ST. PETERSBURG – “We are in this together!” That is the motto Pinellas County Schools (PCS) is on a mission to make stick throughout the community. John Hopkins Middle School, located at 701 16th St. S., opened its doors to families, teachers and school board members in an effort to get the word out that change is coming, and it needs the help of the community in order to make it work.
Superintendent of Pinellas County Schools Michael Grego spoke first about the effort being made to increase family engagement in communities where schools are in need of guidance and support. The five elementary schools focused on were Campbell Park, Melrose, Lakewood, Fairmount Park and Maximo. The intent of the meeting was to find ways to revamp some of the ways PCS can make families feel more at home and an active part of the school system.
“I want us all to see how we can individually and collectively advance through discussion,” said Grego who believes trust is the building block of each relationship. “Let us never be divided.”
District 7 School Board Member Renee Flowers emphasized that all the target schools fell within her borders and spoke of the obligation of the community to discuss what is being expressed at the Parent Support for Education Council (PSFEC) meetings with residents who may not be able to attend.
“They are missing a real opportunity for change,” Flowers said. She feels the only way that change can occur is through the entire community coming together. Flowers suggested those who can make it to the conferences seek out those who can’t and relay the information. “Education is the new currency, it is the paycheck,” said Flowers. “So we’re here today to make sure our kids get paid.”
The guest speaker of the evening was Dr. Karen Mapp, a senior lecturer on education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is also the faculty director of the Education Policy and Management master’s program.
Mapp has been conducting research on family engagement for some 20 years and specializes in cultivating partnerships among families, community members and educators in support of student achievement and school improvement.
Admittedly she shared that the verbiage even she used to use has got to change. The common phrase “parental involvement” is a thing of the past. Family engagement is the new buzzword as it incorporates extended family members who may have a vested interest.
“There are folks: grandma, grandpa, auntie, uncle, who make a difference when it comes to raising our children,” said Mapp who is redefining family as anyone that is engaged in fully supporting a child’s learning and development. She believes engagement means a partnership and that means a new way of thinking for both educators and members of the community. “This is the beginning of a journey, a conversation about doing right for our children.”
Mapp wrote a book entitled “Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family-School Partnerships,” in which she discusses how to promote effective partnerships. Each of the five schools in attendance received a copy and a brief rating system of involvement in schools was conducted with audience members.
Parents, educators, and community members turned and talked about where their school fell on the rubric, which ranged from one as being below basic, to four which focused on real partnerships between families and the school.
Ones were labeled as fortress schools. Schools where school personnel believe they have tried everything but the parents just don’t care about their child’s education. A fortress school may also be conceived as a school where parents are not welcome at all and feel unwanted when they enter the front office.
Number two, according to the Mapp’s rubric, are the come if we call schools. These schools tend to operate on the mantra of “don’t call us, we’ll call you.” They typically encourage engagement to attend open house and plan workshops that they feel are needed for the parent instead of asking parents what they want information on.
A three on the rubric would entail a school having an open door policy. They conduct conferences that involve parents, teachers and students. “A much better way to have dialogue because now the child’s involved,” said Mapp who also stated a three rated school as having committees that consists of community members, parents and staff who collaborate together to plan activities for the school year.
The discussions around the room fell mostly on labeling their schools as twos or threes, which Mapp views as adequate.
“Families need more of a role,” said Mapp who over the years has noticed everything seems to be created and conducted at the school level. She used to lecture on the need to treat families as clients to be catered to. Her viewpoint now is much different.
She now lectures on the importance of realizing families are the co-creators and co-producers of excellent schools. Educators can’t do it alone. “The job is too hard,” she said. “We are in this together.”
Statistics are powerful and Mapp disclosed one that put it into perspective. Although children spend around six hours at school, five days a week, it amounts to roughly only 17 percent of their cumulative time in a year. The other 83 percent is spent at home or in the community.
“If we’re not partnering and we’re not together, our children aren’t going to grow up and be the best that they can be,” said Mapp.
Breakout sessions amongst the five individual schools were conducted where families and community members could speak out on their concerns and challenges while brainstorming solutions. Superintendent Grego popped into the Campbell Park session, which was facilitated by Pamela Moore, the associate superintendent of Teaching and Learning. Pastor Martin Rainey was also there to help jot down the areas of concern, along with Campbell Park Principal Robert Ovalle.
Guiding questions were asked to help open communication lines in areas such as school climate, academics and curriculum, cultural sensitivity and overall family engagement.
Those in the room were encouraged to provide feedback on the ease of obtaining information from the school. One parent admitted not attempting to reach out to the school, but feeling as if it was teachers and staff making the decisions.
Others cited too early meeting times suggesting workshops be presented more toward 6 p.m. to enable more parents to fit it into their work schedule. Still others suggested conference calls where up to 50 people could be on the line at one time and participate in the meetings as if they were there, citing child care and transportation issues as a barrier to attending.
When probed as to what wasn’t working well to engage families some key issues were too little notice of events and some parents suggested printing and posting a monthly newsletter that lists various events at the school ahead of time so that families could plan better.
One gentleman put it all on the line letting school officials know that some families are still working to get themselves together or have multiple children in different grades and schools.
“It’s hard for them to get involved with what is happening at the school,” he said.
By the closing of the conference it was apparent that there is a lot of work to still be done. Although one solution won’t fit all, school officials and the community are working toward more collaboration and families having an increased voice in making their child’s school and the education they receive be the best that it can be.
Each of these schools have a PTA or SAC average of one to five parents per school and PSFEC proposes a series of no less than three listening forums be held in the communities where each of the low performing schools are located to help promote more family engagement.
To reach Holly Kestenis, email firstname.lastname@example.org