Family Engagement

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IMPACT OF FOCAL AREA

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The research is clear—children succeed when families are authentically engaged as partners in supporting their children’s development and learning. Studies show that quality interactions between young children and their families are associated with significant and long-term cognitive and social-emotional benefits. Along with these findings, researchers have found that meaningful family engagement in early learning programs supports school readiness and later academic success.

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Family engagement in early childhood programming has been positively linked to a number of pre-literacy skills, including vocabulary, early writing, book knowledge, letter and word recognition, letter identification tasks, story and print comprehension, and pre-math problem-solving. Research has also found that stronger parent-teacher communication is associated with higher ratings of children’s positive engagement with others as well as adaptive, language, social, and motor skills.

Pennsylvania recognizes family engagement as an important aspect of early childhood program quality. The state’s goal for family engagement is to support strong partnerships among families, communities, early learning programs, and schools to better promote children’s school readiness and achievement.


"I think relationships, that is definitely so important. It has been the biggest lesson I have learned these past couple of years. It's about building the relationships with your families, the teachers in the schools, and relationships with community partners."


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LOCAL STRATEGIES

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Guided by the state’s commitment to family engagement, CIZ grantees made use of the early learning standards as a framework to develop and implement their own local strategies encouraging family engagement in early childhood and the early elementary years. As a key objective of the grant program, CIZs promoted strategies that linked home, school, and community so that families would be valued and empowered to support their children’s learning and development and be a voice in their communities. In 2015, OCDEL commissioned School Readiness Consulting (SRC) to conduct a study of family engagement efforts implemented by CIZ grantees. Findings from the study revealed key implementation strategies being used by CIZs in efforts to effectively engage families, including relationship and trust building; simple approaches; flexibility and persistence; leadership opportunities; and strengths-based and culturally responsive practice.

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Relationship and Trust Building

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Benefit of Simple Approaches

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Flexibility and Persistence

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Leadership Opportunities

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Strengths-Based and Culturally Responsive Practice

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RELATIONSHIP AND TRUST BUILDING

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Overwhelmingly, CIZ grantees identified that the most important factor leading to success in family engagement work was the focus on relationships and building trust in the community. Grantees realized that their efforts were more effective when they spent time getting to know the families first, and allowed families to share information about themselves, including their own goals and desires for their children’s education. Grantees also were able to build relationships and trust with families by creating a presence in the community. Grantee staff members made efforts to make themselves known in the community by partnering with other trusted agencies, attending local events and activities, or establishing a presence in the community’s everyday life. Grantees additionally realized the importance of building other types of relationships in the community.

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CIZ Stories from the Field

The Going Places Project is an innovative outreach effort by Meadville Children’s Center, Laurel Technical Institute, and Crawford Central School District. The Going Places Project is a hands-on, mobile learning lab for children, parents, and families. It provides connections to the community and pathways for school success. Grantee partners were able to use this mobile learning lab as an effective relationship-building strategy by bringing information directly to families at their location in order to emphasize the importance of high-quality early learning.

“Our mission is to improve the awareness, utilization, and perception of early childhood education in Meadville, PA, by building trusting relationships with families, strengthening partnerships with schools, supporting transitions into kindergarten and improving connections to community organizations that enrich prenatal through third grade (P–3) outcomes. This new community initiative provides connections to early learners in the area. Going Places outreach allows families to experience an early learning environment firsthand with an interactive model preschool classroom. The Mobile Learning Lab makes scheduled visits to events in the community to bring resources to families. There is information about early learning opportunities in the area, details on kindergarten registrations, sign-ups for the Early Learning GPS, and ways to get kids in gear for school! Family feedback is positive and we continue to weave into the fabric of the community. The consistent presence is bringing children running to play when they see our outreach vehicle. Caregivers are asking about the toys that kids play with at our pop-ups, where to get them, and are learning from the modeling they observe from our Going Places workers and their interactions with the youth.”


“The piece of family engagement—I think the most important thing is to build trust. And it takes a long, long time … building a trusting relationship is the absolute foundation of any type of family engagement.”


