Building Parent Capacity
A Massachusetts district sees authentic relationships as the starting point for supported student learning
BY PATRICIA A. SPRADLEY/School Administrator, August 2019

Patricia Spradley
In 2008, when I was asked to create an effective parent engagement structure in the high-poverty school district where I work, I had no idea what that really meant. One of my first questions was about how much autonomy I would have. After all, there were no pre-existing family engagement initiatives.

I also had concerns about financial support, human capital and timeframe. But I looked at the opportunity to start a new program for engagement as a chance to launch a movement in our school system of 25,300 students in the southwestern corner of Massachusetts.

I forged ahead, meeting with people throughout the Springfield district, conducting focus groups in the community and holding candid conversations with individuals I deemed essential to building a solid structure. Two of the most meaningful experiences involved visiting Miami-Dade County’s Parent Academy and soliciting help on research and development from the School and Main Institute in Boston. Work with the latter accelerated our plans.

I also visited parent engagement initiatives in other communities — notably, Philadelphia and Rochester, N.Y. — to determine what might be the best fit for Springfield, Mass.

All too often, school districts make the mistake of thinking that what works well in one school system will function well in their own. No single size fits all so it’s important to know your history, where you stand and the vision for where you’re going.

Springfield’s planning process for community engagement took two years with contributions from faith-based organizations, business partners, PTA leaders and school-based decision-making teams.

A major component to the launch was the Home Visit Project, in which teachers visit a student’s home to establish relationships with families to support student achievement. This is a national model that originated in Sacramento, Calif. Part-time parent facilitators at each school already were funded by the Springfield school district.

Practical Classes
In 2010, we launched the Springfield Parent Academy, granting access to an array of free classes held in convenient venues for families. It remains today the only vehicle within the school district in which parents and caring adults are intentionally and strategically provided capacity-building opportunities directly tied to student success.

Courses offered by the parent academy must meet the same quality standards as teacher professional development. Organizations leading the workshops include the Baystate Medical Center, University of Massachusetts, Liberty Tax Services and Square One. They are not compensated.

To encourage participation, we partner with daycare providers, provide food and beverages and meet parents where they live. We recruited an individual to promote academy courses in under-represented neighborhoods. Making services convenient and socially comfortable for parents builds bridges that are invaluable for educators.

The initial courses addressed (1) how to help parents help their children; (2) how to help parents expand their own knowledge and skills; and (3) how to help parents get certifications in specific areas. We subsequently adopted course names with family-friendly titles to encourage participation. Some are geared toward academics, some toward student well-being and others are meant just to be fun. Among our most popular: “No I Won’t, and You Can’t Make Me” and “The Glass Ain’t Half-Full — Heck, It’s Overflowing!”

Our parent academy courses primarily began as individual sessions. They evolved to address current demands and, in some cases, became a course series. Parenting courses today include “Attendance Matters” and “How to Survive the Teenage Years.” We also offer courses relating to health and wellness (“Laugh for the Health of It” and “More Than the Birds and the Bees: Talking to Children About Sex”), finances and budgeting (“Cooking Matters in the Store” and “So You Want to Buy a House!”), student achievement (“ABC’s of the IEP and 504 Plan” and “There is an App for That!”) and personal growth (“Find Your Voice — Fatherhood and Family” and “Finding Your Passion”).

The program’s goal is to help parents, grandparents, older siblings, other caregivers and community members connect with Springfield’s neighborhood schools, learn how to advocate for themselves and their children and even model for students the importance of lifelong learning.

Parents stand outside the Springfield Public Schools’ Parent and Community Engagement Center in Springfield, Mass.

Mandatory Training
While the Springfield Parent Academy remains the most ambitious effort yet to get parents involved in their children’s education and academic success, we have more work to do to promote effectiveness of the resources and increase participation.

Strong district leadership and commitment determine the sustainability of authentic parent engagement. Greater marketing and promotion at the state and local levels about the positive impact of parent/family capacity-building on student performance also is important. So too is systemic professional development for school-based and district staff.

