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  Family and Community Involvement: Reaching Out to Diverse Populations
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Your job as an educator has grown more complex, more challenging. It used to be that knowing about curriculum, student learning or assessments met the grade. But increasingly educators are encouraged to become experts in parent and community engagement, especially as schools come under more public scrutiny than ever before.

Parent involvement has always been an important issue to educators, but the way schools have responded varies widely. Some treat community engagement as an afterthought, others take it more seriously and develop comprehensive outreach plans. Now engaging parents and community members has grown just as critical to a school’s success as lesson planning, classroom instruction and testing.

Why Is Community Involvement Important Now?

Schools across the country are growing more racially and ethnically diverse. For years, minority populations were concentrated in border states like California, New Mexico and Texas and in urban areas like New York, Chicago and Boston. Changing demographics require educators to not just think more critically about how to engage culturally and linguistically diverse communities in the decisions affecting public schools, but act on it.

Engaging these important communities is critical to improving public education. School improvement efforts have more staying power when parents and community members understand them. Failing to involve all community members in decisions affecting public education often results in apathy, distrust or confrontation.

Parent Involvement = Student Success

Teachers, principals and superintendents know that parents’ interest and involvement in their child’s learning can have a profound affect on a child’s success in school. Studies show when parents and community members are engaged in schools, students perform better, attendance increases and dropout rates are lower.

Schools involve parents and community members in many ways. Parents help with homework, community members assist with school events or make decisions with teachers and principals about how to improve student achievement. Some volunteer as a teacher’s aide or chaperone a field trip or collaborate with community groups to build support for a neighborhood school.

The Challenges

Even though there are many positive outcomes associated with parent and community engagement, educators still struggle with how to involve parents in the issues affecting public schools—especially parents from culturally and linguistically diverse communities. Less parent involvement is also likely in lower income neighborhoods and in areas where parents have little formal education or speak a language other than English. For teachers and principals in these communities, parent and community engagement becomes a source of frustration, even disappointment.

Why is something that makes good sense so challenging to implement in these communities? After all, it’s not that parents don’t care about their children’s future. Far from it. Parents want to play a role in their child’s learning. They want to work closely with teachers and principals. They want what’s best for their child’s future. So, why do educators have little success engaging these

Re-think Your Approach

The answer, in part, may lie in how schools think about parent and community engagement. Too often, schools expect families and community members to get involved on their own. Many schools are finding out the hard way that it’s not enough to post an occasional flier promoting meetings or events. Too often, these fliers end up in a crumpled ball at the bottom of a student’s backpack. Or, school staff rely on parents to see the fliers when they visit the school—when few parents rarely visit school in the first place. If a school uses the same old approach to involve families and community, it will get the same old lackluster results.

How Successful Schools Do It

Successfully involving parents in the decisions affecting your school requires hard work, but the long-term results are well worth it. Involving hard-to-reach parents and community members requires strengthening ties to community leaders, following through on commitments, developing trust and building relationships. It requires a firmer grasp of the cultural and language barriers that may sidetrack educators’ good efforts, and building this cultural awareness into your efforts to engage parents and community members.

Does this mean educators now have to be cultural experts? Well, to some degree—yes. Schools that successfully engage parents and community members are knowledgeable about cultural differences and how those differences affect a community’s perspective on education issues. Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of knowing who to turn to for help. Educators might enlist the help of “cultural expert”—a local minister or social services counselor, for example, who knows the community or communities in the neighborhood.

Is This Guide for You?

This handbook is designed for teachers, principals, superintendents and other educators who want to begin to develop meaningful parent and community involvement in public education in culturally and linguistically diverse communities. This guide is not meant to be the definitive book on community engagement. Instead, the strategies we’ve outlined in this guide will help get you started.

SEDL’s Expertise

SEDL has extensive experience working with public schools to foster meaningful parent and community engagement. What we’ve learned from this work and from interviewing organizers, parents and community members is that obstacles to parent and community involvement can be overcome. Building greater participation requires an understanding of how culture, socioeconomic status and other factors influence parent and community participation. You must earn the trust of minority communities that have traditionally felt shut out of the decisions affecting their children and their neighborhood schools.

We’ve talked with leaders from Hispanic, African-American, Native American and Asian communities to understand what keeps parents and others from participating in school activities. Their best advice is highlighted throughout this publication. Together, we’ve developed engagement strategies to increase participation among family and community members from low socioeconomic and diverse backgrounds.

The Diversity in Dialogue Project

Family and Community Involvement is the third in a series of publications produced by SEDL’s Diversity in Dialogue project. This project focuses on how to engage culturally and linguistically diverse members of the community in the decisions affecting public education.

  Family and Community Involvement: Reaching Out to Diverse Populations
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