Inviting Marginalized Families to the Table: 3 Strategies to Improve Parent Engagement
Can a school district, program, or targeted intervention succeed without the input and support of parents and community members? Jamel Adkins-Sharif—a Massachusetts-based educational consultant, college lecturer, and former school principal—would probably say no.
While serving as principal at Boston's Blackstone Innovation School in 2017, Adkins-Sharif penned an article for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development's Education Leadership magazine in which he made this point: “One great lesson I've learned as a school leader is that a key to sustaining positive learning outcomes is synchronizing your agenda with the needs of students' families.” Through his work at alternative schools designed to serve marginalized students, Adkins-Sharif discovered three key aspects of connecting more effectively with families:
- Be a “consummate communicator.”
- Rethink family engagement activities.
- Be straightforward about the challenges and often “inconclusive nature” of education.
Titled “Beginning Again with Marginalized Parents,” the piece goes into detail about how each aspect listed above is essential to strengthen engagement with families, with Adkins-Sharif first noting that the personal experience upon which he is drawing involved mostly male students of color who had “significant behavior challenges and a history of academic struggles.”
That said, Adkins-Sharif’s approach can also be applied to students and families from many other marginalized communities. Using his three-point framework, let’s take a closer look at how this can be accomplished.
According to Adkins-Sharif, students and families who come from underserved communities are often sidelined with “unflattering labels.” More specifically, children who struggle in the classroom are seen as “the basement kids” or “crazy cut-ups,” while their parents are presumed to be distant or uninvolved. Thus, the first step is to rewrite these storylines by reaching out to parents consistently, positively, and respectfully. After all, Adkins-Sharif reminded readers, the fact that parents know their children best makes them a good source of insight into what will help a struggling student.
The education resource site Teaching Tolerance echoed Adkins-Sharif’s viewpoint in its a guide to anti-bias education, noting that, “Communication built on misinformation, assumptions, or stereotypes can create distance between schools, families, and students.”
To turn things around, the guide advises school staffers to “assume good intentions” first and foremost, then work to build a positive, affirming relationship with families by employing the following strategies:
- Recognize and respect differences in family structures.
- Bring a sense of self-reflectiveness and cultural humility to all conversations and interactions.
- View linguistic, cultural, and family diversity as strengths.
Reconfigure engagement activities
At first glance, the idea of changing family engagement patterns—the second focus area for Adkins-Sharif—may conjure images of redesigned family events, such as a school carnival or curriculum night. While there is certainly a place for these, Adkins-Sharif is talking about how to better engage families in a broader sense, particularly in times of crisis. Drawing upon his time as principal, Adkins-Sharif noted that parents or guardians were often on the defense when called in to address a student’s behavioral issues, and understandably so. “I typically faced an obviously annoyed family member who had his or her arms crossed, ready to spar over whether their child was truly at fault, and demanding to know what would happen to the other students involved,” he recalled.
Faced with these indicators of pain and frustration, he set out to rethink his approach. With the goal of seeking greater cooperation from all involved, Adkins-Sharif created an approach that focused on diffusing tension and asking parents for help. For instance, asking how school staff can best support the student in question “invites the parent or caregiver's thoughts and considerations to the table as an equal player” rather than as a likely source of trouble.
Another idea is to take the family engagement show on the road, as described in a 2019 report from Aspen Public Radio about how one Colorado school district redesigned its approach to families of preschoolers. According to the report, when area educators realized that very few Latino families in the Roaring Fork district were sending children to preschool—mainly due to a lack of reliable transportation—they decided to bring the preschool to the families instead. The result: “El Busesito,” a bilingual preschool on wheels that comes fully stocked with crayons, paper, and other classroom materials.
When the original El Busesito hit the road several years ago, it was a resounding success. Today, there are 12 such buses that serve close to 100 children in Roaring Fork, facilitating stronger connections between families, their children’s education, and the school district.
Parents and students need and deserve honest, constructive feedback, so rather than promising quick fixes or easy insights during parent-teacher conferences, Adkins-Sharif recommended centering these events on the acknowledgement that everyone and everything involved is a work in progress. As he phrased it, “We all have our good days and bad days,” and “progress will not always be quick.” Still, it is important to include parents in discussions about the school's strategies and processes to boost student engagement and success. According to Adkins-Sharif, the message should go something like this: “We must press forward, always providing support and compassion.”
Taking such an approach is the first step toward creating what teacher and writer, Kristen Thorson described as a “systemic culture of collaboration.” In a blog post for the education site Getting Smart, Thorson underscored the importance of cultivating and sustaining positive family-school relationships, noting that this is now widely considered to be an essential ingredient of a successful educational environment. In order to nurture a collaborative culture, Thorson advised school staff to “think about each parent-facing event as a catalyst for the development of true family engagement.”
Beyond the 3 strategies
Certainly, improving parent engagement—particularly among marginalized or otherwise disengaged families—is far too complex and multi-pronged of an undertaking to be tidily distilled into three bite-size steps. Yet as Adkins-Sharif pointed out, efforts to provide support and facilitate communication will help cultivate a fundamental educational tool: trust.
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