Every federal and state program that concerns children from early childhood, elementary, secondary, and community education, to health, juvenile justice, and welfare – has policies, guidelines and requirements about reaching out to and communicating with families. Yet no clear and consistent definition of what that means, or even what it is called, has emerged.
Although the term “family engagement” is gaining recognition, parents1, professionals, public officials, and community leaders mean many different things when they use it, and are uncertain about how to do it well. This inconsistency has created confusion and unpredictable practice at a time of growing understanding that closer collaboration with families is vitally important to children’s success.
The purpose of Connecticut’s common definition and framework of family engagement is to encourage shared understanding and collaboration, making it easy for all parties – educators2, providers, partners, and families – to understand what is expected of them and what effective practice looks like. The hope is that this will lead to a robust culture of partnership between families and professionals throughout all education and human service programs
Growing Calls for Increased Family Engagement
Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE)
The Connecticut State Board of Education’s Five-year (2016-21) Comprehensive Plan, Ensuring Equity and Excellence for All Connecticut Students, calls for an equitable and excellent education for all Connecticut students that equips every child, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, family wealth, zip code, or disability status with the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in college, careers, and civic life. The plan identifies families as essential partners in student success and recognizes the need for authentic opportunities for meaningful parental engagement by building capacity for families and school staff to partner effectively in support of student success.
Connecticut Office of Early Childhood (OEC)
The first goal of the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood’s 2020 Strategic Plan is for the agency to place children and families first. The specific objectives related to this goal include achieving a family-centered agency culture and reducing disparities in child and family outcomes. In addition, the second goal in the OEC’s Strategic Plan addresses increased access to high-quality programs.
A main strategy for achieving this goal is the implementation of a Quality Recognition and Improvement System (QRIS), which provides families with valuable information about early care and education program quality. The CT QRIS will also support programs to increase their level of quality related to key areas of quality, including family engagement.
Connecticut Early Childhood Funder Collaborative (ECFC)
Family engagement is core to the mission of the CT Early Childhood Funder Collaborative (a project of the Connecticut Council on Philanthropy) which is to bring the collective voice and resources of philanthropy to build and sustain a comprehensive early childhood system that works for all children, families, communities and the workforce in Connecticut. The ECFC and its 16 members including community and private foundations and United Ways from across the state recognize families, regardless of race, ethnicity, or income level, as powerful assets for their children’s successful development. The ECFC’s funder members value family voice and continually seek ways to infuse that voice in their community leadership and grant making efforts.
Every Student Succeeds Act, 2016
Each school district that receives federal Title I funds shall develop jointly with, agree on with, and distribute to, parents and family members of participating children a written parent and family engagement policy. In addition, the policy shall be incorporated into the district’s plan, establish the agency’s expectations and objectives for meaningful parent and family involvement, and describe how the agency will: jointly develop the district plan; build school capacity; link to family engagement in other programs; jointly evaluate and improve the programs based on evaluation findings; and involve parents in the activities of Title I schools. (Title I, Section 1116)
Who was involved and what did they do?
Three partners, the CSDE, the OEC and the Connecticut ECFC, joined with parents, educators and communities to co-create a common definition, framework and guiding principles for advancing state and local family engagement efforts across the state.
This short paper presents the definition, guiding principles, and recommendations for capacity-building, as well as comparative examples of evidence-based high-impact strategies for engaging families. Throughout, the voices of families, educators and community members are presented to reflect the rich conversations that fed into this work.
A Design Team of the three partner organizations’ staff, as well as representatives of higher education, school districts, and parent organizations, coordinated the effort. The Design Team, along with an outside consultant, developed drafts and took their ideas to the Commissioner’s Roundtable on Family and Community Engagement for review in June and September 2017.
"I hope that teachers and staff will be open minded and disregard implicit biases that are disrespectful and hurtful to families. Meet families half way on their ground; listen to their needs and wants; and gain knowledge of the community they service." Connecticut Parent, August 2017
In between these meetings, the Team arranged for five focus groups across the state to capture parent voice and ideas. (See Appendix A for additional information)
For a final round of consultation, the three partners sponsored an invitational Symposium on Family and Community Engagement at Gateway Community College in New Haven on December 13, 2017. About 100 people attended, including members of the Commissioner’s Roundtable and Design Team, parent and community organizations, state agency staff, school district officials, teacher organizations, and advocacy groups.
1. The terms family/ies and parent/s are used in this paper to represent any adult caretakers who have responsibility for the well-being of a child or children. This includes, for example, biological parents, foster care providers, grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings, or fictive kin.
2. The term educators is used to mean any person who teaches or is involved in planning or directing experiences that promote learning and development. This includes professionals in schools as well as those in early childhood settings, after school settings and community organizations.