By Keith Catone

When the parent leaders and staff at Portland Empowered came up with the idea and design for Shared Space Cafes, they did not quite know what to expect. How responsive would school and district staff be to an invitation to spend Friday evenings meeting with parents and families? Would parents and families who feel disconnected from school communities show up for the events? Would Shared Space Cafes actually make any difference and lead to improving connections between families and schools?

In fact, the Shared Space Cafes created a new kind of conversation between parents and school staff, and led to the development of a “Parent and Family Engagement Manifesto” that distilled the lessons learned from these dynamic discussions.  

Video about Portland Empowered's "Parent and Family Engagement Manifesto" and Shared Space Cafes

After working together to design Shared Space Cafes in ways that would honor parent voice and leadership, be accessible to various language groups, and engage teachers and administrators in conversations initiated by families, Portland Empowered partnered with three high schools to host three different events over the course of the 2014-2015 school year. The results were dynamic discussions between parents, teachers, and administrators about what they can do together – or separately as parents or schools – to ensure that students are successful in high school and beyond, as well as what parents and schools each need to do to increase the chances of student success. Conversations were facilitated by Portland Empowered staff or parent leaders and, when necessary, were conducted in families’ native languages, with translation being provided for school personnel. For some parents, it was the first time ever speaking with one of their children’s teachers. For some school staff, it was the first time participating in a parent-led discussion in a language other than English. Through instances of connection, moments of generative tension, and realizations of common hopes and dreams for the children of Portland, participants left Shared Space Cafes energized to work together for the success of Portland Public Schools.

In reflecting upon the success of Shared Space Cafes and what they had learned and heard from family members at these events and countless other one-on-one and small group conversations in the community, Portland Empowered staff and parent volunteers realized that they had begun to develop some concrete ideas and principles for how schools can effectively engage parents and families. Collectively, they distilled these lessons to create the “Parent and Family Engagement Manifesto,” a collection of six key design principles for effective engagement practices. In partnership with the school district and high school principals, Portland Empowered organized a celebratory event in February to publicly release the manifesto and gained commitments from the district and high school leadership to take concrete steps toward instituting family engagement practices reflecting the principles. Currently, parent leaders are working with each high school in Portland to implement these practices. In addition, they are working with the Portland Board of Education to pass a resolution endorsing the Manifesto principles.

1175 Portland Empowered is a project of the Muskie School for Public Service at the University of Southern Maine. AISR has provided technical assistance to Portland Empowered as part of our work with the Nellie Mae Education Foundation’s "Building Public Understanding and Demand" grant program.

Keith Catone is associate director of Community Organizing & Engagement at AISR.