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Three Lessons in Developing a Systemic Approach to Family Engagement
Allison Rowland

How might we ensure that each and every family is empowered to support their student’s learning? In San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD), a district of more than 131,000 students and the second-largest in California, I facilitated the development of a systemic approach to family engagement over the course of the 2015–2016 school year. In collaboration with Superintendent Cindy Marten; the Parent Outreach and Engagement Department; and family leaders, educators, and community partners, we developed a systemic framework with four dimensions (Figure 1). We integrated the framework with the work of instruction rather than as a separate initiative. (See textbox.)


Collect Data: Family Engagement Survey 

  • Conduct annual districtwide family engagement survey to identify strengths and improvement areas for family engagement by subgroup, school, and region.
  • At school-site level, design family engagement plan based on survey results, student academic needs, and/or Design Thinking.

Grow Family Networks and Leadership

  • Train existing and new family leaders to assume leadership roles.
  • Grow networks and relationships among families through community organizing and other established networks (e.g., Parent Teacher Association, faith-based communities, etc.).
Utilize Design Thinking to Build Trust and Take Action
  • At school sites, ensure that educators listen deeply and build empathy for families and students in their community.
  • Build collaboration among families, teachers, principals, and community partners to solve context-specific challenges and take action together based upon what families and students report.

Empower Families and Schools with High-Impact Home Strategies

  • Train schools, community partners, and family leaders to empower families with high-impact home strategies (HIHS), from pre-K through high school (e.g., reading and language development, communication on grades and coursework, and linking schoolwork with student interests and career exploration).
  • Create online resources to teach HIHS in conjunction with community organizing to support all families, especially those who cannot come to school for workshops and other activities.
  • At schools, connect families in greater need to more intensive supports through the Parent Outreach and Engagement Department or community partners.

I learned three important lessons from my work in the district. First, establishing a framework is not enough. As in many districts, family and community engagement was at the margins, separate from the central work of SDUSD. As we developed the framework, we also needed to develop awareness and an appetite for its implementation, so we piloted Design Thinking workshops in schools. These workshops gave parents and families an opportunity to share their hopes and dreams for their children as well as their struggles and barriers to their children’s success. Teachers and principals gained a deeper understanding of families. This interactive process put family voices front and center, inspired partnerships between educators and families, and led to taking action to support student learning.

Second, it is necessary to work at both the district and school levels in order to generate a productive cycle of political will and impact on students. Following the Design Thinking workshops, families, teachers, and principals shared their experiences at board meetings. Focusing only on district-level work leads high-level leaders to lack a vivid vision of the impact on families and students on which to build a platform for supporting family engagement. On the other hand, only doing work at the local level remains local, unless the larger system awakens to the impacts happening for students. Working at both levels allows family engagement efforts to be pulled in from the margins. Success at the local level brought awareness and leeway to the district level to do more work locally, and this generated an iterative, incremental cycle of district and school-level changes in family engagement guidelines and practice.

Third, implementing a framework requires an investment in capacity building. SDUSD is investing in developing leadership capacity to bring the framework to life. An executive director—a newly established position on the district’s instructional cabinet—will lead the systemic approach in collaboration with area superintendents. Each area superintendent has a team of specialists (common core resource teachers, technology resource teachers, etc.) to support their work in schools.  Another new role, community organizers, will now join these teams and will have two main responsibilities: building family networks to support student learning and training school staff to implement the framework.  All of these leaders will work to integrate the family engagement framework into the rich professional learning and development opportunities for principals and teachers already underway in SDUSD. 

The education sector has a responsibility to engender strong partnerships with families and the community to support student learning and achievement. Yet, as educators, we sometimes put families at the periphery of their children’s education. It is therefore our duty to take the first step to bring families back into the partnership. And that is exactly what we did at SDUSD. We hope the work we are carrying out to bring family engagement to the center of SDUSD and the new systemic framework inspires other districts to embark on a similar journey.

Allison Rowland received her doctorate through the Harvard Graduate School of Education Doctor of Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.) Program. She facilitated the work described in this blog during her doctoral residency in San Diego Unified School District.

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