Increasing Family Engagement in Schools Isn’t Just About Parent Involvement — It’s Also About Student Growth

Lawrence Superintendent Crystal Edwards, Board President Laura Waters, and district mascots celebrate the new Lawrence logo. (Photo courtesy Laura Waters)

This piece is part of a series on engaging parents and families under the Every Student Succeeds Act, examining from parents’ perspectives how districts and schools can best use new funding to make parents partners in improving education in their communities, and how to measure whether those efforts are working. Click through the grid below to read essays from parents across the country.

I live in a township in the middle of New Jersey that’s home to a culturally and economically diverse school district. That’s not very common in this state’s highly segregated school system.

My local stretch of U.S. Route 206 tells the tale: Driving north, you’ll first pass the inner-city school district of Trenton — where 90 percent of students are economically disadvantaged (i.e., meet the requirements for free or reduced-price lunch, the government’s proxy for poverty), through my Lawrence, where 24 percent of students fall into that category, and then curl into posh Princeton, where 9 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged.

The family income piece is critical. Though I handed in my school board hat one year ago, I spent 12 years watching our business administrator count every dollar during budgeting season. In New Jersey, much school funding for middle- and upper-class districts comes from local property taxes. But state and federal funding streams still play an essential role in a district’s fiscal balancing act. One source of federal money comes courtesy of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which contains 10 titles of funding streams, each loaded with good intentions. Title I is meant to ameliorate socioeconomic inequities.

While Lawrence is no Trenton (allotted over $5 million in Title I money this school year), we’re also no Princeton, which gets minimal aid. This school year, Lawrence Township Public Schools (LTPS) will receive $448,000 in Title I funds, and, in a recent tweak to ESSA, 1 percent of that money — or just under $5,000 — must be spent on engaging parents whose children qualify for free or reduced lunch. That $5,000 may be chump change in the context of a $72 million budget, but increasing parent involvement in schools is essential to student growth.

And so the first question for Lawrence Township Public Schools — or any other district — is how to allot those funds earmarked for parent engagement. The second is what the best ways are to evaluate whether we’ve spent this money effectively.

(Click through the grid below to read other parent perspectives)

Katie Braude & Chantel Hunter Mah on Parent Engagement Under ESSA ESSA Parent Engagement Introduction Angela Fullerton on Parent Engagement Under ESSA Katie Braude & Chantel Hunter Mah on Parent Engagement Under ESSA Laura Waters on Parent Engagement Under ESSA Andrea Suarez on Parent Engagement Under ESSA Erika Sanzi on Parent Engagement Under ESSA Vesia Wilson Hawkins on Parent Engagement Under ESSA

Some districts might need to initiate programs from scratch, but LTPS already has a robust program in place for parent engagement. Its particular challenge is to draw in more low-income parents and prove to the feds that this $5,000 serves its mandated purpose.

In 2006, Lawrence was in the midst of redesigning its high school, which, truth be told, had seen better days. There were committees. There were vision and mission statements. There were surveys of teachers, parents, and students. And, lucky for us, there was Marian Leibowitz, a highly esteemed education consultant who happened to live in Lawrence and sent her sons to district schools. (Bonus fact: One of her sons is Jon Stewart. Yes, that Jon Stewart. Seriously.)

Under the direction of Leibowitz, then-Superintendent Phil Meara, and then–Assistant Superintendent Crystal Edwards, LTPS initiated its first “Community Conversation.” Envisioned as a forum for soliciting feedback and buy-in for the high school redesign, the program evolved into an annual event that engages parents, students, teachers, residents, and taxpayers in an ongoing strategic planning process centered on four goals: fiscal accountability, academic excellence and equity, community engagement, and total child (known by the acronym FACT).

It’s no small task to lure parents into the high school cafeteria on a school night. (We tried a Saturday morning once, and attendance dropped.) And so the district has in place a variety of enticements, including food, babysitting, student musical performances, and art displays. But the attendees tend to skew higher-income than ESSA’s new mandate demands. What can Lawrence do to increase attendance among low-income parents?

To add more complexity, that 1 percent of Title I money can be spent on an entire school if 40 percent or more of the students there qualify for free or reduced lunch. If a school meets that benchmark, it’s considered a “Title I school.” Four of LTPS’s seven schools qualify for that designation. However, in Lawrence’s three non–Title I schools, the money must be spent only on low-income families.

Given these constraints, there are five ways LTPS could allot those funds and comply with ESSA:

  • Provide busing to and from our affordable-housing neighborhoods, where many of our low-income families reside.
  • Offer activities for older children to keep them occupied during Community Conversation, like homework help, arts and crafts, games, or tours of the high school. Staffing could be provided by high school students — a precursor, perhaps, to expanding our peer mentorship program, and at no cost (community service credit!), erasing the need to determine student income eligibility.
  • Market registration more rigorously, with assistance from liaisons to churches, Sikh temples, synagogues, and leaders from our Latino, black, and Polish communities.
  • Emphasize outreach within programs that provide support to specific ethnic groups that, in Lawrence, skew low-income, such as the Eagles program (for our Polish families) and Latinos Unidos (for our Hispanic families).
  • Provide translations of marketing material and translators during Community Conversation itself. (Lawrence families speak about 50 different languages at home, including Spanish, Polish, Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, and Chinese.)

Measuring the efficacy of these efforts is where it gets tricky. While the current federal education department, to put it nicely, doesn’t care much about fiscal accountability, school board members, stewards of their neighbors’ tax dollars, should care a lot. Therefore, the district has to establish a baseline by reviewing registrations from previous years. If this initiative for engaging low-income parents is working, LTPS should see:

  • An increase in registrations for Community Conversations;
  • An increase in registrations for the committees that follow the annual event and meet during the school year;
  • An increased need at Community Conversations for translators, transportation, and childcare.

In other words, LTPS should collect historical data, establish benchmarks that indicate success, and measure outcomes.

If done right, Lawrence could help low-income families as well as improve its strategic planning by tapping into the richness of our diverse community. That’s more exciting than any drive down Route 206.

Laura Waters writes about education politics and policy for NJ Left Behind, New York School Talk, Education Post, and other publications. She was a school board member in Lawrence Township (Mercer County) for 12 years and served nine years as president. She and her husband have four children.

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