How Schools and Districts Are Connecting with Families

connecting with families
(Image credit: Future)

As students head back to school, fostering the new connections to families forged during the pandemic continues to be a priority for all school districts. 

“The big question that we’re asking ourselves is how can we bring back, how can we reconnect, how can we continue to build these connections that we have built over the past 18 months?” said Dr. Adam A. Phyall III, Director of Technology & Media Services for Newton County School System in Covington, Georgia, during the recent #NYCSchools Tech Summit. (Available free on demand here

Building capacity, forging partnerships, and maintaining transparency are all part of the answer. 

“We make sure that parents are part of everything we do at the DOE, from decision-making to partnering up,” said Dery Rodriguez, project manager strategic initiatives for NYC DOE Family and Community Empowerment office. “So from the district to the borough to the school, we’re charged with making sure that parents are our partners in this work.” 

Philippa Wraithmell, Head of Digital Technology and Innovation at Cranleigh School in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, and Sandra Paul, Director of IT/Operations for Township of Union Public Schools in New Jersey, also participated in the discussion.

How are you building capacity and systems for your students? 

At Cranleigh, Wraithmell is dealing with students from 74 different nationalities and in many cases, parents are speaking their native languages at home, not English, so being connected is crucial. “Technology has allowed us to use platforms that can be fully translated for them, just at the touch of a button,” Wraithmell said, which is helpful when sending vital communications to make sure there are fewer misunderstandings. The school has also offered opportunities for parents to book one-on-one sessions on a daily basis. 

Technology is a key to communicating with parents, and the NYC DOE has had to completely change family engagement practices, Rodriguez said. Parent coordinators have been partnered with the digital literacy team to level up technology skills by bringing in experts from companies such as Google, Microsoft, Talking Points, and Zoom to learn how to use new technology. “That was a game changer for us, using technology to make sure that language wasn’t a barrier,” she said. Continuing to build trust with their communities is a focus, as is meeting parents where they’re at and ensuring educators are ready to work with parents.

In response to New Jersey’s  The Road Back guidance, the Township of Union Public Schools created four collaborative committees composed of key stakeholders that were led by parents in the effort of getting back to in-person classes. “It was great having that community input for closing out the end of last year, from March through June,” Paul said. 

Rather than focusing on learning loss, the focus has been on learning opportunities. “The stuff that we had to teach our teachers and show our parents was definitely different than the core curriculum and content, so the learning was on a different trend than what we would’ve done if we were in school,” Paul said. They had to explain to parents how certain platforms operated, the differences in technology (for example, a chromebook vs. a laptop), and how to get internet access. 

How can we help to build the infrastructure to ensure access and keep families connected? 

The first thing educators need to do is change the mindset that technology is impossible to implement, said Rodriguez. “Stop making those assumptions and provide opportunities to learn,” she said. New York City saw parental engagement “skyrocket” through online opportunities, and has created a parent university that offers courses on edtech tools, social-emotional learning, and more.

In the U.A.B, many parents didn’t have technology while growing up and are just now understanding that it can be used for learning. “Parents have been at home with their children, watching them use that technology for learning, and they’re finally seeing that connection, and now are much more engaged in wanting to be part of that,” Wraithmell said. Her team offered “Tech Tuesdays,” during which they would provide videos and lessons about various aspects of school for parents. The flexibility of recorded videos allowed parents to upskill themselves at times most convenient for them. 

Parents are also seeing that accessibility is providing equal learning opportunities for all students. “Access needs to be a non-negotiable part of life for everyone now,” she said. 

Sometimes we forget that staff are also parents, and they have the very same issues as all parents, said Phyall. For example, some teachers in his district had to park next to schools in order to get internet access to teach. “We have to take care of the people we employ in our school systems, but sometimes I think we forget about that in our conversations about parents,” he said. 

How are you empowering your parents in regard to technology? 

Empowerment is critical. “Not all parents had good experiences with school, so if they have that barrier up, we have to find ways to tear it down and bridge that relationship,” Phyall said. 

The Township of Union Public Schools is focused on continuing to develop virtual workshops for parents, and has put in place supports such as QR codes that parents can scan to help kids log into their virtual desktops. As the state of New Jersey is providing free lunch for every student this year, the district has made the information available through several digital methods, including on social media, its website, via email, through various apps, the parent portal, etc. “The important thing is making sure everyone knows that it takes all of us to be there for the students of our community,” Paul said.

Trying to find free resources that parent coordinators can learn from and use continues to be a focus in New York City, as is creating real partnerships. “We don’t want just that one-time opportunity,” Rodriguez said. “How do we create that opportunity, that pathway or pipeline, for parents to be our partners in this work, and also send that message this partnership matters, and that parents’ skills are just as valuable as any staff member’s in the building.”

How do we build trust and re-engage with parents and the community? 

The NYC DOE is focusing on three things with parents to build community and trust: 

  • What does a welcoming environment look like and how do they provide that for families? 
  • How to honor families 
  • How to connect families with resources, the classroom and teachers, and other administrative pieces. 

“One thing I’ve learned is that you have to earn the right to be heard,” Rodriguez said. “We have to earn that right with our parents and understand that they come with a lot of their own traumas and challenges.”

Transparency and open communication continue to be priorities in building trust with families. “If parents ask about something, tell them what it was, how we did it and why we did it so that they know they’re being listened to,” Wraithmell said. “There’s nothing more frustrating than asking about something and not knowing if someone has done anything about it.” She suggests that educators remind parents that sometimes a situation can’t be resolved overnight, but you can lay out your process to reassure them it’s being addressed. 

And of course, honesty is still always a good policy. “No one likes being lied to or feeling that way,” she said. “That can create a toxic relationship between parents and schools, if they feel as if they’re asking for something and we’re not delivering anything back.”

When facing shortages with devices and other tech issues, Paul has invited vendors to do town meeting-style virtual events to talk to parents to provide honest, expert answers. “Sometimes I tell parents, ‘I don’t know the answer to your question but I will try to find out,’” she said. “But having a representative there, actually with the township and community to understand what they’re going through, helps a lot.”

How do we stay connected to our families? 

Making sure access continues to be part of the solution is important, said Phyall. In Newton, his team creates videos, sends messages through multiple platforms including local newspapers, and even posts information through houses of worship or in apartment complexes. 

“It’s really understanding and assessing your community about what is the best way that parents want to receive communication,” Rodriguez said. Asking directly how they want information is simple and effective. Home visits with every family can also be effective in building relationships.

In the U.K. during the pandemic, some districts used bus drivers to help deliver homework and other important information. “A lot of our efforts were concentrated around just really letting parents know that we’re there,” Wraithmell said. “Whatever is their best way to contact us, be it through email or Twitter, they’re able to connect with us and get support and help.”

What is one big takeaway for educators regarding connecting with parents and families? 

“Refine what you do this year and make it consistent so you can get students to thrive and strive without changing it all the time,” Wraithmell said. “Students and parents will know, ‘This is where work goes, this is how I can communicate,’ and you’re taking away a level of stress that doesn’t need to be added.” 

“This year has shown us that we’re still able to be creative in a time when it’s challenging and tough and scary,” Rodriguez said. “We have so many beautiful websites and have seen so many educators embrace technology to express themselves and communicate. Just continue to be you.”

“Don’t let parent communication fall through the cracks,” Paul said. “We have so many ways to connect with our community now, so the big thing is to make sure we don’t lose what we have built.”

Ray Bendici is the Managing Editor of Tech & Learning and Tech & Learning University. He is an award-winning journalist/editor, with more than 20 years of experience, including a specific focus on education.