By Joanna D. Geller
The deadline for the next round of federal Investing in Innovation (i3) grants is coming up on August 16. Whether you are getting ready to submit an application, serve on a review committee, or are simply gearing up for another school year, the most recent issue of Voices in Urban Education has important lessons for you. The issue, Bringing Transformative Family Engagement to Scale: Implementation Lessons from Federal i3 Grants, is not just for family engagement enthusiasts, but also offers powerful lessons for all innovators hoping to implement ambitious reform in underserved communities.
I was inspired to guest edit this issue after several years of leading AISR’s evaluation of the We Are A Village i3 grant in Central Falls, Rhode Island. For those scrambling to finalize your i3 proposals, I recommend considering a few of the questions that the implementation team in Central Falls wished they had focused on in their grant-writing and short planning phase:
- Are there dedicated staff who have the necessary time to devote to implementation and communication with one another and others about the initiative?
- Are there a sufficient number of staff who speak the necessary languages of the students or families you’re seeking to benefit?
- If you’re proposing a partnership, does every partner have a clear understanding of its role? If you’re creating new positions, does everyone understand how they complement existing positions?
- What is the level of trust between teachers, parents, and administrators? Assuming your initiative relies on strong trust, how will it help to repair trust if necessary?
- What are the schools already doing that they’re proud of? What are the goals of school leaders, teachers, and parents? How does the initiative you’re proposing fit with or differ from these strengths, goals, and needs?
As these questions suggest, there were predictable challenges to implementation in Central Falls over the past three years. Yet, on a rainy April morning earlier this year, nearly sixty people gathered in the auditorium of Central Falls High School to celebrate the accomplishments of the one-square-mile city’s $3 million i3 grant. Parent leaders, most of whom were immigrants, shared gripping testimonials about how they grew more comfortable with the schools, found a community, and furthered their careers and education; the mayor and district superintendent urged families to continue to hold them accountable; and parents gathered in small groups to react to the findings and recommendations we presented. The event was a beautiful display of community solidarity. There was a sense in the auditorium that parents, educators, district and city officials, and community partners were in sync and on a path toward greatness – together.
In putting together this issue of VUE, I wanted to give my Central Falls colleagues and the national community of i3 parent and family engagement grantees the opportunity to share what it truly takes to implement a successful family engagement initiative. The key principles for implementing reform in urban districts – buy-in, a common vision, sufficient capacity – still apply, but this issue emphasizes that a unique set of resources is required to successfully implement family engagement initiatives in school districts where so many educators and families have different racial, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Resources that were critical to the success of many of the initiatives described in this issue include:
- trainings that develop the capacity of all stakeholders – families, young people, teachers, program staff, principals, superintendents – to build relationships rooted in trust and respect, which can mean having honest and hard conversations about racism, classism, and xenophobia;
- involvement of highly skilled cultural brokers (the individuals who build bridges between families and educators on a daily basis) and opportunities for these brokers to have access to professional development, supportive supervision, and a professional learning community; and
- welcoming, school-based spaces where parents feel comfortable and can access support.
What do grantees need from the Department of Education and technical assistance providers to effectively provide these resources? They need ample time and hands-on support during the planning phase to develop a shared vision, assess needs and strengths, establish communication systems, and generate buy-in. They need time to change course when something isn’t working and to adapt the initiative to vastly different school climates and cultures. They need evaluation that provides formative feedback and that captures important outcomes beyond student test scores, such as the personal and civic transformations that result from parent leadership initiatives.
This work is not for those who wish for constant immediate gratification or expect change to happen quickly. But for those, like this VUE issue's authors and their colleagues, who are willing to put in the time, energy, creativity, and, at times, raw emotion that are required to implement transformative family engagement programs, the results are well worth the wait.
Joanna Geller is a senior research associate at AISR and adjunct assistant professor of education at Brown University.