4 priorities for (re)engaging families in the year ahead

On our team, we have a core belief that our elementary school is, and should be, the center of the neighborhood it serves. Every child in our community comes through our school. We believe it is fundamental that our school, our families and our community at-large genuinely want to support every child and see them succeed. That’s the kind of energy we start every year with as we develop our strategic plan for family engagement. This plan shapes our priorities, the kinds of events we host and the systems we build to support our school’s vision for family engagement.

When I started as principal in our building last year, our community was still emerging from the period of intense COVID-19 protocols and hybrid/remote learning. Our families simply hadn’t been to, or been invited in, our building since 2020. As a school community, we were in a position of rebuilding our in-person connections. I knew that I wanted to bring in family and community engagement as one of the key pillars of our practice, and together — in acknowledging the central community role we see our school playing — our team defined “family and community engagement” as one of our core values as a school. Then collaboratively, with various committees and community partnerships, we developed action steps throughout the year to put that priority into practice. We built systems for student and family involvement after school and created an event roster that established the foundation for continuous improvement in the years to come.

As a staff, this meant establishing agreements about how we would prioritize and support our in-person connections while re-imagining the internal systems and external partnerships we would need to accomplish our goals. Here are four of the top priorities we used last year to focus our family and community engagement efforts as we worked to build a robust program in the years to come.

1. We prioritized making low-cost, or free, events possible for our families by collaborating with our community partners and ensuring that this priority was reflected in our budget.

A major component of our family engagement work is acknowledging that many families in school communities everywhere face some sort of adversity. Whether they are a one-income household, the adults are working multiple jobs, their language access needs aren’t being met, they don’t have access to childcare, they have limited access to transportation or any other combination of obstacles, the reality is that families are supporting their students while managing these obstacles every day. This does not equal a lack of interest in hearing from us, communicating with us, participating in school life and/or partnering with us. Instead, it means that we need to be strategic about reducing or removing some of these barriers so that more families can express their investment in our school community by getting involved. A few ways we try to reduce these obstacles include incorporating event supplies and supervision into our annual budget, collaborating with community partners to sponsor portions of our events and always providing no-cost options for our families to participate in for all school events.

2. We prioritized families’ schedules to allow for the greatest possible participation and monitored attendance data.  

We asked families to check in at each of our events throughout the year so that we could compare our event attendance across different days, times and types of events. We were able to do this efficiently in the digital age we live in by utilizing laptop stations, shared documents and scannable QR codes. We also received support from our community partners, such as our local fire and police departments, who monitored occupancy at our event spaces. This meant that we could check our attendance data with our partners to confirm our event attendance. We used the data to adjust our event schedule throughout the year to find the most suitable time slots for our families. We found that our events that ran on nights opposite of our community’s youth sports schedule that started on or after 5:00 p.m. were the most well attended. This all comes back to honing in on some of the barriers we know impact families’ participation and addressing aspects of the barriers within our control to remove or reduce the burden they place on our families.   

3. We prioritized learning about how our families receive and share our information. 

Our district facilitates an annual communication survey with our families. As the building leader, I analyze the data generated by the survey to identify gaps in our communication practices with our families. When reviewing the communication survey data, I try to determine the answers to the following questions: (1) How do our families access information? (2) When do our families access information? And (3) Where do our families access information? Subsequently, learning what online spaces make the most sense for our families and their routines shapes our strategy for sharing our event invitations and information with them in a way that’s most effective and convenient for our families. As a school, we might cross an item off our to-do list by posting an invitation to an event on social media in the afternoon, but if our families aren’t active at that time, then the invitation isn’t really serving them.

There’s a similar truth for our email communication. I want families to know that I value their time and respect the many responsibilities they’re juggling on a daily basis. So I am super conscientious about the frequency in which I send emails to our school community. Additionally, when I send emails with school updates, I make sure that the email is clear, precise and in a bulleted format with easily accessible hyperlinks. For me, there’s a big difference between this type of update and an e-newsletter, which tends to be more expansive but less precise and less actionable.  Many families went out of their way to validate our work in this regard last year — when I heard them say, “Dr. Z, when we get an email from you, we open it. We know it contains important information,” that told me we were on the right track.

4. We look ahead.

Since last year was the first year of this level of strategic planning and event programming, we’ve been looking at our data of our full roster of events to evaluate: How can we improve upon Fall Fest, BINGO night, painting night, movie night and more the second time we implement them? Are there any events that we need to reevaluate and switch to different ideas that could be even more successful? As we look toward improving our programming in the year ahead, we also need to look at what went well and consider any positive but not-yet-realized potential. When I think about our Movie Night, for instance, we saw that a lot of our students were interested in the mats and cushions we pulled into the cafeteria for seating. Our students wanted to guide their families around the room and explore the ways the space was transformed. Thinking about that behavior as feedback could eventually lead us to a completely different event that — if it facilitates the same sense of exploration and student ownership of their learning space that we saw — might be even more successful than our Movie Night in the years to come. 

At the end of the day, we want to do everything we can to make our school a safe and comfortable place to learn. I think when you unpack that really simple sentence, you’ll prioritize creating a welcoming and affirming environment. You’ll prioritize valuing and striving to incorporate the different identities in our community. You’ll prioritize acknowledging the realities our families are facing. And you’ll prioritize the different interpersonal relationships that have to be established to achieve the level of family-community-school collaboration necessary to ensure that all of our students succeed. That’s exactly the energy we’ll aim to bring to our family and community engagement work in the year ahead.