A Colorado school district took a team approach to partnering with immigrant families in their children’s education.

By Kristen Davidson and Madeleine Case

Recognizing that school-family partnerships can have a powerful effect on student outcomes, many K-12 educators are moving their work with families from the periphery to the center of their school improvement efforts. So too have many federal, state, and district policy makers made this work a priority in recent years. However, this renewed attention to family partnerships has surfaced some thorny questions about the nature and purpose of such partnerships: What resources do local educators need in order to work effectively with families? What, exactly, are the goals of those partnerships? And perhaps most important, who gets to define those goals, and who decides how they ought to be pursued?

Traditionally, teachers and administrators have taken the lead. While they may gather input from families, keep them informed, and offer them a welcoming school environment, they tend to be the ones who decide how families should be involved in their children’s learning. However, while the most common forms of family engagement (such as encouraging parents to attend school events, serve as classroom volunteers, and participate on fund-raising committees) tend to line up well with middle-class child-rearing practices and family resources (Lareau, 2003), they can be less accessible to families who have recently arrived in the United States, or whose child-rearing practices differ from those of school leaders. Traditional forums for family leadership, such as the PTA and other committees, can feel unfamiliar, uninviting, and insensitive to families’ schedules, resource constraints, and practices (Delgado Gaitan, 2012).

As districts and schools refocus their approaches to family partnership, it is becoming clear that families must have real opportunities to help define this work. At a surface level, this can facilitate buy-in to schools’ goals and practices. At a deeper level, meaningful partnerships lead to better student outcomes while also permitting schools to become centers of democratic participation.

Such family-school partnerships can be challenging to create, but they are more than worth the investment. Below, we give a brief picture of the research-based practices that have informed our work, then we share an example of an attempt to build family-school partnerships in local schools.

Research-based practices

Effectively pursuing family partnership first requires that educators examine and expand their own knowledge and beliefs about families. Because public school teaching, leadership, and governance tend to reflect white middle-class norms, educators may not be aware of the variety of child-rearing practices that exist in their school communities. For example, the Mexican concept of educación refers not only to children’s academic progress but also to their social and moral development (Valdés, 1996). If educators assume that the main purpose of working with families is to promote academic achievement in the classroom and at home, they can miss other important ways in which Mexican American and other immigrant families support their children’s development, such as by seeking out advice from trusted members of the community or by participating in church or other community organizations (Poza, Brooks, & Valdés, 2014).

Just as trust is central to any school improvement effort (Bryk & Schneider, 2002), trusting relationships are foundational to family-school partnerships, perhaps especially so to those who experienced their schooling in Mexico and Central America (Auerbach, 2011). While many educators in the U.S. work hard to create safe and welcoming environments in their schools and classrooms, the strength of their relationships with families varies widely. Developing trusting relationships more consistently throughout the community can be critical to working more effectively to support all students (Mapp, 2003).

In addition, family partnerships require educators to reexamine current structures and processes. For example, not only does communication from the school need to be accessible and understandable, but families also need to be able to voice their needs and perspectives effectively through a variety of channels (Swick, 2003). Beyond increasing families’ participation in traditional school events and practices, educators can work with families to consider new possibilities for family-school connections. Doing so means involving families in decision making and being willing to embrace a participatory, democratic model of schooling in which stakeholders share power — a model that can be slower and messier than schools directing family partnership efforts, but ultimately more successful. When families’ needs are heard and understood, the school can become a social center that is a source of support for the school community (Dewey, 1916).

Because these practices — developing trust, strong relationships, mutual respect and understanding, two-way communication, participation in decision making, and efforts to use the school as a community center — have a strong evidence base (Henderson & Mapp, 2002), they have informed our own work on the introduction of school-based teams focused on family partnership.

Because public school teaching, leadership, and governance tend to reflect white middle-class norms, educators may not be aware of the variety of child-rearing practices that exist in their school communities.

