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The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

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Five Pieces of Advice From Parent Universities

Plan in quotation marks

In a word, the most important aspect for those considering implementing a parent university is to "plan." Plan early. Plan often. Plan with families (and with schools, community members, and community organizations). We asked you, as members of Parent University Network, to complete a survey about your experiences establishing parent universities/academies. Thirty-three members responded and provided information about roles, organizations, needs, and wants with respect to parent universities.

We learned that not all of your programs are called "universities." Indeed, there is no hard and fast definition of a parent university. Parent University Network is a diverse group of individuals, with a wide breadth of backgrounds, current job titles, responsibilities, and professional experiences, generally within the family capacity-building field.

Here are some words of advice that you offered to others who are considering establishing a parent university-type program, a short list of lessons learned:

graphic of the number 1  

Involve families in the planning process
Time and again, we heard that involving families as much as possible in the planning of parent universities---including offerings, goals, and delivery---is key. It is not enough to plan an event and hope people attend. Successful planning involves knowing your community, asking what kinds of courses are desired, and delivering on expressed needs and desires. For example, several respondents mentioned that fitness classes were requested, and when offered, were well attended.

graphic of the number 2   Partner with schools
According to survey responses, getting teachers, administrators, and school staff onboard is crucial for both the success and sustainability of parent universities. School personnel have access to families and can assist in outreach and development or even be course instructors. Teachers can help identify family needs, while administrators can help link parent universities with available resources, such as meeting spaces or support personnel. Teachers and parent liaisons are particularly important in communicating with families.
graphic of the number 3   Partner with existing community groups
"Don't reinvent the wheel," said one respondent. Look at what has already been done, what course curriculum might have been developed, what organizations exist that have strong family engagement, or events and opportunities that involve families. Discover what exists and adapt it to current needs. Get out and network! Identify and leverage your community partners. As one respondent wrote, "Take advantage of community experts."
graphic of the number 4   Build capacity, strengthen communities
Fostering and supporting family peer-to-peer networking is valuable. Thus, a course that doesn't appear to be academically oriented still involves families gathering together, making connections, socializing, supporting one another, and exchanging information. Lessening isolation and increasing positive social connections builds community, with positive outcomes for children, families, and communities.
graphic of the number 5   Recognize and address barriers: thinking outside of the box
Language and time were two barriers mentioned in our survey. Effectively addressing barriers takes creative thinking and flexible problem solving. For example, some programs report involving family and community members to translate materials or presentations for others. Other programs report that having available child care permits more families to attend activities. Offering nutritious food during events can take the edge off for hungry families after a long day. Holding events at a variety of times, such as after the workday, or on weekends, enables a wider range of attendees. Successful planning means identifying and creatively addressing those challenges and barriers particular to your community.

Looking for some current resources related to the lessons learned? Try these:

Check out this video from the Bay Area Parent Leadership Action Network (PLAN), which illustrates how PLAN engages families and communities in planning and supporting their children's futures.  

For tools and information on effective recruitment strategies, try the San Diego Unified School District Parent Outreach and Engagement Department.

The Federal Way Public Schools District in Federal Way, Washington, just published this booklet, designed to assist families and school staff in their creation of authentic and effective partnerships.

Families can be powerful agents of change. Read Sandra Gutierrez's vision of family engagement that links education of the people and family engagement.

Check out this toolkit from First 5 LA designed for families and community partners in creating sustainable engagement strategies and plans

Need an out-of-the-box communications idea? Ounce of Prevention Fund's Parent University harnessed the power of daily text messages to families with ideas for academic extension activities, as well as words of encouragement, and tips on self-care, and mindfulness exercises.


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