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Family engagement is crucial for student success and well-being. Research has shown that family engagement leads to stronger academic performance, higher graduation rates, and improved behavior. Family engagement can have as big an impact on test scores as a high-quality principal or rigorous curriculum. Despite this potential, many schools and districts still struggle to implement impactful policies and practices for family engagement. School boards play a significant role in creating environments that foster strong family-school partnerships. One tool to help is the National Standards for Family-School Partnerships.
The National Standards for Family-School Partnerships have set the bar for effective family engagement for over 25 years. Based on best practices and research, these standards are a concrete guidepost for family engagement across the education system. They have been used by PTAs, schools, districts, state education agencies and even the U.S. Department of Education for accountability and support for effective family engagement, including as the foundation for PTA’s own School of Excellence program.
The National Standards highlight six key elements to strong family-school partnerships:
- Welcome all families
- Communicate effectively
- Support student success
- Speak up for every child
- Share power
- Collaborate with the community
Over the past year, National PTA updated the National Standards for Family-School Partnership to not only reflect new research and best practices, but also to uplift the voices of families across the country to shape schools’ family engagement efforts. Reflecting on the National Standards as a school board can help create a more inclusive, accessible, and impactful governing body. As school board members, you can use the standards to guide your own practices and ask your administrators and educators to do the same.
Using the National Standards in board practice
School boards can welcome all families and communicate effectively by intentionally reaching out to underrepresented families and prioritizing accessibility. You and your colleagues can share power with families by creating systems for soliciting meaningful feedback and responding to concerns that are raised. Consider these ideas:
Engage your constituents through informal group and one-on-one conversations. Conversations with the community can be a powerful way to learn about your constituents’ experiences and their needs. Lynn Boswell, an Austin Independent School District board member in Texas, highlights the need for this type of listening:
“No matter which part of our city or district we serve, we’re here to take care of every single child in our district,” says Boswell. School board members, she adds, should create space for families to share their perspectives outside of official board meetings. “It really requires spending time with all families and talking about their hopes and dreams and what they want for their kids. There’s power in listening to families, trusting that they have valuable information to share and honoring them as a valid source of knowledge for our district.”
Create protocols and opportunities for public comment. Public comment offers opportunities for families to share their perspectives and enable board members to discover insights about the school system from a family’s vantage point. Beyond listening, the board should consider the feedback they receive as they make policy.
Katrina Long, a Phenix City School Board member in Alabama, says, “Dialogue is important. It gives our community a sense of belonging and a sense that their opinions and ideas matter, because they do. We want to make sure that it goes both ways—we’re allowing them the opportunity to give us feedback and that we’re implementing solutions based off what we hear in our town halls.”
Make meetings and documents more accessible. Providing translation and interpretation is essential to ensure families can understand the information you’re disseminating. To increase in-person engagement, school boards also can consider offering child care to families who attend and hosting meetings in locations and in ways that make it easier for families to attend.
Ohio’s Berea City School Board made board meetings more accessible by streaming them live. School board member Heather Zirke shares the impact of this decision. “I know that many more people are viewing our school board meetings,” says Zirke. “There’s a lot of commentary on Facebook and it’s increasing community engagement around what is happening in the schools.”
Ensure your advisory and governing bodies represent the families in your community. One way that school boards often get input from families is through advisory or working groups, either generally or by topic. School boards also should examine who sits on their committees and how they can be more inclusive. If the same people are on these committees year after year, school boards risk overlooking different perspectives in their community.
In the Austin Independent School District, school board members are creating new ways to ensure that their advisory bodies better reflect the district’s diversity. The application for these committees is now available in Spanish. The staff member who works most closely with advisory bodies also has looked to see which campuses have been underrepresented on the district advisory council and is working to address that. They also are including more students in their work—something that has been especially successful with their long-range planning and bond steering committees.
Questions to consider
How does your school board communicate effectively with families and the wider community? Can all families in your community access your school board’s meetings and notes regardless of the language they speak or any special accommodations they may need?
What mechanisms does your school board have in place to share power with families and consider their viewpoints when making policy decisions?
What policies has your school board implemented to speak up for every child and support the needs of your most underserved students?
Use the National Standards in school and district practices
As a school board member, you have the power to strengthen your community’s approach to family-school partnerships. While the implementation of family engagement policies may fall under district officials’ jurisdiction, the school board can prioritize this work in a variety of ways. The school board can earmark funding specifically for family engagement activities or budget for a position at the district-level that oversees family engagement. School board members also can examine existing policies and create new policies that embody the principles of the National Standards. Consider these ideas to put these standards into action in your community:
Create a family engagement-focused position at the district level. Invest in a position focused on family engagement to build capacity for the work at the district level. While the job responsibilities will vary based on community needs, this employee can play an important role in providing guidance and support to schools and connecting family engagement to other departments like curriculum and instruction. This person can help to build relationships with families in the community and make sure that they have a voice in decisions affecting their children. Family engagement often operates in many different departments at the district level, which can create issues if there isn’t an individual or team to help direct and coordinate the work.
The Berea City School Board recently created a hybrid family engagement and justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion position. Zirke highlights the importance of the position: “Everybody already has their roles and so we want somebody who is going to be devoted to the work and will intentionally include parents and teachers in driving it forward.”
Adopt a family-school partnership policy and revise existing policies and documents to better address the needs of families and children. School boards can use PTA’s Model Family-School Partnerships School Board Policy to create a policy around the adoption and implementation of these standards. This can be the foundation to enhance family engagement in the district and provide administrators with clear benchmarks for effective family engagement.
Maryland’s Frederick County Board of Education established a Family/Community Involvement Policy in 2006 and updated it in 2020, acknowledging that a child’s education is a shared responsibility. The policy states that, “Schools, families, students, and the community are expected to work as knowledgeable partners to accomplish the mission of the PTA National Standards for Family-School Partnerships to successfully educate all students.”
School boards should regularly review existing policies and documents that establish rules, regulations, and norms and update as needed to ensure you are best serving your community. Establish a process to include students, families, and community members in updating outdated policies. Then take it a step further by creating systems to monitor the implementation of the National Standards at the school or district level.
Questions to consider
Does your school board have existing policies that address family engagement? If so, are they helping the district achieve what the policy intended to achieve?
Where in your district offices does family engagement work happen? Is it clear who is responsible for engaging and supporting families?
What goals does your school board have around family engagement? How can you write a policy that can help the district achieve these goals? How could an additional district-level position support those goals?
Everyone in the school system plays a role in creating environments that enable every child to reach their full potential. As school board members, you establish the vision and goals for your district, and you decide what issues to prioritize.
How will you prioritize family-school partnerships to support students in your community? Consider starting with one of these three tips:
- Create a vision for school success that includes effective family engagement and set concrete family engagement goals.
- Develop a policy that requires the implementation of the National Standards for Family-School Partnerships to advance family engagement in your district.
- Budget for a dedicated employee in your school district who is focused on strengthening family-school partnerships.
More resources on the standards are available at www.pta.org/standards.