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Benefit of Simple Approaches

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Family engagement activities don’t have to be big, complex events. CIZ grantees learned that they could be successful in building engagement through smaller or simpler activities that are integrated into the regular program day. Grantees found success in maintaining an open-door policy for parents to get involved—extending an invitation for parents to participate in short spurts at times that were convenient for them. Some grantees, for example, invited parents to stay a little longer if dropping children off at the program around breakfast time, or invited families to stop by and help with lesson planning or engage in play with their children at other times of the day. Grantees learned that these invitations for involvement in shorter spurts, during regular program days, helped create a welcoming, no-pressure environment that allowed families to feel involved in their children’s education.

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CIZ Stories from the Field

CenClear, Clearfield Elementary School, the Shaw Public Library, and Center Intermediate Unit 10 had a commitment to improving literacy in their community. They had a variety of strategies to address this goal. One of their most successful has been the installation of two “Little Free Libraries.” This low-cost, low-effort community resource has created a space for community members to both give and receive. The libraries became a way not only to get books to children and families, but also to inform them about other events.

“As part of the Community Innovation Zone (CIZ) Grant held by CenClear, Clearfield Elementary School, the Shaw Public Library, and the Central Intermediate Unit #10, Little Free Libraries were placed on the grounds of two low-income housing projects in Clearfield, PA. One of the overarching goals of the Clearfield CIZ Grant is to improve literacy in the area, and one of the most successful ways to improve literacy is to increase children’s access to books, especially at home. But according to the U.S. Department of Education, up to 61 percent of low-income families do not have any or enough books for their children at home. Little Free Libraries play an essential role by providing 24/7 access to books in areas where books are scarce. The best part about the Little Free Library is that anyone can use it for free, without a membership. Patrons can peruse the shelves and take a book, leave a book, or both.”


“When I’m working with a family, I try to let them know we are a team. I am not here to tell you how to be a parent. We are here to work together. You know your child best; you’re going to be with your child more than I am, so we’re going to partner together.”


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Flexibility and Persistence

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Flexibility and persistence were essential to the success of family engagement efforts. CIZ grantees indicated that they had to become comfortable with using trial-and-error to find what worked for the families in their community. At times, grantees found themselves trying new approaches and strategies on a weekly basis, or from event to event. Both grantees and OCDEL staff found that rigidity was detrimental to the success of any family engagement effort. Those working in this field must be open to finding new and innovative approaches, gathering feedback from families, and generally finding ways to constantly evolve. Grantees expressed that there is no “silver bullet” to family engagement work—what methods are suitable will depend on the context and the place in time. The most successful approach was to constantly work to find what would be appropriate for the families in the community at that point in time.

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CIZ Stories from the Field

HAP Enterprises, Inc., Rochester Area School District, and Penn State Extension CIZ Team initially planned to develop a kiosk system that would contain information about early learning opportunities and resources. The team recognized that technology was going to be key in its outreach efforts with families. But, after multiple obstacles , the team realized they had to regroup. After some brainstorming and research, it was decided to implement a text/email communication system called “Message from Me.”

“When our team initially met to discuss applying for a CIZ grant we discussed the importance of changing the public perception of the school district. The district had been losing children to charter and cyber schools, which was becoming a financial burden. We also discussed how connected to technology families are. Finally, we discussed how reluctant families are to come into the school, ask for help, or share their personal stories. That said, we decided to engage families through technology with a smattering of face-to-face activities sprinkled in.”

“Our initial plan included the development of a kiosk that would contain information about all things early childhood in the local community as well as statewide resources. We had planned to place three kiosks in the community. We were in love with the idea and never considered that the establishments we would approach to host a kiosk on their property would feel differently. While we were trying to place the kiosks, we were also met with challenges from the company who was going to develop it. The price continued to rise, and the timeline continued to grow. This was becoming a test in perseverance.”

“Moving into year two of the CIZ grant, it was clear we would need to regroup and re-evaluate our plan. We still felt strongly about technology; after some brainstorming and research we landed on implementing Message from Me. Message from Me is a one-way communication tool for children to send family members pictures of what they are doing as well as messages throughout the day. It can also be used by the teachers to send messages. Families can choose to receive messages via text message or email.”

