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December 1, 2019
Vol. 77
No. 4

Involving Families: A Relationship-Centered Approach

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Focusing on cultivating relationships with the families of English learners leads to trust, parent empowerment, and collaboration to improve the whole school.

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"I don't feel like we're doing nearly enough to engage our Spanish-speaking families," a principal told me not long ago. "I want to get your thoughts about how I can start doing better."
As director of family partnerships for the Boulder Valley School District, I was glad to get involved. A month later, this principal and I co-led the first Latino Parent Night at Crossville Elementary School (a pseudonym). The gathering consisted of 12 Latino/Latina parents, one white principal, and three staff members. The start was a bit rocky. When I invited parents to share their names and the names of their children, I could feel their reticence. In the rush to get started, I'd failed to tell them about my background as a bilingual teacher and principal and other information that might have made them feel more open to me as a complete stranger in their school.
As I gave a brief overview of what we'd do that night, I caught facial expressions I interpreted as, "Who's this white guy coming into our school from ‘the district'? What's he about to ask us to do?" Despite this, I stuck with my original plan. Past experiences have shown me the alchemy that occurs when we make room for family members to open their hearts through fostering positive, fun interactions and welcoming their authentic voices.
We did a team-building activity called "Gotcha," which sparked considerable laughter. The principal shared about himself professionally and as a person, conveying why he cared about deepening the school's connections with all Latino families. For the rest of the evening, the parents, in small groups, explored three questions:
  • What is the actual experience of your child and your family in this school?
  • What is going well and what could improve, especially in terms of school communication?
  • What information and conversation topics would draw you to come to other Latino Parent Nights? What day and time is best for you?
The parents generated at least 10 concrete suggestions for what the school could do next, including texting them an abbreviated, Spanish-translation version of the school newsletter and offering workshops on how to help their children with math homework. After they shared out from their conversations, one mother said, "We want to do this again. There's more we'd like to talk about."
"How about we come back together in a couple months?" the principal responded.
"We'd like to have another meeting like this next month. Could we do that?"
When the principal agreed, I could feel parents stepping into their collective power.

The Primacy of Relationships

This experience, which occurred in my second year as director of family partnerships, confirmed for me that a relationship-based approach to working with families changes the felt experience for the families and expands a school's capacity to collaborate with them in creating change. This is true in secondary as well as elementary schools.
Our school district has been recognized as one of the best in the state but maintains one of the largest achievement gaps between emerging bilingual students and native English-speaking students. My core responsibility in our district is to strengthen the connection between our schools and families who are often marginalized. I've tried to develop an approach that prioritizes underrepresented families, includes a social justice lens, and is overtly relationship-centered.
This emphasis on relationships and on creating spaces for meaningful, reciprocal interactions is essential to partnering with the families of English language learners. Centering relationships leads to a greater sense of collaboration and trust between families and educators and helps marginalized families feel safe enough to genuinely engage and make their voices heard. Research has shown that a focus on ongoing dialogue and fostering mutual understanding are central to engaging Latino families (Delgado-Gaitan, 2004).
But historically, schools haven't promoted two-way relationships in which the families of English learners are elevated as equal partners (Ishimaru, 2018). I knew we needed to work with English learners' families in ways that showed we authentically cared about them and that would develop relational power instead of exercising power over them (Warren et al., 2009). As Steven Covey (2008) has expressed, "Change happens at the speed of trust. Trust moves at the speed of relationship."

Four Pillars

"I've [had a child] at this school for 12 years, and I've never felt as connected as I do tonight," a father shared with me at the end of our Parent Night for Spanish-speaking families. "Tomorrow I will say hello to a teacher that I wouldn't have said hi to today."
What happened in 90 minutes to create this shift for this father and dozens of other parents? The root of the answer lies in four pillars (based on Susan Auerbach's 2011 research) that undergird our work with families:
  • Cultivating relationships and trust
  • Engaging in two-way communication
  • Supporting learning and social-emotional well-being
  • Sharing decision making and power
Intercultural understanding is the foundation holding up these four pillars. Authentic care requires an understanding of each other's social, cultural, and political context, including power dynamics. The relationships formed at events like the parent night at Crossville and the ongoing communication about parents' interests and needs incorporated the first two pillars. Shared decision making also began to happen.
To honor these four pillars, and to move from the family "involvement" model that has dominated schools' family outreach toward more authentic partnerships, our district made critical shifts. We began focusing on how participating parents feel more than on what they are doing at gatherings, so process would take priority over content. Asking families what they need (instead of guessing) and incorporating time in gatherings to listen to families and spark their interactions with each other, rather than talking to them, was another significant change. We also tried to value all the ways that families can support their children's learning at home, rather than focusing on attendance at events as the main measure of involvement.
Supporting social and emotional well-being is also a key part of our approach. When I became director of family partnerships, I wasn't well-informed on best practices for family partnerships, but I brought expertise around social and emotional learning. Infusing our work with SEL principles and practices has sparked transformative experiences for our families and educators.

