Partnering with Families to Build a Culture that Welcomes All Kids

When I think about attendance, I really think about whether students feel welcome and if they have a sense of comfort in the building. If they do, they’re going to want to be at school. 

I’m an associate principal at a suburban middle school, with about a 50% free or reduced lunch population. When we have students who aren’t coming to school, or if they have a lot of tardies in a class, it may mean they don’t feel welcome or that they have a lot going on in their lives right now. Most of the time, when we see tardies or poor behavior, we know there is more going on with the student. Our job is to recognize those signs and to find a way to help that student reach success.

We work every day to create an environment where everyone feels they belong – and a big part of that is partnering with students’ families. Working with families is such an important piece to me. In my mind, a school is one of the main hubs in every community – and everyone in our community should feel like we want them there and we want to hear their voices. Our building leadership team did some work a couple years ago, around coming up with an aligned “why” for all staff members in our building. We came up with “Students First, Success Follows.” We feel like if we are able to prioritize our students, then we will build the community we strive to have.

We send “You Matter” postcards home to every student during the school year, celebrating who they are. What has really worked for us is having teachers set aside 5-10 minutes at the beginning of a grade level team meetings so that these positive messages can go home. I don’t think we would be as consistent if we didn’t create that time for staff. To get postcards in the mail, we have teachers drop them off with one of our office clerks, and she takes care of them from there, which also helps keep consistency. We would hand the postcards directly to kids who were homeless or living in transition, and most of the time those notes made it home because the students were proud and excited to share them. We’ve gotten feedback that parents are noticing the postcards coming home and that they’re really appreciative. There was even one parent who shared that she’d been going through a hard time in her own life, and she got one of these “You Matter” postcards about her daughter. She put the postcard up at her job, as her own motivation to continue to work hard and do well for her kids and to always keep them at the forefront of her mind. I knew postcards were positive for the families, but hearing a story like that takes it to the next level – it shows it’s something they really care about and that they’re thinking about.

We’ve had families come in for focus groups, and we’ve gathered feedback in-person about how they feel about our school and what we can improve on. In those settings, they’ll often express appreciation for the work our teachers put into communicating with families. They’ll also often raise larger, big-picture issues they are facing, such as struggling to find childcare over winter break and extra snow days. Hearing directly from families allows us to take a step back and ask, “What can we do about these larger challenges? What can we put in place, and what role can we play to support this community we’re a part of?”

We put on evening events inspired by Marnita’s Table, and we remove as many barriers to entry as we can. These events are called IZIs. IZI stands for Intentional Social Interaction. At an IZI, everything is done with intentionality. We offer free food that meets the needs of any dietary restrictions. We offer free childcare for families with small kids. We check all the local sports and community schedules to make sure we’re not booking our event for a night with a conflict. We invite not just families, but also community members: people who work at the library, owners and managers of local businesses, police officers – they’re all included and in the room that night. At our last event, we had 400 people come. We were really proud of that. We encouraged everyone to sit with people they didn’t know and pick up conversation cards we left at the tables, with questions ranging from “What’s your favorite restaurant” to “What’s one of the hardest things you’ve had to deal with in your life?” It got people to open up and learn about one another’s perspectives. Later on, we had a big “mindstorm” to discuss things we could do better as a school and ways our community could stand together and help one another. The coolest thing about attending our IZIs is  looking around the room to see all of the diversity represented, and knowing that everyone in the room is here because they care about their child and the community in which they live. 

In the future, I would love to see us have parents in our buildings on a more frequent basis, being a part of classes. There is so much we can learn from parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents and any guardian. They’re in our students’ homes, and they have a perspective that is not always seen in the curriculum. I’d like to one day be able to partner with some families and allow them to collaborate with our teachers in building our curriculum. I’d like them to come into classrooms and speak about their lives and experiences. There is definitely space for that. We can always use more help with understanding and supporting our students. 

We want their family members to feel comfortable walking into the building and seeing themselves as part of our school. We value families giving feedback and helping us educate their children. If that’s not happening, then we’re not doing our job, and we’re not going to be as effective at what we do. The better we can know our kids, the better we can build a school community where they want to show up, every single day.