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Zenub Kakli and Holly Kreider, from HFRP, together with Tania Buck of BOSTnet and Caroline Ross of the United Way of Massachusetts Bay, illustrate how family engagement practices and programs can link the out-of-school time, school, and home contexts by fostering communication, respect, and networking among staff and families.1

Evaluation research suggests that engaging families in out-of-school time (OST) programs can improve program outcomes, adult–child relationships, and family involvement in schooling. Yet most OST programs lack a structured family involvement component, in part because programs face many challenges in involving families, such as linguistic differences, lack of program funds, and parents' busy work schedules.2

Through OST programs, the Engaging Families Initiative (EFI)3 aims to increase family involvement, engagement, and leadership in children's informal learning and academic achievement. Lead EFI collaborators—BOSTNet and the United Way of Massachusetts Bay (UWMB)—have partnered with nine OST program sites in greater Boston primarily serving Black and Latino children ages 6–10. EFI provides these programs with coordinator cohort trainings, research on best practices and successful models, individual technical assistance, initiative-wide events, and connections with local resources.

In their efforts to distill and disseminate lessons from their work, EFI partners have teamed up with Harvard Family Research Project to produce a guide for OST professionals on how to engage families.4 Site visits and review of evaluation data have already yielded preliminary lessons:

  • Engage families in a variety of ways. EFI coordinators talk to parents about children's progress at parent meetings, at pick-up time, and over the phone. Parents also benefitt from workshops and events highlighting strategies to support children at home. Some program staff accompany parents to school meetings, strengthening the linkages between home, school, and programs. Trips to museums and theatres appeal to parents seeking enrichment opportunities, while math and literacy workshops appeal to parents who want support for helping their children with homework. A range of activities and strategies helps programs reach more parents.

  • Emphasize relationships and respect. EFI leaders and program coordinators often speak of the value they place on community, care, and relationships. Some staff describe how prioritizing families' needs and showing parents respect can facilitate the partnerships between families and programs. For example, one program holds parent workshops on pursuing college and provides a listening ear to parents facing personal challenges. A genuine understanding of and commitment toward families serves as a starting point for effective family engagement strategies and represents a broadened view of meeting children's needs.

  • Be part of a network that supports OST programs. Programs affiliated with EFI gain from its structure and support system; they also receive up to $10,400 a year from the Wallace Foundation, distributed through the UWMB, to offset the cost of materials, equipment, and staffing. Program coordinators meet nearly every month with EFI's project director to discuss topics ranging from effective communication with families to developing parent leaders. These meetings are convened by BOSTnet, which also plans meeting topics. Representatives from EFI also visit affiliated programs to help address challenges and offer suggestions for improving program operations. Program coordinators have voiced their appreciation of the EFI network as a source of new ideas to implement at their own sites.

  • Evaluate family engagement efforts in OST programs. The Intercultural Center for Research in Education is evaluating EFI. The Center has interviewed program directors and parents to assess what programs are doing to engage families, how often, and how well. Parents were asked about their satisfaction with the program and about their suggestions for program improvement. The evaluation findings are being used to inform EFI program activities and grantseeking pertaining to family engagement, development of the OST guide mentioned above, and other OST initiatives and future investments by UWMB and BOSTNet.

A parent in one EFI program expressed the mutual benefits of engagement when she described the program as “a family” where people have been able to relax and develop respectful relationships with one another. This parent has been involved in the program since its beginning and volunteers as the program's bookkeeper. She is so committed that she plans to continue volunteering even after her son stops attending the program.

1 To learn more about BOSTNET and the United Way visit their respective websites: and
2 James, D. W., & Partee, G. (2003). No more islands: Family involvement in 27 school and youth programs. Washington, DC: American Youth Policy Forum.
3 The Engaging Families Initiative is funded by the Wallace Foundation as part of its Parents and Communities for Kids initiative.
4 The guide will be available in winter 2005 and will highlight other strategies, lessons, and stories for engaging families in OST programs. To request a copy in advance, provide HFRP with your mailing address by emailing or calling 617-496-4304.

Zenub Kakli, Research Intern, HFRP

Holly Kreider, Project Manager, HFRP

Tania Buck
Project Director,Engaging Families Initiative, BOSTNet

Caroline Ross
Senior Director, Community Impact, United Way of Massachusetts Bay

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© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project