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Education Leaders: Nothing Succeeds Without Family Engagement

Roger Lawrence

As an education reporter in Indiana, I talk to a lot different people about education issues: politicians, teachers, parents, state agency employees and kids explain their opinions on everything from pre-k to standardized testing.

No matter what problem we’re talking about, everyone cites one thing as a solution: family engagement.

So everyone agrees, as soon as a child is born, parents should be involved. But how exactly does that help them learn?

Kindergarten through second graders and their families are trickling into the lunchroom of Edgewood Primary School in Ellettsville. Tonight’s event is a literacy based craft night, and students are signing up for which teacher they want to read them a book.

Jill Ferguson oversees family engagement for Richland Bean Blossom schools and gives instructions to families before they scatter to different classrooms for the reading activities.

“Listen to how the teachers present the story, maybe it’s something you could do at home,” she instructs the parents.

A former schoolteacher in inner city Las Vegas, Ferguson knows how a lack of parental engagement weighs down a child’s ability to learn. She also knows as a working parent how hard it is to find time to slow down and work with a child on learning strategies.

"What I see a lot is parents doing everything they still can, but with both parents working and they’re working a lot and they’re just trying to get by," Ferguson says.

Down the hall, kindergartner Gage Meza listens to his teacher Alissa Drewes read Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus.

Drewes doesn’t just read the book, she engages the kids. They yell no when the pigeon asks to the drive the bus. She asks them to make predictions.

Sitting behind the children are the parents, including Gage’s mom Brittany McKee.

"We try to read books -- that’s a big thing in our house," McKee says. "They get to pick out a book each and we get to read it and then we go over it at the end." 

A technique she’s picked up from participating in family events at the school. Drewes says the Meza family is a good example of positive parent engagement, because they don’t just participate in events like tonight’s activity, they continue what happens in school at home- Drewes says that’s the pillar of effective family engagement.

"It’s a tripod effect," Drewes says. "It’s myself, all of my parents and all of my students. We’re working together to make sure our students are successful. When one of that tripod is not working it’s going to fall over."

And sometimes all it takes is a little reminder. Researchers at Stanford this week released a study that outline a program where parents received a text message prompting them to engage their child in a literacy activity. And it worked, parents who got the texts spent up to thirteen percent more time engaging children in reading activities.

Parental engagement is a requirement of the state’s preschool pilot, which is launching in four counties in January. The family involvement component will be one part of the pilot the state evaluates before considering expanding statewide. Although the law mandates a parental engagement component, it isn’t clear what that looks like.

So program leaders like John Pierce, who heads up the pilot program in Allen County, is devising his own parental involvement plan like home visits and parent nights, because he knows the impact it will have on the program as a whole.

"I think everyone realizes also that parents are children’s first and most important teachers and the more we can engage them and even educate them on brain development, child development and things like that, the more they’re going to be able to help support and assist those children and the classrooms to perform even better," Pierce says.

Back in Drewes' class, she reads the sequel to Don’t let the Pigeon Drive the Bus to the children, showcasing some of her reading strategies -- techniques McKee says she will likely try later at home with her sons.