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Family Engagement Practices in California Schools

Rebecca London | June 2016


The California education landscape has shifted dramatically toward local control. With the implementation of the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) and Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP), school districts now have freedom to design educational approaches tailored to their student populations. But they also have responsibility for articulating how these plans address student needs. LCAPs require school districts to put plans in place for eight priority areas, among which is family engagement in support of student learning. The literature on family engagement suggests that it is an important part of a comprehensive strategy for improving educational outcomes, particularly for low-income, non-English-speaking, and other at-risk groups.

This focus on family engagement is unprecedented in an education accountability system, both in California and nationally. Therefore it warrants attention—to understand the various family engagement strategies employed and how they align with the literature on effective practices. Although the California Department of Education has offered districts guidance about family-engagement strategies, rubrics for evaluating the content of LCAPs have not yet been put into place.

This study relies on reviews of a select sample of 15 district LCAPs chosen intentionally to represent high-need districts with a known focus on family engagement, so as to elicit promising and transferrable practices. As a framework for reviewing the LCAPs, it uses four key family-engagement strategies the literature identifies.

The first strategy is resources—in the form of family resource centers or family liaisons—and opportunities for engagement in a variety of ways, including volunteering and capacity-building to support learning at home. This category also includes training for school staff on best practices for family engagement, including how to engage families with cultural and linguistic backgrounds different from their own. Second is effective communication, which includes communicating through multiple modes, in appropriate languages, and providing opportunities for two-way sharing of information. Third is shared responsibility and leadership, which refers to opportunities at the district and school levels for family members to be involved in decision-making roles and supported in their leadership development. The fourth strategy involves creating a welcoming environment, which includes providing staff who are culturally competent to make all families feel comfortable, and ensuring family members and students feel safe at school.

The 15 district LCAPs in this study approach these strategies in different ways. Highlights include:

  • Offering capacity-building opportunities so families can both support student learning at home and navigate the school environment more effectively.
  • Reformatting school events to make them more focused on engaged family learning, for instance by changing “open house” to “family literacy night” or “family math night.”
  • Communicating in multiple languages and through multiple avenues to reach as many families as possible—such as emails, texts, phone calls, websites, mailings and newsletters, and media.
  • Engaging in two-way communication through family surveys, home visits, parent-teacher academic teams, and opportunities for parent feedback on available services.
  • Establishing formalized leadership training programs for family members, including a certification process and a “train the trainer” model.
  • Creating a welcoming environment by offering a safe and clean school campus, inviting families to participate in classroom activities, and providing cultural diversity training for staff who interact with families.

Districts report using multiple approaches to engage families, although no one approach or combination of approaches emerges as a model. Instead, it appears districts are tailoring their practices to the needs and strengths of their own communities, or selecting one or two main approaches to family engagement on which to focus. It is important that districts select approaches to engagement that are integrated with student learning and culturally appropriate for their students’ families.

Districts are required to describe the metrics they will employ to track family engagement outcomes. The most common two metrics are counts of family participation at events and response rates to family surveys. Both are limited in that they focus only on family participation and not on opportunities for engagement offered by districts and schools. An appropriate set of metrics would include measures of opportunities for family engagement at the district and school in addition to family members’ participation in these opportunities. Data-tracking systems, annual self-assessments, and family surveys together are the best data collection tools for gathering the information needed to assess family engagement in schools and districts.

This research was supported with funding from the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund.

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