We have made some strides. When we reviewed program evaluation data, we discovered families felt unwelcome and often disrespected by school staff. Until this was addressed, we weren’t going to move the needle to build positive family/educator relation-ships.

To accommodate our sizable immigrant population (23 percent of students are enrolled in English language learning), academy courses have been made available in Spanish, Vietnamese and Somali. Parents can take classes at public libraries, schools, businesses and churches, and in apartment complexes. Some may draw only one parent, while other classes enroll as many as 20, our maximum capacity.

Five years ago, the superintendent agreed to mandatory formal training in customer service for all front-office and central-office staff. This forced staff members to look within themselves and at their own practices and prejudices by asking, “What assumptions am I making about families?” “How can I make all my parents feel welcome?” “How can I make my school a welcoming place for all parents?” Partnering with the district’s chief of communications and the head of safety and security made this a successful endeavor as we stressed positive attitudinal change and the elimination of implicit biases.

Principals were required to attend a summer workshop in 2014 and annual refreshers since. We have been seeing positive behavioral changes among staff, more authentic cultural discussions and improved relationships between families and educators, with both being empathetic to the other’s circumstances.

To address racism, community leaders in the Springfield area approached the school district about partnering on a proactive movement. Community leaders from greater Springfield who believe racism continues to afflict our nation and impacts local businesses, neighborhoods, schools and even personal relationships formed an ad hoc regional anti-racism workgroup. Our task was to explore how our community could engage in the work of acknowledging, addressing and healing racism.

One of the many attributes our school district boasts is a great deal of diversity among our students. Though we celebrate and affirm that great diversity, I believe there always remains room for improvement on how leaders handle matters of race and cultural identity. To that end, our superintendent prioritized the district’s participation in this initiative.

Springfield, Mass., Public Schools hosts an annual kickoff in summer for families and district staff to promote family engagement with community partners and learning support resources.
System Building
Our greatest challenge remains systemic change. When I work with school districts elsewhere, it is no different. Systemic family and community engagement improves the core enterprise of K-12 schooling, linked to student learning and aligned with coherent overall goals of the organization.

If attention to parent engagement could be put on the same playing field as the four core subjects of math, English, science and social studies, we would be able to build educator capacity and gather metrics to show the impact that equitable and authentic family/educator relationships have on student success.

Family engagement is one of the most powerful predictors of children’s educational achievement, personal development and success in school and beyond. Yet parent and community engagement hasn’t gotten the warranted investment from public policymakers, grant makers and the like. And it has not been at the heart of conversations regarding the impact on educational improvement.

Continuing Work
One important way to move parent engagement forward in Springfield has been to expand professional development opportunities. Creating the Springfield Parent Academy was an effective and necessary strategy for families and caring adults. And at the heart of its creation, was capacity building.

Ensuring parent engagement is an integral part of districtwide professional development and would help launch an equitable process for building staff capacity. It also would provide opportunities to learn, practice and implement effective strategies for engagement.

Classroom teacher confidence would rise as their skill set develops. Teachers would be better equipped to build authentic relationships with families, promote course attendance and be more apt to apply the array of courses offered through the parent academy as effective resources for relationship building.

With continuing efforts to inform, educate and help families understand the essential role they play in their children’s lives, coupled with the district’s responsibility of equipping them to support student learning, the gains in student outcomes will be inevitable.

PATRICIA SPRADLEY is chief of parent and community engagement for Springfield Public Schools in Springfield, Mass.

Additional Resources
Readers can learn more about the Springfield Parent Academy and view a complete list of courses being offered.

Spradley, who was recognized for her work in parent and community engagement as one of Education Week’s Leaders to Learn From in 2014, suggests these additional resources:

» Best Practices for Engaging Families and the Community, a brief produced by Hanover Research.

» “National Standards Implementation Guide,” produced by the PTA. 

» “Partners in Education: A Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family-School Partnerships,” produced by SEDL and the U.S. Department of Education.