An Award-Winning Way to Partner with Parents

This year, Stanton Elementary School in DC Public Schools was awarded the Standing Ovation Excellence in Family Engagement Award, hosted by the DC Public Education Fund. We sat down with the former principal of Stanton, Rena Johnson, to learn about her award-winning family engagement strategy. Rena is currently a School Redesign Partner at CityBridge Education.

Rena, you’ve been at Stanton since 2011. Can you start by discussing how family engagement at Stanton has evolved since then?

I started off with Stanton as the chief of staff managing school culture and operations. After two years in that role, I took over as principal and began overseeing academics as well.

My understanding of family engagement has changed dramatically since 2011. Back then, in my mind, it was our job to tell families where they could go to find whatever resource they needed, but it was their job to go out and get it. So, we'd give out a pamphlet, or we'd give out a phone number, without doing much else to ensure the family got what they were looking for. Now I know there is much more to it than that.


Also, especially during that first year at Stanton, I struggled to understand the importance of involving the parents and the community. I thought that, because the academic and instructional needs were so great, we should focus solely on what was happening in the classroom. To me, everything else was a distraction. I’m so grateful for all I learned that first year. It was tough, but I think we needed to go through it to get to where we are now.

I often hear school leaders say things like, “We’re going to focus solely on making concrete changes in these three areas only: safety, talent, academics.” But it seems like that didn’t actually work those first years at Stanton. What was missing?

I was not at Stanton in the first year of the turnaround, but as the story is told, parents disagreed with many of the decisions that were made, and fought against everything Stanton’s staff tried to do. Disciplinary decisions, which doors were designated as the school entrance, uniforms, adding an hour to the school day—they pushed back on all of it. Not because it wasn't good for the kids, but because they didn’t trust the school, and with good reason.

Stanton’s reconstitution called for dramatic change, which included a new principal and almost entirely new teaching staff. All of this was done without much input from families. So, I understand why the community was so distrusting; none of the faces were familiar to them. 

What’s changed since then?

We partnered with the Flamboyan Foundation to shift our approach to family engagement, and they suggested we build more trust in the community through home visits. It came down to creating a stronger sense of partnership between teachers and parents, which meant understanding that to make academic gains and support kids social-emotional growth, we all have to be on the same page. Teachers wanted to be able to pick up the phone and say, “Hey, mom, Martin is doing well,” or, “Martin isn’t doing so well,” and for that conversation to be met with a level of trust and understanding—rather than the distrust they’d been experiencing. And parents, of course, were interested in being able to keep closer tabs on how their kid was doing at school.

We also wanted parents to know we understood they’d been through a lot of transitions with the school, and we were determined to make things better for them—we weren’t going anywhere and were in it for the long haul.

So, everyone would benefit from a stronger sense of partnership.

Over the summer, teachers started doing home visits. We got a group of committed teachers onboard, and didn’t pressure people who weren’t interested in joining—we knew we had to start with a motivated team for the visits to be useful. Of course, today, all of our teachers do home visits. 

How did those initial visits go?

Really well, actually. At the beginning, some parents didn’t quite understand what we were doing, but we tackled that early on. We trained teachers to say to parents, “This is a relationship building visit. We are not coming to look through your refrigerator, we're not coming to make judgments on your home—we're coming to learn from you because there's so much information that you can give us about how to best support your child.” When we framed it that way, parents responded really well.

At first, we had to call the family a couple of times to schedule the visit, and sometimes we had to get creative when it came to figuring out how to get in touch with them. But once parents started seeing teachers out in the neighborhood, we had a much easier time getting in touch with them.

Throughout the summer, interest in the home visits grew to the point where, once school started that fall, parents who we hadn’t gotten to yet were asking about the visits. 

You created a demand for the home visits?

Exactly. The conversation on the first day of school was, “I haven't met my child's teacher yet, but so-and-so next door already did. When’s my home visit?” instead of the distrustful conversations about things like uniforms we were having the year before.

We were also able to use those home visits as a chance to let parents know about all the different services in our building. After a while, we noticed parents were asking about things like nutrition coaching, trauma counseling, and middle school transition support. Even before the school year started, we were able to take action on some of the things parents were wanting.

I realized that if we could bring some of those resources to our students, it could transform their ability to engage in the rigorous instruction we were providing. I honestly don’t know how schools can exist without holistic support for kids, and active parents and community partners. I mean, I’m sure it’s possible, but it’s much harder to do academic work when kids’ other needs aren’t being met. 

You mentioned that you used to see family engagement as something that should take a backseat to academic outcomes. Can you discuss an example of how your new mindset—family engagement and academic outcomes going hand in hand—has benefited a student?

Huey (name changed) came to us as a five-year-old. He hadn’t had consistent pre-K schooling, and as a kindergartner, he was crying all the time. I mean, all the time. After a few months, he began having physical outbursts toward his teacher and the other students, and it got to the point where every single day we were pulling him out of class.

We’d just launched a partnership with the Department of Behavioral Health which allowed us to have a therapist on staff, and after a few weeks of Huey’s outbursts, we connected our therapist with his family. So, Huey’s teacher, therapist, and parents, all got together—in Huey’s living room—to figure out how best to support him.  

The therapist said to his parents, “We’ve got to figure something out for your son because he’s not making it through the entire school day—it’s gotten to the point where he’s not in class enough to progress to the next level.” As hard as it was for the parents to hear this, they responded well, and they all committed to working together to help Huey.

These visits continued through the school year. And when summer came, instead of leaving Huey to fall even further behind, his teacher volunteered to tutor him over the summer, in his home. The therapist followed suit, scheduling regular therapy sessions with Huey throughout the summer, and accompanying the teacher on some of the home visits.

That first year, I had Huey in my office just about every day—but the following year, after we upped the parent engagement—at most I’d see him once a month. He is no longer crying incessantly and is one of the top math students in his kindergarten class.

I feel excellent promoting Huey to the first-grade next year. Not only are his academics strong, he also has the social and emotional skills he needs to thrive. He’s able to calm himself down instead of crying and can articulate his needs to us and his parents.


Huey isn’t the only student with a story like this; our whole school is experiencing the benefits of home visits. At the end of the school year, when we looked at the data, we saw the more home visits a student received over time in the summer months, the more likely that student was to return to school the following semester. Kids who received more visits made greater progress when it came to their reading levels, too. 

We’ve also seen increased parent participation in school events and were able to restart our parent teacher organization this year, with a dedicated group of parents coming to each meeting. And that matters to me just as much as our improvements for students.

While a child is at Stanton, I believe it’s our responsibility to give parents everything they need to promote their child's path to achieving their aspirations, even once they've left us. My goal for any parent that’s here—for as short as a month or as long as eight years—is that they leave more confident in their ability to support their child, academically and beyond. 

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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