“We started the year with collaborative professional development on the use of Message from Me for early childhood teachers and kindergarten teachers. Message from Me was ready to go by January. A total of 1,103 messages were sent by the end of the school year. We shared the Message from Me app with Representative Rob Matzie when he was out on a legislative visit. Our momentum was growing, and we were finally on track. When all was said and done we ended the year on a high note and were excited as we looked toward our final year of the grant.”


“Many of the CIZs focused on supporting families to grow in their leadership, as teachers and encouragers of their own children’s learning and development, within their programs and schools and beyond.”


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Leadership Opportunities

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Families want to share in the responsibility of educating their children. Families have unique experiences and expertise from which communities can benefit. When families have support and opportunities to grow in their leadership, they become agents of change and supporters of what is working. Many of the CIZs focused on supporting families to grow in their leadership, as teachers and encouragers of their own children’s learning and development, within their programs and schools and beyond. Grantees held or invited families to trainings and workshops, modeled techniques, and provided other tips and resources that families could take with them in an effort to build their capacity to engage with their children in learning. Grantees also worked toward building family leadership. They invited families to participate in the project’s planning process and to co-construct events and activities. They found that in these instances, families began to take ownership of the project and became invested in the outcome, sometimes expressing great joy and excitement when an event or activity was well attended and successful.

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CIZ Stories from the Field

The West Philadelphia Action for Early Learning Initiative (AFEL) developed the Outreach Team and Family Ambassador Program as a grassroots outreach campaign to build families’ awareness and knowledge of the importance of high-quality early childhood education. Two cohorts of 15 Family Ambassadors (community family members) were recruited and trained for the Outreach Team. They established Parent2Parent ChatNChew groups and Read2Succeed Book Clubs. Their goal in using these family ambassadors was to inform parents and caregivers of the importance of high-quality early childhood education (ECE), including what to look for in high-quality ECE, how to access high-quality ECE, and why high-quality ECE is important. As a result of this work, 22 Ambassadors received employment post-program, 18 Ambassadors represent AFEL on community/civic boards or committees, 2,776 people were reached at community events, and 13,000 books were distributed to neighborhood families.

West Philadelphia Promise Zone resident Rachel Honore has accomplished many things since becoming a Family Ambassador for the West Philadelphia Action for Early Learning Initiative (AFEL)—a Drexel University–led initiative to improve early education outcomes for youth in the Promise Zone. Rachel joined the AFEL Team in 2015 as a volunteer and quickly became a Family Ambassador, providing support for outreach activities in the community. Her commitment to literacy inspired Rachel to acquire free books to be distributed at AFEL events. Through her efforts, more than 10,000 books have been given away to West Philadelphia families in the past two years. Most recently, 8,000 books were distributed to 330 families and early childhood education teachers through a collaboration with First Book and KPMG Families for Literacy.

As a result of her dedication and commitment, Rachel was promoted to Parent Navigator. In this role, she recruits other Ambassadors and assists the AFEL Outreach Team with awareness efforts in order to spread the word about the importance of early childhood education and provide information and referrals to other families. To date, she has conducted 16 AFEL Parent2Parent Chat N Chews, discussion groups held at local childcare centers to build families’ knowledge of the importance of child development topics.

In addition to these accomplishments, Rachel is the mother of a healthy, active boy, named Jonathon, who recently was diagnosed with autism. Through Rachel’s involvement with AFEL, Rachel’s son was referred to Drexel’s Autism Institute, which provided information and advice on appropriate next steps for her son’s learning development. Rachel says that without her involvement with AFEL, she would not have had access to the knowledge and resources she needed to advocate for her son. Originally non-verbal, Jonathon is now mouthing words through participation in alternative therapies, including music and aqua therapy. As a result, he is now ready for kindergarten and starts at Locke School in September 2017. Rachel is not satisfied with just getting help for her son; she is committed to paying forward the assistance she has received through AFEL. She has testified before the Mayor’s Pre-K Commission, at Universal Pre-K Hearings held at City Hall, and at a Family Engagement Conference for the PA Office of Child Development and Early Learning in Harrisburg. In addition, Mayor Jim Kenney invited Rachel to sit with his cabinet during his 2017 budget presentation to City Council. As an AFEL Parent Navigator, she represents AFEL on several citywide committees, including A Running Start, the city’s early childhood education initiative; C2P2

Competency, Confidence and Policy Making for families with children with disabilities; Philadelphia Interagency Coordinating Council as a parent co-chair; Read By Fourth on the Family Engagement Committee; and AFEL’s Alliance of Childcare Providers as a Parent Representative.

