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Expanding the definition of "successful" family engagement

a family of four walks down the street. the male caregiver and female caregiver each hold the hand of one of the children.


On April 3, ParentCorps’ Director Kai-ama Hamer spoke on a panel, hosted by the National PTA, on an important topic: how do we measure “success” in family engagement in service of transforming family-school partnership? 


Speaking from her perspective as a former NYC Department of Education special education teacher and dean, a teacher’s union representative, and now as the director of ParentCorps, Kai-ama offered the webinar audience a few best practices and things to think about. 


For instance, in order for schools to improve the quality of their family engagement, they can ask caregivers directly how their efforts feel to them: Do you trust your child’s teacher? Do you feel good when you visit the school? Do you trust the school leader at his or her word? If you have a problem with your children, can you talk to their teachers about your concerns?


Questions like these show families that their feelings and opinions matter, that they're a fundamental part of the school community.


In addition, while measuring things like attendance at school events can be a good place to start, schools can also define and measure family engagement in more expansive ways (e.g. through family activities like storytelling, or teaching about our own culture and learning about others’). Embracing more culturally inclusive measures can help schools move away from a white-centric, one-size-fits-all definition of family engagement.


Most of all, Kai-ama focused on trust: when we make the school environment a place where families feel respected, seen, and heard, deep partnership is possible. 


Kai-ama’s remarks begin at 23:18. A transcript is included below the video.



Good afternoon, everybody. My name is Kai-ama Hamer, and I'll just quickly say that measuring and monitoring family engagement success is so important because family engagement and academic achievement go hand in hand. So we want to stay on top of it, and we want it to improve in our schools. 


I mean, it's a big question, evaluation and equity. And I'm going to start with what I think we can all agree with: if you are a school district, a school leader or a school district leader, you're looking for measurable, positive outcomes… Things like reading achievement and improved social emotional health for your students. We all want these things, and we want to show our success in the data. 


The foundation of that, especially in the younger grades, is predicated on the home-school connection, and that is the relationship between school leaders and teachers and parents and the families of those students. Is there a sense of trust between the two? Do parents feel included and valued in the school community? What supports do parents have to bolster their children's learning and development at home, where it matters most? 


Schools are trying, but we know schools can do a much better job at it.

Schools are trying, but we know schools can do a much better job at it. And I know firsthand, because before I was leading ParentCorps, I was a special education teacher who eventually became the dean. And I was working in a high-need, low-income school in New York City. There was a lot of discontent – angry parents, fighting kids – and we were looking for a real way to use family engagement as a way to shift the culture of the school. And we ended up with family engagement nights that happened between 5:30 and 7:30. 


So it took a lot of commitment because we realized we have working parents. They're fighting to make ends meet. If you're going to have a meeting at 10:00 AM, no one's coming. So we had them at 5:30 to 7:30 – school doors are open, gym is open for open play, music is playing. And we're working with low income families in the evening time, we realized we had to provide dinner, so they didn't have to worry – come on and eat, come inside the schools. And now we're having honest, fun connections. 


I'll give you a real quick example. It's a fall festival night in October, and we're putting glitter on leaves, and we're doing arts and crafts activities, and they're playing kickball in the gym. Popcorn is popping, and we're giving that out to the families, and so now we're connecting. It's not extractive. It's not about, ‘Let me talk to you about how your child is behaving,’ or how they're not reading on grade level. It's really just about connection. And that really was the foundation for changing family engagement practice in the way we built relationships in our schools. And so I'm talking about my real life experience. 


And so now I'm going to share more about ParentCorps, and what we do there. So ParentCorps is an evidence-based program delivered in the pre-k year that supports schools and school systems to build the home-school connection that we know is pivotal to success up the grades. It includes three components: we have professional development for school staff, a group-based program for caregivers, and a social-emotional learning curriculum for classroom teachers, all designed to transform the pre-K experience for children and their families. 


ParentCorps was rigorously evaluated in randomized control trials including 1,200 children in historically disinvested neighborhoods – so we're talking about largely poor, largely Black and Brown children – and these trials show that ParentCorps’ full model has powerful impacts on pre-K teachers, parents, and most meaningfully, the children. With ParentCorps, teachers demonstrated more responsive teacher-student interactions, parents showed greater involvement in their children's learning, and most powerfully, ParentCorps has meaningful sustained impacts on children's academic achievement, mental health, and physical health. This includes a 24% lower risk of reading below grade level in kindergarten, 50% fewer mental health problems, 50% lower likelihood of obesity in elementary school, and 44% reduction in chronic absenteeism in middle school. 


ParentCorps is one of very few early childhood programs with proven impacts on all three critical areas of development, and that holistic impact is what makes our evidence truly unique and lays the foundation for children to thrive in K-12 and beyond. So that's our evidence base. That's our rigorous evaluation. And so for some people, their brain is activated by those powerful stats. But I always say, what's the brain without the heart? 


For ParentCorps, our racial equity lens, our ability to honor family's culture and lived experiences, and support school systems to build authentic relationships with families, that's really the heart of what we do. I was trying to think of an easy way to illustrate my point. Some … family engagement activities are quantifiable, or easy to measure, like how many families attend an event like a parent-teacher conference. So, for example, you have 500 families in your school, 275 attended, and you want to increase the number. And so you begin to consider strategies to increase attendance. 


But some family engagement is harder to count because it's rooted in how parents and caregivers feel when they walk inside a school building. Are the staff happy to see them? Are they greeted warmly at each interaction? Is the value of their presence validated in some way?

But some family engagement is harder to count because it's rooted in how parents and caregivers feel when they walk inside a school building. Are the staff happy to see them? Are they greeted warmly at each interaction? Is the value of their presence validated in some way?


And I'm not talking about the parents who come all the time, who do all the things schools ask them to do in all the ways that schools ask them to do it. But I'm talking about the most, quote unquote, 'difficult' parents of the most 'difficult' students who need our help and support the most, and with whom we have the least positive relationship. Those are the parents we really need to connect with in a way that is authentic and loving and impactful if we really want to see improvement. And that's how I connect evaluation with culture and equity. It's science and art. It's brain and it's heart. 


We often talk about kids being ready for school, but what about schools being ready for kids and their families? There's more work to do for educators to recognize their own biases, build deeper awareness of the experiences of diverse families in schools, and build real relationships. 


There's more work to do for educators to recognize their own biases, build deeper awareness of the experiences of diverse families in schools, and build real relationships. 

So I want to offer a few questions that you can begin to ask yourself if you are a school leader. 

  • What is the current family engagement environment at my school or in my district? 

  • What are the current pathways to communicating with parents? Is that communication really two-way? And is it working? 

  • How many languages are spoken in the school and how are language needs met? 

  • And what opportunities do families have to connect with school staff, including leadership? 


I never forget my very first principal had a closed-door policy. The parent comes in, ‘I want to talk to the principal.’ ‘You got to make an appointment. Two weeks. Next Tuesday,’ and that just wasn't in the right spirit. 


Paying attention to home-school connection at the start of children's schooling has deep lasting benefits. We know families' trust in schools really matters. Research by the [UChicago Consortium on School Research] found that elementary schools with strong, trusting home-school connections were 10 times more likely to improve in math and four times more likely to improve in reading, so I want to bring that back around to my original point of having accountable, measurable positive outcomes. That's what we're trying to do. Family engagement and academic success go hand in hand. 



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