that can help build trust are helping staff members identify and work through biases they may have when communicating with families, prioritizing listening to parents and caregivers, meeting with families (even through Zoom), and proactive and regular communication. Families need to know that when the school or a teacher contacts them, it is not just because their child has done something wrong.

Pillar 2: Student Learning

Family engagement isn’t an end in itself—it’s an ongoing process to improve student learning and well-being, and it is important for schools to focus on this approach. If family engagement is done simply to engage families, it becomes that checkbox item that a newsletter was sent home or a family event was held. What the report illustrates is that what families want from family engagement are an honest picture of how their child is doing (even if it isn’t positive) and how to support their child with the things they need help with. That means that schools’ family engagement efforts should focus on how teachers and families can work together for student success and well-being, such as joint goal setting and tracking.

Pillar 3: Infrastructure

Finally, meaningful family engagement cannot happen without ongoing support from schools. The report identifies three critical areas where schools can focus their efforts to build systems and structures that support meaningful family engagement:

  1. Systemic: Embraced by leadership across the organization (school and district)
  2. Integrated: Embedded in all strategies
  3. Sustained: Ongoing resources and infrastructure

While Illinois has some family engagement standards and even created a family engagement framework, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) has largely ignored the issue of family engagement since creating the framework in 2015. In fact, family engagement is nowhere to be found on the ISBE page for families and students and the framework can only be found through the search box. This is a prime (negative) example of how schools must incorporate family engagement throughout everything they do if it is to be a priority.

What PTAs Can Do

PTAs and PTA Councils can play an important role in helping your school or district work towards meaningful family engagement. Here’s how your PTA can help:

  • Share the report with your principal, superintendent, and school board members.
  • Enroll your PTA and school in the National PTA School of Excellence program (enrollment for the 2022-2023 school year starts May 1st).
  • Work with your school or district to use PTA programs to actively engage families in their children’s learning.
  • Ensure that PTA has a seat at the table for all district committees so that the voice of parents is represented in all district decisions.