From Involvement to Engagement

Despite its flaws, one knew what to expect from No Child Left Behind (NCLB). For over a dozen years, schools provided "strategies to increase parental involvement," involved parents "in the activities of the schools," and even provided "materials and training to help parents to work with their children to improve their children’s achievement, such as literacy training and using technology to foster parental involvement." The key word in NCLB was "involvement." With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the emphasis shifted from “involvement” to "engagement." Although a seemingly insignificant word exchange, the choice was intentional. Merriam-Webster defines involve as "to enfold or envelope" and engage as "to attract" and "to interlock with."

As Larry Ferlazzo wrote in his article, Involvement or Engagement?, “involvement implies doing to; in contrast, engagement implies doing with.” He continues writing, “A school striving for family involvement often leads with its mouth—identifying projects, needs, and goals and then telling parents how they can contribute. A school striving for parent engagement, on the other hand, tends to lead with its ears—listening to what parents think, dream, and worry about. The goal of family engagement is not to serve clients but to gain partners.” Though Ferlazzo uses the words parents and family interchangeably, ESSA includes both in its rewrite. “Parent and family” has replaced the singular word “parent.” As Sarah Tully noted in ESSA May Provide Opportunities for More Parent Engagement, Advocates Say, “the law recognizes that family members who aren’t parents could have an important role in a child’s education. With ever-changing family dynamics, the rewrite is more inclusive and acknowledges the proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child.”

Written Local Education Agency Parent and Family Engagement Policy

While there are several other recognizable changes from NCLB to ESSA beyond the renaming the section to “Parent and Family Engagement,” many of requirements remain the same. For example, ESSA still requires a local education agency (LEA) to maintain a district written parent and family engagement policy. School districts are obligated to “outreach to all parents and family members” and implement “programs, activities, and procedures for the involvement of parents and family members.” Initially, the programs, activities, and procedures are required to “be planned and implemented with meaningful consultation with parents of participating children.” In crafting such policies, districts often consult with parent representatives through site-based decision-making committees or educational improvement councils. While the contents of the policy may vary from district to district, some components are consistent as required by law. All written policies are to provide for “the coordination, technical assistance, and other support necessary to assist and build the capacity of all participating schools within the local educational agency in planning and implementing effective parent and family involvement activities to improve student academic achievement and school performance, which now may include meaningful consultation with employers, business leaders, and philanthropic organizations, or individuals with expertise in effectively engaging parents and family members in education.”

Districts are also charged with “identifying barriers to greater participation by parents in activities with particular attention to parents who are economically disadvantaged, are disabled, have limited English proficiency, have limited literacy, or are of any racial or ethnic minority background.” Further, committees are to identify “the needs of parents and family members to assist with the learning of their children, including engaging with school personnel and teachers” in addition to “strategies to support successful school and family interactions.”

Ultimately, the intent of such a policy is “to provide all children significant opportunity to receive a fair, equitable, and high-quality education, and to close educational achievement gaps,” which is the newly defined intent and purpose of Title I, Part A. Once developed, districts are to “distribute [the policy] to parents and family members of participating children.” Each year, districts are to “conduct, with the meaningful involvement of parents and family members, an annual evaluation of the content and effectiveness of the parent and family engagement policy in improving the academic quality of all schools served” and “use the findings to design evidence-based strategies for more effective parental involvement, and to revise, if necessary, the parent and family engagement policies.” Most importantly, the committee is designed to find ways to “involve parents in the activities of the schools.”

Written School Parent and Family Engagement Policy

Like the district parent and family engagement policy, schools are to jointly develop with, and distribute to, parents and family members of participating children a written school parent and family engagement policy as well. Once constructed and agreed upon, the policy is to be made “available to the local community parents” and “notified of the policy.” Further, the policy is required to be “updated periodically to meet the changing needs of parents and the school;” and if the plan is not satisfactory to the parents of participating children,” the district is required to “submit any parent comments” with the plan when the local educational agency submits the plan to the State. ESSA offers local education agencies the opportunity to “amend” the aforementioned district parent and family engagement policy to “include the requirements of the school parent and family engagement policy if it has a school district-level parent and family engagement policy that “applies to all parents and family members in all schools served by the local educational agency.”

The revision of the law changed the requirements of the district or school written parent and family engagement policy to include “family” and substituting the word “engagement” for “involvement.” How is your school district meaningfully applying this new vocabulary? How is your school district “identifying barriers to greater participation” so ALL families can ENGAGE in a meaningful way to be a part of closing the achievement gap?