“’I am so grateful for Drexel’s leadership around early childhood education,’ Rachel said. ‘Not only has it helped my son, but through continued outreach and awareness, it will help other children in the community.’”

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“Becoming an effective strengths-based and culturally responsive program means taking the time to know families and hear their stories.”


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Strengths-Based and Culturally Responsive Practice

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Families are the experts on their own children and on their own experiences. Becoming an effective strengths-based and culturally responsive program means taking the time to know families and hear their stories. Without taking that important first step, programs may run the risk of being ineffective and potentially even alienating those they are trying to engage. Many grantees discussed efforts to meet families where they are and understand their personal circumstances, vocalizing a need to remain empathetic and sensitive to the challenges that families may be facing. Grantees adapted activities to focus on building family strengths and capacity. Grantees also shared ways in which families’ cultures were recognized and addressed in their program or school. For example, some programs had translators available to communicate with families in their home language, classrooms were equipped with materials that reflected diversity (e.g., dolls, books), and families were invited and encouraged to share about their cultural beliefs, holidays, and traditions.

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CIZ Stories from the Field

Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) in Allegheny County have implemented a “Connect-Text” program with pre-K through first-grade students. With support from the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development and an AmeriCorps member, this project allows for two-way communication between school and families, using a texting system to not only track student attendance, but also remove barriers to consistent attendance. The highest praise has come from Latino families who voiced that having messages sent to them in Spanish has helped them to feel included and valued by the school. The system has been used to promote school activities and events and facilitate communication. PPS has more recently partnered with the local United Way and will use 211 to help expand use of the two-way texting system to triage family needs. Issues around transportation, employment, and housing are often brought to the forefront. Once a need is identified, information can be shared with a community collaborative of more than 30 agencies that are prepared to respond. This use of community assets has prevented a family from being homeless, fixed a washing machine and dryer, and even helped a mom get her driver’s license. The new partnership with 211 will help expedite to process and track data, to help better predict where resources are needed most.

“As part of the Community Innovation Zone grants, the University of Pittsburgh’s Office of Child Development and Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) have adopted “Connect-Text” with pre-K through first-grade students. An AmeriCorps member (under the supervision of a licensed social worker) staffs the text messaging portal as a low-cost strategy to engage with families. Nearly all (90 percent) pre-K throughfirst-grade parents took the opportunity to participate in the text messaging, and of those participating, nearly three-quarters have engaged actively by responding to one or more of the messages received. Qualitatively, the text-based communication has facilitated staff being able to assist parents with tasks and issues ranging from signing up for parent-teacher conferences to discussing how sick is too sick to attend school and accessing resources to avoid homelessness. A focus group of parents revealed that after texting had begun, they rated the school-parent communication at a 10 (out of 10), compared with the baseline of parents sampled prior to the texting program, who rated it at a 5. The highest praise for the program has come from Latino families who voiced that the provision of messages in Spanish has helped them feel included in and valued by the school. Parents appreciated having someone at school able to communicate directly in Spanish. This helped them to feel informed and more involved with their children’s education. Parents sent texts asking for more information about school events (‘Can you tell me more about the topics of the meeting?’), enrollment in school activities (‘She wants to enroll in the after-school program, can you please help me?’), enrollment dates, and unexpected situations related to homework or attendance (‘Can you please tell the teacher that I left her backpack in my workplace?’). They also mentioned the importance of receiving information related to their children’s progress at school, activities their children were doing at school, and information demonstrating the teacher’s interest in their children. Overall, the text liaison provided for a safe, neutral bridge between school and home.”