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

Voices from the Field

Helen Westmoreland is the Director of Program Quality for the Flamboyan Foundation, a private family foundation based on Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., with the mission of improving educational outcomes for children in public schools and public charter schools. Flamboyan Foundation’s D.C. office focuses on family engagement and education advocacy to accomplish this goal. In this article, Westmoreland emphasizes how foundations and funders can support the development of effective family engagement practices in all schools.


“[People in the D.C. schools] actually think that we do not know anything. That we are really just here to send our kids off to school. They really think that we don’t care about our kids… They love keeping us on the not-know level”— Parent, Ward 7, District of Columbia

My vision for family engagement has been shaped and molded by countless stories of persistence—and frustration—from parents like this who want their children to get a great education, but who do not feel connected to their child’s school. In many cases, these families have been let down by the education system itself. In parts of Washington, D.C., where adult functional literacy rates hover at a mere 50%, it seems that the people once regarded as those kids who simply would not or could not learn are now, a decade or two later, regarded as those parents who will not or cannot help their own children succeed.

If we believe that all kids can achieve at high levels, regardless of the color of their skin or the money in their pockets, then we must also believe that all parents can be great guides, partners, and advocates in their child’s education. It is not enough to reach only those parents who proactively call the school or who are responsive if you market an event just right. “Hard-to-reach” families should drive the design of our work, not be the afterthought to what already exists. The question is, how hard are we willing to work, and how creative we are willing to be, to make this a reality?

I envision a family engagement field that, five years from now, has examined its practices and policies in light of what best enables families to play the roles that help their children succeed. There are many forms of family engagement, but when it comes to how strongly engagement predicts student achievement, a parent occasionally volunteering or coming to school events is a blip on the radar screen compared to a parent who holds high expectations and sets goals for his or her individual child, monitors the child’s progress, holds the child accountable, and supports learning at home, among other things.

These forms of sustained family engagement are different from what I often see as the current driving force behind family engagement efforts: simply getting families to participate in or support their school. As a result, family engagement work is typically siloed within schools and overly focused on event planning. Though successful at building community and relationships (an important foundation for family engagement) with some families, these approaches often miss the mark in partnering with all families around what is most meaningful to them: their individual child. Communication about a child—what parents and school staff want him or her to accomplish for the year, how he or she is doing in reaching benchmarks toward these goals, what is going on in class and at home to support the child—is what empowers families to become involved and positively impact student achievement. But how do we engage each and every parent in this way?

I believe that the most effective strategies for engaging families in these sustained ways are housed in the instructional core of schools: classrooms. Teachers are experts in real-time student learning and performance, and are the main people inside schools with whom families want to have a relationship. Furthermore, outreach by teachers influences if and how families engage in their children’s education. It is through classrooms that we reach all parents, even the most hard to reach, in systemic, student-centered, and learning-focused ways.

The implication of this vision is that—in addition to investing in direct services for parents—the funding community needs to ensure that schools and districts have the capacity to plan, implement, and assess more strategic family engagement efforts. In my work with the Flamboyan Foundation, we have taken a multi-pronged approach to this task.

First, we are supporting teachers by partnering with pre-service and in-service training organizations to develop and integrate family engagement curricula in their work. Although teachers cite engaging families as a big challenge in their work, they lack access to adequate preparation and the professional development needed to engage families successfully.

Second, Flamboyan is building partnerships to train and coach principals in how to build more effective family engagement approaches in their schools. As school leaders, principals set the tone for family engagement and play a big role in creating the systems and structures to ensure that family engagement is strategic and embedded across the school’s instructional program.

Third, we are fostering and funding comprehensive school partnerships. Through these partnerships we will support a number of high-impact strategies that, collectively, can help schools strengthen their family engagement efforts. These partnerships include team action planning for family engagement, teacher home visits and professional development, principal coaching, and sharing data with families. In addition to these partnerships, we are exploring how to integrate family engagement into our partner schools’ data-driven instruction practices and systems.

Across all of this work, we are working with a range of stakeholders—from the district to non-profits to other funders—to talk more about what works to engage families in support of student achievement. In doing so, we are identifying teacher and principal champions, as well as documenting promising practices, and then connecting those champions and promising practices with stakeholders. We are also exploring partnership opportunities to strengthen the quality and sustainability of family engagement across D.C. schools.

The question for the field over the next five years is not whether family engagement matters but what, exactly, it looks like when it is implemented in ways that move the needle on student achievement. We need to ensure that we are devoting our limited time and resources to supporting the connections between school and home that will truly help all parents support their children’s learning. By becoming clearer on our theories of change and measures of success, and encouraging more public and private investments in implementation research, I hope we can begin to answer this question.

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

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