Annual Title I Meeting

School parent and family engagement policies must include a few specific provisions not addressed by the district plan. For instance, campuses that receive Title I are to “convene an annual meeting, at a convenient time, to which all parents of participating children shall be invited and encouraged to attend, to inform parents of their school’s participation under [Title I]” and “to explain the requirements,” in addition to informing parents of the right to be involved. Because parent and family work schedules vary, schools are required to “offer a flexible number of meetings, such as meetings in the morning or evening.” Additionally, “if requested by parents,” the school is to offer “opportunities for regular meetings to formulate suggestions and to participate, as appropriate, in decisions relating to the education of their children, and respond to any such suggestions as soon as practicably possible.”

During this “annual meeting,” schools are to “involve parents, in an organized, ongoing, and timely way, in the planning, review, and improvement of programs [funded] under [Title I], including the planning, review, and improvement of the school parent and family engagement policy.” The contents of the meeting are to include “timely information about [Title I funded] programs, a description and explanation of the curriculum in use at the school, the forms of academic assessment used to measure student progress, and the achievement levels of the challenging State academic standards.” Furthermore, unless the school has “in place a process for involving parents in the joint planning and design of the school’s programs” with “an adequate representation of parents of participating children,” the school may jointly develop the schoolwide program plan together during this meeting. While some may do so during the annual meeting, many campuses develop the schoolwide program plan (or campus improvement plan) alongside parent, business, and community representatives serving on the campus site-based decision-making committee.

Is the annual Title I meeting conversation one-sided or is it a meaningful, two-way discussion? How is the curriculum described during the meeting and does it address providing “materials and training to help parents to work with their children to improve their children’s achievement?” Does the parenting curriculum take the place of school or is it reinforcing what is taking place in school?

School-Parent Compacts

As a component of the campus-level parent and family engagement policy, each school served under [Title I] is required to “jointly develop with parents for all children served a school-parent compact that outlines how parents, the entire school staff, and students will share the responsibility for improved student academic achievement and the means by which the school and parents will build and develop a partnership to help children achieve the State’s high standards.” To the extent practicable, the compact must be offered in “a language that family members can understand” and “describe the school’s responsibility to provide high-quality curriculum and instruction in a supportive and effective learning environment that enables the children served under this part to meet the challenging State academic standards, and the ways in which each parent will be responsible for supporting their children’s learning; volunteering in their child’s classroom; and participating, as appropriate, in decisions relating to the education of their children and positive use of extracurricular time.” Additionally, the compact is to “address the importance of communication between teachers and parents on an ongoing basis through, at a minimum parent-teacher conferences in elementary schools, at least annually, during which the compact shall be discussed as the compact relates to the individual child’s achievement.” Many elementary schools meet with parents during parent conference in the first few weeks of school and use this time to discuss the school-parent compact.

ESSA further requires schools to offer “frequent reports to parents on their children’s progress” as well as “reasonable access to staff” in addition to “opportunities to volunteer and participate in their child’s class, and observation of classroom activities” as it is essential for the school and its parents to have “regular two-way, meaningful communication between family members and school staff.” By offering up such means, parents and family members can be involved in their children’s education.

Consider your school-parent compact. Is it a token agreement or does it offer practical ways parents and families can really support their children? For example, if raising third grade literacy is a strategic goal for the school and/or for an individual child, does your school-parent compact help families understand their role in helping achieve this goal?

Capacity Building

Understanding the complexities of the law can be challenging. “To ensure effective involvement of parents and to support a partnership among the school involved, parents, and the community to improve student academic achievement, each school and local educational agency must provide “assistance to parents of children served by the school or local educational agency, as appropriate, in understanding such topics as the challenging State academic standards, State and local academic assessments, the requirements of [Title I].” To support parents, schools are to help parents with understanding how to monitor their child’s progress and work with educators to improve the achievement of their children. In doing so, the school is not only permitted, but required to “provide materials and training to help parents to work with their children to improve their children’s achievement” and to “foster parental involvement.”

Do your parent and family engagement strategies and activities focus on ways to get parents and family members in the building or do they emphasize building the capacity of parent and family members so they can engage with their children at home and in the community? Is your school providing ways families can be engaged in their child’s learning even if they cannot attend events at the school?

The Value and Utility of Parents

As a condition of receiving Title I funds, schools are to “educate teachers, specialized instructional support personnel, principals, and other school leaders, and other staff, with the assistance of parents, in the value and utility of contributions of parents, and in how to reach out to, communicate with, and work with parents as equal partners, implement and coordinate parent programs, and build ties between parents and the school.

Because school age children spend 70% of their waking hours (including weekends and holidays) outside of school, parental involvement and engagement is essential to the success of children in school. While volunteering at school is beneficial, and attending parent-teacher conferences, school events, and parent involvement activities are important, “the most significant type of involvement is what parents do at home.” By monitoring, supporting and advocating, parents can be engaged in ways that ensure that their children have every opportunity for success.

