How I created a community education program for families
We leaders know that family engagement is a powerful factor in promoting school culture and student success. But sometimes, when families are facing significant stressors at home, they don’t have the capacity to get involved at school. That’s why I think it’s vital for us to show families that school leaders are also community leaders: We’re here not just to ask for support, but to offer it.
In my experience, that often means finding ways to promote community education and services for families. It can make a big difference for students – but I know it sounds daunting, especially for new administrators. If you’re an early-career leader, and you want to do more to support students’ families, you may not know where to start – but I’ve been where you are, and I want to share 3 tips with you.
As a school administrator, my philosophy is, When we enroll a child, we enroll a family. That’s why I always say I have a trifecta of priorities. My first priority, of course, is providing an outstanding education for every student, but my second and third priorities are promoting health care and financial stability for every family. My current school has a robust program to support families. But in my previous role, I was a new principal in a high-poverty school community. My team and I needed family engagement to rebuild school culture, but because many families were overtaxed by health and financial concerns, they didn’t have the capacity to support us – they needed us to support them.
That’s why I created a program to provide community education and services for families – and here are the 3 steps I recommend:
1. Listen to families and learn their priorities.
When I first became the principal at my old school, I needed to lead significant shifts in student outcomes – and to do that, I needed to understand students’ experiences and teachers’ needs. I was intentional about asking questions and listening to the answers, and I used my learnings to get students and staff invested in transforming our school culture. Our students made great strides, and I was eager to get families engaged with our plans and progress during our bimonthly meetings – but turnout was poor. After each meeting, I’d drive home asking myself, “Why are families not coming? I know they care about the students and the school.” I reached out to families, and they said, “We support your instructional goals, we love how our kids are succeeding, but we’re overwhelmed at work and at home. We can’t get involved at school unless it’s for something valuable.”
That’s when I realized I needed to take the same approach with families that I had relied on with students and staff: I needed to start not by talking, but by listening. In communities like ours, families are used to new initiatives being imposed from the outside. They’re used to being told, “This is what you need. This is what we’ll do” – and that promotes disengagement and prevents change. That’s why the first step I’d recommend to a fellow leader is, Create space to say, “Tell me what you need. Tell me what I can do.”
So I asked my students’ families, “How can we add value for you? How can we make you part of this school?” And they said, “What we need is community learning opportunities. What we need is help with the areas that make it hard for us to support our kids’ learning at home and at school.”
2. Start small to grow big.
That answer brought me right back to my leader trifecta: first, support student growth; then, support family health and stability. My team and I systematically asked families to share their challenges, needs and goals: in person, by email, on the phone and via surveys. So many priorities emerged: financial literacy, entrepreneurship, medical care, cooking and nutrition, exercise and wellness. My staff and I had a million ideas for classes and services, and you might, too – but I suggest remembering that if you and your team try to provide everything, you’ll overtax yourselves, and you won’t be able to provide anything.
My team and I decided we had the capacity to offer an evening class every two months, alternating it with our every-other-month family meeting. One class would focus on personal finance, such as rebuilding credit and creating budgets. Another class would focus on starting a small business, such as writing a business plan and filing a tax return. Other months, we’d hold cooking workshops and Zumba classes. We believed these simple, intentional steps could make a real difference for families in our community – just as simple instructional shifts can spark deep learning for students in the classroom – and we were right.
3. Make the most of staff and community expertise.
It can be easy for us leaders to feel like we need to provide the expertise behind every initiative, and that’s natural – because we do need to provide the expertise behind our teachers’ instruction and our students’ learning. But when you start organizing classes and services for families, you probably won’t feel like an expert, and that’s okay. My advice is to remember that you and your team don’t have unlimited knowledge or unlimited time, and plan on asking your local community for help. For example, some of my educators love to cook, and they were excited about creating a cooking workshop, but no one had the time or expertise to teach workshops on financial literacy or entrepreneurship – so I asked a business consultant to run those classes, and he did a wonderful job.
As a new administrator, I didn’t have existing community connections to leverage – so if you’re in that position, I encourage you to seek out local leadership groups and build relationships. At first, it can feel daunting to show up and talk about what your school needs – but if you also make a point of asking community leaders how you can support their goals, you can generate goodwill and start building partnerships. For example, a number of our families said they needed help getting basic preventive medical care, and that’s something our school nurse couldn’t handle, so we partnered with local clinics to hold eye exams and physicals at school. Later that year, when a community coalition needed someone to play Santa, I said, “Give me the suit and the stuffing. I’m in!” – and now I’m Santa whenever I’m needed!
Throughout the year, we held those classes and workshops every two months, and families showed up in force. Over time, I made shifts to the meetings I held to get families engaged with my instructional goals and plans, and I saw family investment expand throughout our school culture. Every time a family told us that our program had helped them start their small business, or plan healthier meals with their kids or get the vision care they’d been worrying about, I saw my team’s inspiration and commitment grow. Every time a kid told us that their family was looking forward to coming to our school, I saw my students’ sense of belonging and community grow.
When I look back, the only real family engagement challenge I faced was figuring out how to begin. That’s why I hope my 3 recommendations will help you get started in this work – because it can make an incredible difference to your students, your staff and your entire school culture.