Ongoing Action: "Family and Educators Together"

Events like the parent night helped schools in the Boulder district, both secondary and elementary, build relationships and trust. We then asked ourselves how we could ensure that families' connection to schools moved beyond these meaningful but isolated evenings. What might a relationship-centered approach look like in terms of ongoing action? Answering that question led us to develop our Family and Educators Together (FET) groups.
Currently, we have FET teams at 10 of our 50-plus schools. The teams bring together teachers, underrepresented or traditionally marginalized family members, and school leaders monthly to strengthen the school's efforts to forge school-family partnerships in ways that create meaningful change for stakeholders. Teams engage in candid dialogue that ultimately leads to action. Participating families are overwhelmingly Latino, but on some teams there are parents from other underrepresented cultures. Occasionally white parents are there as allies.
Here are some encouraging developments happening at Boulder schools as a result of nurturing stronger parent voice and trust through FET:
  • A mother mentioned her passion for making art out of recycled materials at a team meeting, and shortly after, put up an altar in the school for Dia de Los Muertos. A few months later, she began teaching an after-school art class for students and families. A year later, she was asked to co-lead the FET team.
  • A father presented at a FET team meeting about his journey from obesity to becoming a marathon runner.
  • A mother conveyed that transportation is a major obstacle stopping families in one neighborhood from attending parent conferences. The principal offered to arrange for a bus to transport families to and from conferences.
  • Three schools experimented with holding a World Café for families of language learners. In this structured conversational process, individuals switch tables periodically and get introduced to the previous discussion at their new table by a "table host." I've observed family members eat and laugh as they move from one table to the next, focused around questions like, "What can our school do to strengthen relationships with you?"
  • After three mothers learned about an important upcoming school event, they took it upon themselves to divvy up the school bus routes and go door-to-door, letting families know about the event and why they should attend.
The impact of these various projects on how participating family members feel is tangible. One father told me at the end of the first year of attending FET meetings, "When we come into school, a lot of us Spanish-speakers feel timid when we see the principal. We try to hide. Even though she doesn't speak our language, I now feel comfortable when I see her. I feel like this is my school too."
A mother at another school shared:
It was very difficult for me as a mother to feel trust with the teachers. FET has broken down the barrier between mothers and educators…. [We] Hispanics are often on the margins, not because the teachers are mean to us, but because our fears keep us there. As a result of the FET team, many parents have had the chance to bring forth their voices and look for opportunities that before they feared to ask about or pursue.

Practices to Empower Families

In planning FET meetings and events, we structure the agendas in ways that prioritize building trust, strengthening relationships, and fostering high levels of participation. For instance, we:
  • Provide time before events start for families and educators to eat and connect with each other informally.
  • Always begin meetings with time for connective activities that lead to laughter and team building, whether it's a quick activity or a dinamica. In a dinamica, teachers and family members share on a topic related to their own lives (such as "How were your own parents involved in your education?") with a partner or small group and then reflect as a whole group on how this informs their thinking about family partnerships.
  • Incorporate talk structures connected to equity and social-emotional learning, such as dyads and community circles, in which participants share about topics that bring out their humanity (for instance, ("What is something that is bringing you a lot of joy right now?") Dyads are an SEL practice because they foster authentic speaking and deep listening.
  • Monitor the ratio of time that leaders and participants speak to ensure that family members have frequent opportunities to bring their voice to the conversation. We use dynamic structures from organizations like Kagan and Passageworks Institute, such as pair-share-square or huddles that energize participants through meaningful dialogue.
  • Give priority to families' native language in our meetings and ensure that interpreters are available.
We also create meaningful closure for each gathering, often through a closing circle. Each participant shares a word that captures how they feel in that moment or shares their greatest intention before we reconvene.

