ESSA is an Opportunity to Raise Voices That Often Go Unheard
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is the latest version of one of our country’s most important pieces of civil rights legislation—the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Particularly when it comes to designing new accountability systems, ESSA offers huge potential for state leaders to work in partnership with local district and school leaders to create real, meaningful change for kids. But they cannot do so effectively without directly engaging with the families whose children they serve.
Real engagement means more than building out an email list or publishing a flyer in Spanish or Mandarin. To make the most out of ESSA’s new flexibilities, state leaders need to invest in helping districts and schools build real dialogue with parents and community members—particularly those who are often underrepresented at typical events like PTA meetings or parent-teacher conferences. Tapping into these voices can help drive the kind of comprehensive support students need inside and outside their schools.
This kind of engagement isn’t easy. So where should state leaders even begin?
Work with schools and districts to establish partnerships with community organizations that already have parents’ trust. This might be the local YMCA or cultural or religious organizations, or chapters/affiliates of organizations like the National Urban League or the National Council of La Raza. Groups like this can serve two important roles: first, they can be thought partners during the design of a new accountability system to ensure equitable benchmarks for all students. And second, they can act as strong connectors to parents and community members who might not be reachable through traditional, school-based outreach. There’s no reason, for example, that school-focused events must be held at school. Offsite locations could attract parents who are intimidated by schools but feel more comfortable in spaces with which they’re already connected.
Use school events to support parents, too. A partnership with a local career advancement organization could lead to a school job fair that does two things at once: offers parents career opportunities and resume advice, while providing them with resources to reinforce higher academic standards at home or asking for their input on changes they’d like to see in their child’s school. Other partnerships could combine school-focused events with access to preventative care or even farmers’ markets with affordable, fresh produce. Events like these can simultaneously address schools’ needs and help families address external challenges that tend to hamper student success. The goal should not just be to ensure a certain number of parents attends your outreach, but that parents see the school as a place that takes their family’s needs into account. This builds trust and helps ensure your parents are partners through the development and successful implementation of your ESSA plan.
Be creative with scheduling. Events should accommodate parents who work night shifts or two jobs to provide for their kids, or who don’t have the privilege of taking time off. Too often, parent engagement is defined by attendance at PTA meetings or parent-teacher conferences. Just because a parent doesn’t show up to school-sponsored events, doesn’t mean they aren’t invested in their child’s education. Sometimes it’s a simple matter of getting scheduling right, or offering multiple sessions at different times, including evenings, weekends, and breakfast or lunch times.
Breaking language barriers requires more than translations. Language barriers often exclude parents from fully participating in feedback opportunities or even being fully aware of changes in their children’s schools. Rather than just offering translations to the community’s dominant languages at a parent engagement event—so that the primary language of the event is still English—host separate, language-specific sessions that encourage parents to share opinions and questions in their native tongue. It also models to these parents that the school fully values their input in whatever voice they share it.
Real community engagement is no easy task. But if we truly hope to shape schools that ensure “every student succeeds,” listening to the voices of parents and communities will be a vital part of the process. Rethinking strategies to tap into those voices early and meaningfully will not only help district and state leaders create stronger plans for ESSA and other legislation moving forward. It will also open the lines of communications to allow schools to make their communities more aware of and invested in policies and decisions that affect their children’s future before they’re implemented, not just after the fact. That’s better all around—for schools, for families, and for the education leaders who support them both.
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