Building on over 20 years of experience training and engaging schools, families and communities, Families In Schools (FIS) began facilitating Professional Learning Networks (PLNs) in 2017 as part of the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence (CCEE) state-wide initiative.
These PLNs were designed to build on the capacity of school and district/Charter Management Organization (CMO) staff and leaders to engage families and strengthen school-family partnerships, so that families are better able to support their children academically, advocate for their children, and participate in school and district/CMO decision-making. To realize these goals, the facilitators (FIS and Californians for Justice) provided participants with the opportunity to build relationships and share strategies, resources, and tools with one another, grounding all this work in concepts of equity and continuous improvement. Below are the four key lessons that the PLN participants and facilitators learned about family engagement best practices.
Lesson 1: Authentic family engagement must stem from organizational values and belief systems, not compliance-oriented requirements.
The PLN participants are family and community engagement professionals – individuals whose jobs are focused on partnering with families. Even so, those professionals valued the opportunity to re–center families in their work. This meant reflecting upon why family engagement matters in their organizations and taking stock of explicit and implicit belief systems. Sometimes, this meant acknowledging that not all of their school and district colleagues fully “buy in” to the idea that families can be meaningful partners in improving student learning and school success. Participants tackled these challenges and others through reflection, introspection, and shared problem solving. For sample case studies, please see pages 16-18 in the Stronger Together: Lessons Learned from Professional Learning Networks on Family Engagement report.
Lesson 2: Equity needs to be front and center when families are engaged.
Schools, districts, and CMOs need to confront issues of race, bias, discrimination, privilege, and power in their communities. If they do not, families will not feel fully welcomed, included, or heard, and authentic engagement will, therefore, not happen. At multiple times during the PLNs, participants wrestled with how to fully address these systemic issues and other aspects of equity in their work. Many participants initially saw equity as an important but secondary consideration – something they would like to address after establishing baseline programs and progress. Some participants wanted to better understand the difference between equity and equality and most were eager for strategies that could help them explain that difference to others in their communities. For example, participants in the Central Valley PLN wanted to become more fluent and comfortable explaining equity to community members who feel that giving more resources to traditionally underserved students may be taking resources away from their own children, or from the majority. One facilitator said that PLN participants often experienced pushback in their communities from people who would say things like: “We are in a post-racial society. Do we really need to pour more resources into some student groups, particularly by race?”
Learn how Families In Schools and Californians for Justice addressed this by reading page 19 in the Stronger Together: Lessons Learned from Professional Learning Networks on Family Engagement report.
Lesson 3: For family engagement to truly be a priority, school and district/CMO leaders must make it visible through their staffing structures and strategic plans.
Families In Schools often asks the question, “In which department(s) does your family engagement staff live within your organization?” With this question, they open a conversation about the priorities of a school, district, or CMO which are often implied by their staffing, leadership, and governance structures.
In districts and CMOs that have family engagement professionals on senior leadership teams, it translates into an organizational culture that values family engagement. PLN participants who sat on leadership teams or who had opportunities to bring their ideas to the site and district/CMO leaders were more likely to influence LEA decisions and even orientation toward family engagement. These participants found that they successfully influenced the orientation of their school and district/CMO colleagues around family engagement. This was evidenced by their superintendents and school site principals use of more consistent and asset-based, equity-oriented language around engagement, or even just by mentioning the importance of parent and student voice more often. Learn more on pages 19-22 in the Stronger Together: Lessons Learned from Professional Learning Networks on Family Engagement report.
Lesson 4: Educational professionals are hungry for specific tools and resources to support family engagement.
Although the PLN created space for participants to solve problems together using cycles of continuous improvement, it became clear that participants also wanted specific tools, resources, and practical strategies to support their work. This was true even for participants who had been doing family engagement work for a very long time. In some cases, this was because they wanted to continue to deepen their practice and advance engagement strategies in their communities. In others, it was because they were less familiar with some of the state’s newer policies and tools like LCFF, the LCAP, and the California School Dashboard. Learn about the specific tools and resources provided to PLN participants on pages 23-25 in the Stronger Together: Lessons Learned from Professional Learning Networks on Family Engagement report.
Please note that the Stronger Together: Lessons Learned from Professional Learning Networks on Family Engagement report provides a total of six lessons. The first two lessons focused on how the PLNs strengthen their professional learning and support continuous improvement.