Not just another district initiative

As a researcher and a district leader with a mutual interest in family and community partnerships, we partnered to study how school-based teams build such partnerships. Madeleine Case, as director of a family-school partnership district initiative, drew from models of school-based and parent leadership teams to develop a pilot program called Families and Educators Together (FET). She invited schools with relatively high proportions of multilingual students to participate, and four elementary and two middle schools agreed to do so. Principals helped to select cochairs, who then recruited community liaisons, teachers, family members, and representatives of community organizations to join. Located in or near a midsize city, participating schools served student populations that were higher than the district average in the number of students who received free and reduced-price lunch (ranging from 33 to 59%), were emerging bilingual learners (ranging from 8 to 52%), and were from racial or ethnic minorities (ranging from 32 to 71%). Four of the six schools offered Spanish-English bilingual programs.

The all-school kickoff meeting of the program — held in Spanish — introduced a model of family partnership that extended beyond traditional parental involvement practices. Monolingual English speakers listened to a translator through headphones and followed an alternative presentation of the slides in English, centering the Spanish speakers in the room. Teams shared their dreams for students, then created action plans that specified three goals aligned with their school improvement goals (common goals included improving literacy, developing social-emotional learning, and building trusting relationships) and defined the ways in which they would work with families toward those goals. As teams were situated in schools with differing capacities to take on new initiatives, they have built on their strengths and worked through common challenges.

Team chairs and members quickly realized that the FET team pilot was not just another district initiative. The district offered a great deal of flexibility for the teams in defining their own goals, structures, and processes. Team chairs and members were deeply committed to the importance of family partnership. In the first year of this pilot, the following themes emerged regarding the teams’ ability to effectively strengthen relationships, elevate traditionally marginalized family voices, and make progress toward their goals.

Sharing decision-making power

Highly effective FET teams had school leaders who were committed to the work, recognized family partnership as an important aim, and were willing to share decision-making power with other educators and family members. It was more difficult for teams without strong support from school leadership to recruit and retain team members and gain traction in their work. In these cases, however, team chairs took ownership over the work and made sure their teams took important steps toward family partnership in their schools.

A questionnaire we administered to FET team members and the family surveys that some schools administered indicated that their schools had welcoming environments and had multiple ways of ensuring communication with families was accessible and understandable. Less clearly present, however, were trusting relationships, educators’ knowledge of the ways in which families supported their children’s education, and families’ opportunities to participate in decision making.

Taking family partnership to this deeper level requires educators to broaden their focus from one of including all families in school-led practices to one of developing trusting relationships and sharing power over school decision making. Empowered middle-class families already tend to view their relationships with educators as partnerships and actively participate in school decision-making contexts (Davidson, 2014). Extending this partnership to all families, however, means more than inviting them to be included in predominant practices; it means learning about families’ practices, building trust, and co-creating what family participation in their children’s education looks like.

Developing trust and relationships

Schools with well-established relationships among administrators, teachers, and immigrant families were more successful in recruiting and retaining team members from traditionally marginalized groups and in making progress toward their goals. All teams, however, recognized the need to develop relationships and trust between educators and families as an aim in itself. Importantly, team members reported that families might feel welcome in the school, but they were less confident about the strength and consistency of educators’ relationships with families.

In the FET teams’ first year, teams focused on community building as a foundation to develop relationships. Because all teams were working toward a literacy goal, most held literacy nights that fostered community in a fun atmosphere, provided free books, and empowered families by modeling reading strategies. Other community-building events included Zumba classes, a workshop on morning routines, and an outdoor education retreat for Latin American families.

In response to widespread feelings of anxiety about immigrant status in these schools’ communities, many teams also hosted information nights for families to learn about their constitutional rights and to complete family-preparedness plans in the event of an emergency. Through these events, these schools became a resource in response to families’ needs and established themselves as a safe space that families could trust. Especially when fear is elevated, acts such as these provide a basis of trust from which educators and families who are jointly committed to children’s well-being can deepen their relationships with each other.

