Researchers working to understand the factors that contribute to or detract from student success are drawing a common conclusion: families matter, and so does the financial stability of those families.
Yet despite this well-known fact, much of the most passionate public debate on improving education focuses on such topics as failing schools, teacher assessments and high stakes testing, with virtually no conversation about how better to identify strengths and celebrate families as they work to guide their children's academic success.
Perhaps it's easier to direct reform efforts focused on systems. But this approach often cuts poor families and families of color out of the education narrative in a misguided effort to stay true to the ideal that all children can succeed in school by working hard, no matter what challenges they face in their lives outside the school building. But, of course, children don't do all their growing up in classrooms -- most of their formative learning experiences occur first in the home.
In fact, research from Karen Mapp of the Harvard Graduate School of Education has shown that when families are engaged in their children's earliest educational experiences, those children are ahead of their peers upon entering kindergarten.
I believe that every child can succeed regardless of their race, ethnicity or socioeconomic background. But in our nation, we fail to engage families authentically in their children's education, thereby denying parents a sense of pride and empowerment and the opportunity to see that they can achieve more for themselves and their children. The cycle of poverty in which many American families live is breakable, and low-income families need to be viewed as assets, not barriers, to their children's success.
This is why the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF), is taking a new approach to work in the field of family engagement. The foundation defines family engagement as a shared responsibility of families, schools and communities for student learning and achievement. It is a continuous process from birth to third grade and beyond that occurs across multiple settings where children learn, and it creates environments where empowered parents and families are leaders. We are challenging the world to see families, regardless of race, ethnicity or income level, as powerful assets for their children's education.
Involving families in parent-teacher meetings or as volunteers for field trips and fundraisers can certainly impact the lives of students or the classroom, but when parents feel empowered as leaders, entire schools and communities can change. In fact, research shows that middle-class schools are 22 times more likely to be high performing than high-poverty schools. In these schools, parents feel empowered to demand more of teachers, principals and school administrators. They trust their children's teachers and can confidently continue lessons started in the classroom at home.
This school culture of family engagement and ownership of outcomes and its impact on students is confirmed by Richard Kahlenberg of The Century Foundation. He conducted a study that found when low-income students were able to attend more affluent schools, they succeeded academically and surpassed their peers who remained in high-poverty schools.
I've also seen the impact of family engagement firsthand in the work of WKKF grantees. In Oakland, California, parent voices are proving critical to helping teachers refine and improve the practice of teaching. The Urban Teacher Quality Index from the Institute for Sustainable Economic, Educational and Environmental Design, or I-SEEED, gives teachers dynamic feedback directly from families and communities, enabling parents and others to influence teacher professional development and school culture. In south Texas' Rio Grande Valley, just miles from the Texas-Mexico border, families in "PTA Comunitarios" led by local parents are organizing to become powerful advocates for their children. The PTA Comunitario model created by the Intercultural Development Research Association has helped parents from the least-connected communities become strong, sustainable voices to protect the rights of all children.
As we consider the daunting challenges we face in the 21st century, we must realize and support the potential of all families and communities and cannot ignore their critical roles. We need policies that integrate families and communities in all aspects of education, starting at birth. And we must support bold ideas and creative thinking as we reimagine a new state of family engagement.
To help us move quickly toward this goal, WKKF is seeking initial submissions of intent from organizations and groups working to build innovative, equitable and effective family engagement models that address obstacles faced by low-income families and that focus on engaging families during their children's earliest years, from birth through age eight. The foundation will invest up to $5 million this year to support these efforts, helping schools, communities and families make a positive impact on children's learning and development and strengthening two generations simultaneously.
If schools and community-based organizations commit to building relationships with families in meaningful, respectful ways, and in turn, families actively support their children's learning and development from birth, our communities will experience a sharp increase in children's success. When our children succeed, we all succeed.
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