Eight brightly colored pieces of paper are streamlining the way principals in the School District of Philadelphia engage families and get them on campus.
These Family Engagement School-Level Workshop Catalogs, as they’re known, offer a concise list of more than a dozen workshops that can be made available to parents at any school upon request — from lessons in why school attendance matters to using art to reinforce students’ math skills at home.
Other topics include helping with homework, transitioning to middle school, and fostering a growth mindset in children, among others.
At the beginning of the school year, principals meet with their school’s district liaison for family engagement to select and schedule the workshops most relevant to their communities, often with parent input.
“This is just one means, one way in which how we in Philadelphia are building capacity for our families,” said Jenna Monley, deputy chief of the Office of Family and Community Engagement, or FACE.
The catalog is part of a larger effort in the district with a large population of economically disadvantaged students to engage families where they are — sometimes quite literally — and one they hope will catch on outside the city as they share the approach with other districts across the country.
When Monley started with FACE in 2016, there were seven staff members in the office working on family engagement for the district’s 200-plus schools. That number has since grown to 26, including 20 family liaisons, paraprofessionals who represent the surrounding community as they work directly with principals on strategies for increasing parent involvement, including the various workshops listed in the catalog.
“A lot of [the work] has been a response to our families feeling disempowered, disenfranchised and really struggling to support their kids,” Monley said of her office’s revamped efforts.
Making options visible
In the pre-catalog days, principals could still host workshops, but there was no comprehensive means of seeing all of their options, or what they would all entail. In the most recent edition for the 2019-20 school year, short blurbs accompany workshop titles, offering a description, target audience and a list of take-home activities and materials.
“It really made it easy,” said Awilda Balbuena, principal of Philip H. Sheridan Elementary School. “It’s just to the point and you don’t have to waste a lot of time reading a lot of extras.”
In the last few weeks before winter break, Balbuena’s school hosted workshops on attendance, reading and math. A future one on STEAM — science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics — is also scheduled.
“I tried to offer as many hands-on type workshops for my families as possible,” Balbuena said. “Parents always leave here excited, and so that alone has boosted our parent engagement.”
Research has shown families’ involvement in education can improve children’s academic skills and social-emotional health and also lead to better job satisfaction among teachers, said Manica Ramos, a senior research scientist at Child Trends who grew up in Philadelphia.
“Parents always leave here excited, and so that alone has boosted our parent engagement.”
Principal, Philip H. Sheridan Elementary School
But there can be many barriers to this, particularly in low-income areas, where parents may encounter structural challenges such as limited access to transportation or non-flexible work schedules. There can also be attitudinal barriers when dealing with parents from different countries; in Latin American culture, for example, getting involved at school can be seen as overstepping, since the teacher is considered the expert.
In order to overcome these barriers and others, family engagement programs must be systematic, integrative and comprehensive, Ramos said. “It’s really important for the top leadership to help to set that vision, for everybody to know what that vision is and for folks to see how their role fits with other roles for family engagement.”
Engaging beyond school walls
Monley said Philadelphia schools respond to some of these barriers by hosting workshops at different times of day and providing transportation and meals for families when they attend.
Parent engagement doesn’t always mean coming to the school, however; Ramos said even reinforcing to children how important their education is and making sure they’re doing their homework is considered engagement.
This can be done even behind bars. Last summer, Monley and her colleagues took the catalog on the road to a nearby maximum security prison, offering incarcerated fathers the chance to select which workshops they’d like to have there, she said. The men chose a few by Crayola Education, in partnership with the district, focused on using art to reinforce math and writing skills. This allowed them to see what their children were learning and know how to help, even though they weren’t able visit the school.
“We’re here as a school district to support our families, and they’re our families as well,” Monley said.
Monley said she doesn’t know of other school districts using a catalog like Philadelphia's — but her office presented the idea to school representatives from across the country at a recent district learning lab, and there was a lot of interest in doing something similar.
“I think that if school districts are currently offering workshops for families in school settings, this would be a good opportunity to have ... all things there to be really clear and delineate all the different offerings for their families.”
But in order for it to work, there has to be support at the district level, so principals aren’t doing it alone, she said. Because ultimately, it’s not about the catalog — which is, after all, mere pieces of paper. It’s about the opportunities for relationships that it represents.