Elevating the voices of marginalized families

Bringing family partnership from the periphery to the center likewise means centering and elevating the voices of families who traditionally have been marginalized in school communities. Doing so first requires listening to families’ needs and perspectives and learning about the ways families support their children’s education. The school may need to create new two-way communication channels to collect family input and promote mutual understanding. When families’ voices are valued, they are more likely to step into leadership roles in the school community (Delgado Gaitan, 2012).

Many K-12 educators are moving their work with families from the periphery to the center of their school improvement efforts.

The FET teams offer one space where traditionally underrepresented families are stepping into leadership roles. For three of the schools, the team is offering an important “counter-public” space for Latino family leadership (Fraser, 1990); the other three are aiming for diverse representation that reflects the whole school community. Recruiting traditionally marginalized families to participate on teams and take part in team leadership, however, proved to be one of the most challenging parts of these teams’ work.

As one school leader suggested, it might be more effective to begin with educators and families who already have strong connections in the community and work from there to recruit broader membership. Including and elevating voices can take time as the school community develops trust in the team’s aims and work. The visible, intentional commitment of the FET teams to family partnership, however, has been felt in schools in ways that are gradually encouraging broader participation.

Building family partnership through school-based teams

Teams began the year in very different places with regard to their understandings about partnering with families across a variety of cultural identities. As teams set out to work on family partnership, the need to better understand families in their school communities and to reconsider structures and processes for participation became clear. Through dedicated district leadership, bimonthly meetings of team chairs, the integration of research-based practices, and collaborative work together as teams, many of their understandings have shifted from an initial focus on increasing attendance at events to designing new ways to develop relationships and include families in decision making.

When families’ voices are valued, they are more likely to step into leadership roles in the school community.

To address the need for shared understandings about family partnership within and across teams, the second year of the FET teams pilot is integrating research-based training for team chairs and school leaders. Team leaders attended an initial foundational training in which they learned about research findings and considered how to apply key family-partnership practices related to developing authentically caring relationships (Valenzuela, 1999). Bimonthly chairs’ meetings have continued to expand on building trust and reciprocity in educator-family relationships.

Drawing from teams’ experiences and the knowledge they developed in the program’s first year, they revised their goals and action plans for year 2 to be consistent with principles of effective family partnership. As they move forward, chairs and team members are considering the knowledge, beliefs, structures, and processes that can help to build more effective and equitable family partnership in their schools, while allowing the flexibility to be responsive to their own communities.

Just as principles of trust, mutual respect, and shared decision making are central to family partnership, they are essential to team collaboration as well. Depending on their schools’ contexts, some teams aimed to balance the representation of school leaders, teachers, family members, and community organization representatives, while others focused mainly on increasing family representation. In either case, dynamics of status and identity will likely influence group deliberation (Davidson & Moses, 2012). It is important that teams establish mutually agreed-on norms, such as equal participation, commitments to attend meetings or contribute outside of meetings, processes for decision making, inclusion of multiple languages, and so on. Teams must revisit these shared commitments and their aims for family partnership regularly, perhaps through a mission statement that they can share with the rest of the school community. Opportunities for reflection should be built into teams’ norms such that teams are continually examining their knowledge, beliefs, structures, and processes.

Educators who have worked with demanding families might not be eager to develop relationships and share decision making with adults. School leaders also might find it hard to embrace a slower and messier family partnership process in the face of accountability demands and limited resources. However, developing relationships and sharing decision-making power with families who traditionally have been marginalized is well worth the investment. Ultimately, when schools are able to tap into the unique roles and expertise of educators and families, children benefit.


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KRISTEN DAVIDSON (kristen.davidson@colorado.edu) is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Colorado Boulder, School of Education. MADELEINE CASE (madeleine.case@bvsd.org) is the former director of parent and family partnership at the Boulder Valley School District in Colorado.

Originally published in March 2018 Phi Delta Kappan 99 (6) 49-53. © 2018 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.