Positive Communication Systems: "A Ton of Joy"

Two other projects have strengthened the district's school-family partnerships: home visits and positive communications. Home visits have been written about extensively by others—and, since I've found positive communication to be a practice that builds learning-strengthening alliances with families (while taking little time or planning), I'll describe this communication-based strategy in detail.
When I was a school leader, I often had limited bandwidth to think creatively about how to move beyond traditional strategies for engaging families. But one partnership practice that I implemented delivered an astronomical return on investment in reaching families: positive phone calls to students' families. So when I moved to my current role, I brought this system of encouraging positive calls home with me.
Positive calls benefit everyone. The student feels uplifted, their classmates are inspired by seeing them recognized, family members are happily surprised by the call, and teachers feel gratification as the student returns to class with deeper motivation. All without anyone involved spending more than five minutes of their day.
Research shows that, in one analysis, "frequent, personalized phone calls home immediately increased parents' engagement in school, as measured by homework completion, in-class behavior, and in-class participation" (Kraft & Dougherty, 2013). Yet a recent poll showed that 59 percent of public school parents reported never having received a phone call home from their children's school during the previous year (Kraft, 2017).
To bring this practice of positive communication to multiple schools in our district, we made it an expectation that elementary principals would commit to one high-leverage family partnerships strategy, with positive calls home an option I heavily promoted. Positive communication systems were a main component of any opportunity I had to present to principals. I shared with them the impact, the research, brief stories from my own experience in their shoes, and emphasized the outcomes-to-effort ratio. One principal told me a month after such a presentation:
We are in our third week of making the positive calls home. We created a simple form for staff to complete, and then the community liaison helps me gather the students. I make the call to the parent with the student or students present. Wow, what a great thing to do for students and parents. It also adds a ton of joy to the job and is a great way to continue to build positive relationships.
Some principals also began writing positive postcards, others integrated a call system, and another contingent started writing real-time positive emails to families while observing in classrooms.
I told one parent—a mother of four sons—about this new initiative. Her response confirmed its power for me:
My boys have literally had more than 100 teachers since they started in this school system. I've received one positive call in eight years. I still remember that teacher's name. Her two calls in the fall and spring were so meaningful to us. My son told me, "I love that teacher. I could imagine going to med school because of her."

Other Ways to Empower Parents

Our district is taking other steps to form trusting, cooperative relationships between our educators and families, bringing the four pillars to life:
  • Quarterly, we bring together our Family Partnership Network, made up of two representatives from each school, to deepen their capacity for doing this work at their schools and partnering with principals in weaving a relationship-centered approach into their school culture.
  • We've launched a Latino Parent Advisory Council so this community has a forum for providing input and engaging in meaningful conversation with each other—and with the superintendent and other district leaders.
  • We host parent nights for underrepresented family groups at individual schools to get their insights on relevant questions, and equity summits to seek input from underrepresented families and community members on how we can improve our practices.
  • At superintendent forums, the families of English language learners can candidly share their positive and challenging experiences, ask questions, and make recommendations to the district about how schools could improve their or their child's experience.
  • At family retreats, bilingual parents from different schools come together to learn from teachers and community leaders about topics that they have chosen. And in partnership with community allies, we offer adult learning experiences in which our Latino parents can learn from community leaders how to unlock their power, navigate our school system, and advocate for their children.
  • We provide educators and families with questions translated into multiple languages, so family members can ask questions at parent conferences.

Trust Is Key

I can't overemphasize how crucial trust building is to this process. As I've learned from leading both thriving and struggling schools, you cannot successfully do the deeper work until you've built a strong community in which each person feels safe, engaged, and valued. The schools that accelerate their trust-building efforts are—not coincidentally—the same schools that make tremendous progress around their goals (Tschannen-Moran, 2014).
I recently crossed paths with the mother of one of my favorite students from my teaching years. Marta had completed dozens of focus groups with under-represented families around their experiences in all sectors of society, and their insights had inspired her to pursue a local political office. Looking back on her conversations with parents, Marta told me that, going into the project, "Our hypothesis was that language would be the greatest barrier. In the end, we learned that trust was actually the largest barrier."
While Boulder Valley School District has a long road ahead before we can call ourselves a truly equitable school district, I know that the path to greater trust and genuine family-school partnerships runs through a relationship-centered approach.

Auerbach, S. (2011). School leadership for authentic family and community partnerships. New York: Routledge.

Covey, S. (2008). The speed of trust. New York: Free Press.

Delgado-Gaitan, C. (2004). Involving Latino families in schools: Raising student achievement through home-school partnerships. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Ishimaru, A. M. (2018). Re-imagining turnaround: Families and communities leading educational justice. Journal of Educational Administration, 56(5), 546–561.

Kraft, M. A. (2017). Engaging parents through better communication systems. Educational Leadership, 75(1), 58–62.

Kraft, M. A., & Dougherty, S. M. (2013). The effect of teacher-family communication on student engagement: Evidence from a randomized field experiment. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 6(3), 199–222.

Tschannen-Moran, M. (2014). Trust Matters. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Warren, M., Hong, S., Rubin, C. L., & Uy, P. S. (2009). Beyond the bake sale: A community-based relational approach to parent engagement in schools. Teachers College Record, 111(9), 2209–2254.

End Notes

1 Our FET teams are based loosely on the Action Team for Partnerships model developed by Johns Hopkins University.

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