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FINE Newsletter, Volume III, Issue 2
Issue Topic: Emerging Leaders in Family Engagement

Voices from the Field

Jenny Ocón is Executive Director of Parent Services Project (PSP), a national nonprofit based in San Rafael, California. The agency is dedicated to engaging families in early childhood programs and schools through training, technical assistance, and education. Ocón describes how her work with PSP supports family engagement at schools and in the community.

My hope for the family engagement field in the next five years is to see early childhood programs, schools, districts, and communities adopt significantly more family-centered and family-driven policies and practices based on the real interests of those being served. Underrepresented and disengaged families are the most important to proactively reach out to precisely because their experiences may not be well-known or understood by educators—even while those experiences can critically influence how well their children do in school. Growing diversity in many communities also underscores the importance of increasing faculty and staff understanding of families’ experiences.

Family–school–community partnerships are essential to children’s success in school and in life, and this notion is becoming more widely valued and embraced by a larger set of stakeholders, including educators, funders, and elected officials. This is a positive development, and reflects a growing body of research that shows children do better academically and socially when families are involved and communities are strong. Yet our current context also includes massive cuts to education and social service programs in California and across the country—a reality that has forced difficult conversations, hard choices, and new ways of working. It is critical that families have a voice in the difficult policy and practice conversations that will shape how we move forward in educating and raising our children.

The next five years for education and family-serving programs will be very different from the past five. The global economic crisis has increased the needs of children and families in local communities throughout the country. At the same time, education programs have adapted to cuts in a myriad of ways in order to try and sustain core services. So, while we do have research and a broader national recognition of the importance of family engagement, our context has changed significantly and our family engagement strategies must shift as well. 

This shift is one that moves from reliance on a specific program or staff person as a site’s solution to engaging families, towards a culture that involves all staff making adjustments in their regular routines to ensure that families are recognized and valued. This shift shows up in key discussions (policy meetings, staff evaluations, parent–teacher conferences) when the question “How are we doing in partnering with our families?” is as important as “How are we doing in the education of our students?” This shift requires leadership to promote dialogue among staff and with families about what is working and what needs improvement. At its core, this shift relies on using existing resources effectively and through day-to-day relational practice, saying to all involved, “Our families are an essential part of the equation.” It is through these means that we will continue the momentum that the field has built over the last few decades.

Families’ experiences, stories, frustrations, and hopes can and should be a key point of entry for any concerted effort to improve developmental and educational outcomes for their children. Our work at Parent Services Project is about fostering a culture of shared partnership among families and between families and staff at early childhood programs, in schools, and in neighborhoods. We provide professional development for educators about building strong relationships with families using hands-on, nationally field-tested strategies that are both interactive and culturally respectful. In addition, we provide leadership trainings for parents and caregivers which result in families’ more vibrant participation as essential partners in their children’s academics, and at the school and community at large. 

Through our Vision & Voice Parent Leadership Institute, we have reached over 600 families in diverse settings that include early childhood programs; elementary, middle, and high school settings; and family resource centers. This work is family-driven, and it provides some insights to the results that can come about when parents are leading the way. Some examples of the work done through this initiative in various settings are:

  • Early childhood: In Atlanta, Georgia, parents worked together to form a “Little School” in an apartment building for children who were not enrolled in formal early childhood programs; community partners were engaged, resources were pooled to hire a teacher, and parents volunteered in the program on site.
  • Elementary school: Parents in San Francisco, California, worked with school staff and the principal to improve the afterschool program, based on what parents felt their children were missing and needed to succeed; parents outlined concerns and potential solutions as a way to increase dialogue and understanding.
  • College readiness: In an effort to increase college access for all high school graduates in Marin County, California, immigrant parents are learning about college readiness requirements for the first time, moving from knowing little on the topic to becoming engaged in efforts to change district policy so that all classes can meet college entry requirements.
  • Family Resource Center: On a school campus in Fairfield, California, parents went from expressing concern about lack of jobs and financial hardship to becoming advocates and engaged leaders on a local Spark Point initiative (a family economic success effort). These parents are now helping shape the initiative’s priorities based on their lived experiences.
  • Neighborhood Change: In San Rafael, California, parents formed a community council to address neighborhood needs: The parents have organized over 40 active volunteers to lead free soccer programs for kids in partnership with the city, meet with school officials to start a peer mentor program to help other parents navigate the system, and lead neighborhood walks and house meetings to organize the community.

As we listen to the experiences of families, we hear a clear desire for their children to succeed, which presents a natural opportunity for partnership. Barriers—such as lack of fluency or comfort with the English language, immigration status, working multiple jobs, single parenthood, lack of formal education, and domestic abuse—arise in one form or another. As a result, we find we must start where the parents are, and build the partnership from there. Often, schools expect families to connect and participate on the school’s terms alone. When we work to help schools meet families on the families’ terms, a shift can happen that allows engagement to increase and trust to build.

Specific program practices that I believe will strengthen family engagement:

  • Ensure staff are culturally competent through hiring and professional development.
  • Carve out time to build and maintain relationships with families and make this a priority, as evidenced by site/school plans and by allocations in program/school budgets.
  • Develop parents as leaders, trainers, organizers, and peer mentors by partnering with community organizations or others who have expertise in this area.
  • Evaluate staff on their family engagement practices.

Ultimately, we view our work as building democracy, civic engagement, and equity. This process starts with genuine dialogue and relationship building. As families and schools really understand what their common interests are, there is a basis for change and action. Parent Services Project helps to facilitate the relational processes so important to building community—and we do this with educators, community partners, and families together. In my experience, organized communities are much more likely to effectively provide for their youngest and most vulnerable residents, especially in hard times. I believe that this applies to the family, school, and community engagement field as well. So let’s keep the dialogue going and get organized! We know that early childhood programs, schools, and communities are stronger when they work together with parents for change.

For more information about how Ocón and PSP are helping to build the field of family engagement, please see the following resources:

Ocón also recommends these resources as examples of what other nonprofits are doing to promote family engagement:

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