|Traci Davis (left), former superintendent of Washoe County School District in Reno, Nev., during a visit to a student’s home, with Traner Middle School teacher Tara O’Brien (right).
It’s important to acknowledge the differences between interaction and engagement in K-12 education. Greeting a few parents by name at a parent organization meeting is less impactful than visiting families in their homes, learning about their successes and challenges and engaging more personally.
In the Washoe County School District based in Reno, Nev., we know our students face challenges at school and in life. While our teachers and staff work with them every day, we cannot achieve our goals alone. The district set out to engage more meaningfully with the people who play a more prominent role in their young lives — their families.
As our student enrollment has grown to 64,000 today and our staff exceeds 8,000, we have expanded and adapted our district’s outreach efforts by building trust; creating more opportunities for our families and our community to engage with the schools; and establishing strong, two-way communication where our community feels heard, acknowledged and valued.
Our students reflect the diverse population in our area; 45 percent live in poverty. They also are achieving academically at unprecedented levels. In 2018, high school graduation rates across the district reached 84 percent, an historic high and up from 62 percent in 2010. Increasing numbers of students are earning advanced and honors diplomas on their way to higher education, skilled careers and military service.
Power of Partnership
Our earliest efforts revolved around what we call Conversation Corners. These are informal meetings at schools or community centers where I encourage attendees to ask questions, discuss challenges and provide input on district programs. These events provide me and members of our administrative team with the opportunity to engage directly with families and the community.
Sometimes conversations are difficult, but this is an invaluable part of our engagement efforts. We need to listen and learn from their feedback. Anyone unable to attend may submit questions via the “Ask Traci” link on the school district website, and we answer each one personally via e-mail.
Our Community Ambassadors program consists of community leaders who engage directly with underserved populations. These advocates work in partnership with district administrators, sharing ideas and tackling challenges that impact our most vulnerable populations. Community Ambassadors represent our faith community, local businesses, human service agencies such as the Boys & Girls Clubs and others. They have proved essential to our engagement work.
Most distinctively, the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project brings teachers directly into students’ homes where they meet with families to learn more about their hopes and dreams for their children. Following these initial visits, the bonds between home and school are stronger. At subsequent visits, more targeted supports can be discussed and provided because the relationship is better established.
Twice during the 2018-19 school year — in August 2018 and March 2019 — the Washoe County School District organized and hosted school expos at Reno’s largest shopping mall. Last August, at the Back to School Expo event (held on the weekend before school started), departments including student health services, transportation, nutrition services, early childhood education, family-school partnerships and community partners (Food Bank of Northern Nevada, Immunize Nevada, etc.) set up information booths. Many families live near the mall, which is easily accessible by public transportation. More than 1,000 people attended.
The district’s Office of Communications and Community Engagement set up the most popular stop for families at the Back to School Expo: a photo booth where students could pose as “Future Graduates” with the year of their expected high school graduation listed beneath.
During the Summer Camp Expo and Family Fair in March, organizations that provide summer programs joined district staff members to distribute information about literacy, STEM studies and other summer break activities.
Washoe County schools have partnered with the United Way of Northern Nevada and the Sierra, the local public television station, Univision and Nevada 211, which connects residents with free information and links to important services including assistance with rent/mortgages, utilities, food, medical care and employment. We collaborate on the Be There campaign launched by the Northern Nevada Grade-Level Reading Coalition. This program teaches the importance of attending school every day and how attendance positively impacts literacy and academic success.
Many families struggle to bring their children to school each day because of poverty, a lack of transportation, lack of access to medical resources and an inability to afford housing. We don’t blame families for these factors that lead to chronic absenteeism, but instead engage with them to provide the resources they need to consistently bring their children to school. The school district has set a goal to reduce its absentee rate by 2 percent in the coming year.
None of these practices created an insurmountable financial impact and could be adapted easily by a district of any size. Superintendents usually can find time in their schedules to hold informal meetings with the community. Virtually all communities have agency heads and elected officials who engage with underserved populations and are eager to work with school districts to provide support. Home visits can become a part of every school’s practices, and a back-to-school event can take place at a public library, community center or house of worship.
We also conduct robust media campaigns, distribute news releases and post information about these events before, during and after they occur on social media, including on Facebook Live. Input from our families and community has been positive.
A Personal Connection
I’m involved personally in these engagement strategies. During my days as a Title I specialist, I made many visits to students’ homes to provide wraparound services for families. I’m a board member today with a national organization, Parent Teacher Home Visits, and I make a home visit at least annually now.
After becoming superintendent in Washoe County, I made a particularly memorable home visit. At this visit, the mother of four introduced me to her children and shared they all had different fathers. In my head, as one of three siblings whose parents were married for 50 years, I began to make assumptions. I was making judgments about this mother before I had a chance to speak with her because her situation was so unlike my own — the very thing we are not supposed to do. I realized what I was doing and use that episode to share how easily we can lapse into our own implicit biases. It’s now part of my call to action around equity in our district.
After engaging with this mom, it was evident she loved her children. Like most mothers, she too could articulate her hopes and dreams for each one of them, and she did something else: She shared each child’s scrapbook with me. Her elementary school daughter wants to be a punter in the National Football League. Her scrapbook was filled with photos of her playing punter on her Pop Warner team — even a game-winning kick!
I was struck by something as simple and meaningful as scrapbooks — similar to what my mother had for my brothers and me and I have for my own child. This mom was no different from my family. My learning opportunity came on that visit with a single mom of four, and I will forever be thankful for the amazing opportunity to engage with them. It affirmed that continuous learning is crucial.
Occasionally, I will see that family in Walmart or Target, and we hug. We chat about her kids. I tell her daughter I can’t wait for her to be a punter for my Dallas Cowboys.
served as superintendent of the Washoe County School District in Reno, Nev. Twitter: @Supt_Davis
These organizations provide informational resources that can be helpful to school systems interested in engaging more thoroughly with students’ families.
» Flamboyan Foundation
» Global Family Research Project
» Harvard’s Introduction to Family Engagement in Education
, a free online course
» Institute for Educational Leadership
, notably the National Coalition for Community Schools and the National Conference for Family & Community Engagement and their District Leaders Network for Family Engagement
» National Association for Family, School and Community Engagement