Extensive research demonstrates “a positive and convincing relationship between family involvement and benefits for students, including improved academic achievement. This relationship holds across families of all economic, racial/ethnic, and educational backgrounds and for students at all ages. The benefits for students include:

  1. higher grade point averages and scores on standardized tests or rating scales,
  2. enrollment in more challenging academic programs,
  3. more classes passed and credits earned,
  4. better attendance,
  5. improved behavior at home and at school, and
  6. better social skills and adaptation to school.”

Perhaps Ruby Payne said it best. “Do not confuse having physical presence with parental involvement. The research seems to indicate that when a parent provides support, insistence, and expectations to the child, the presence or absence of a parent in the physical school building is immaterial.” How do you honor the value and utility of the contributions of parents? The role of the teacher and school is clearly delineated through curriculum standards and supporting documents. What does the role of the parent and family look like and how do families understand their role?

Program Coordination

To the extent feasible and appropriate, schools that receive Title I must “coordinate and integrate parent involvement programs and activities with other Federal, State, and local programs, including public preschool programs, and conduct other activities, such as parent resource centers, that encourage and support parents in more fully participating in the education of their children.”

If it takes a village to raise a child, who is in the village? What support systems and programs coordinate and integrate with serving students, parents, and families of poverty? Are your local programs and service agencies all on the same page to communicate the role of the family and activities that will promote language and learning in the home?

Watch Your Language!

For all parent and family members have an equal opportunity to be involved, schools must “ensure that information related to school and parent programs, meetings, and other activities is sent to the parents of participating children in a format and, to the extent practicable, in a language the parents can understand. In carrying out the parent and family engagement requirements, local educational agencies and schools, to the extent practicable, shall provide opportunities for the informed participation of parents and family members (including parents and family members who have limited English proficiency, parents and family members with disabilities, and parents and family members of migratory children), including providing information and school reports in a format and, to the extent practicable, in a language such parents understand.”

When parents access a resource, does it include people who look and talk like them? Does it involve real families from a variety of racial, cultural and economic backgrounds? Do your existing resources for families EMPOWER them to work with their child in their home language?

Parent and Family Involvement and Engagement Activities

Schools funded under Title I must provide reasonable support for parental involvement activities.

Are the parent and family involvement and engagement activities offered to parents and family members doable? Are they time-consuming or are they reasonably realistic for today’s active families?

Reservation of Funds

Districts receiving at least $500,000 are required to “reserve at least 1 percent of its [Title I] allocation to assist schools to carry out [parent and family engagement] activities and strategies consistent with the LEA parent and family engagement policy.” Of the 1 percent, “90 percent of the funds are to be distributed to schools served under [Title I], with priority given to high-need schools.” For example, a district receiving $1,000,000 must set aside at least $10,000 and distribute a minimum of $9,000 amongst the campuses and utilize the remaining $1,000 for activities supporting parent and family engagement activities and strategies of a district nature on eligible students and their parents and/or families. Once calculations are made, parents and family members of children receiving services are to be “involved in the decisions regarding how funds are allotted for parental involvement activities.” These funds can be used in a variety of ways such as “providing professional development for school personnel regarding parent and family engagement strategies, which may be provided jointly to teachers, principals, other school leaders, specialized instructional support personnel, paraprofessionals, early childhood educators, and parents and family members.”

How are you spending your one percent reservation? How are you measuring the impact of those funds? Are they tied to student achievement outcomes using data being collecting?

Parent and family engagement funds can be used to support “programs that reach parents and family members at home, in the community, and at school” such as disseminating information on best practices focused on parent and family engagement, collaborating with community-based or other organizations or employers with a record of success in improving and increasing parent and family engagement,” and/or “engaging in any other activities and strategies that the local educational agency determines are appropriate and consistent with district parent and family engagement policy.

Simon Sinek in his bestselling book, Start With Why, noted, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” Have you considered helping all school and community stakeholders understand WHY family engagement is vital? When teachers, parents and family members fully understand why their engagement is so fundamentally essential, they can collaborate alongside one another to support students’ academic and social emotional success both in and out of the classroom.

Written by Chris Shade.
Despite spending only four years in the classroom prior to becoming a principal, Chris Shade has always been a teacher. Today, he continues to teach students from kindergarten to high school across Denton Independent School District where he serves as the Coordinator of District Improvement & Innovation and the Coordinator of Federal & State Funds. After spending five years as an education specialist in the regional Texas Education Service Center system, he continues to teach adults through presentations and keynote speeches across the State of Texas. 

To learn more, check out his virtual “presume,” which was featured as one of “3 Inspiring Visual Resume Examples on SlideShare” by Career Sherpa.