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Changing the mindset on parent engagement: Q&A with Families in Schools’ Oscar Cruz

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | October 26, 2017

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Oscar Cruz, right, with a mother with her kids and Damian Mazzotta, Impremedia’s executive director, center, during the Family Literacy Challenge event in the summer.

Creating a partnership between parents and schools to achieve student success has been the mission of Families in Schools (FIS) since its foundation in 2000. For the past five years, under the leadership of Oscar Cruz, the organization’s president, that mission of developing parent engagement across schools in Los Angeles has expanded to other school districts in California and has become one of the eight priorities of funding required by state, under  the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) legislation.

Cruz took LA School Report on a deep dive into what he’s learned about parent engagement best practices, misconceptions, and challenges.

The conversation with Cruz, conducted mostly in Spanish, has been edited for length and summarized in some points.

How would you define successful parent engagement?

Both schools and families need to develop their skills to collaborate together. Parents have to find out what can they do at home to help their children and keep them learning throughout the summer. Schools need to invest and train their staff. So if both schools and parents do their part to create this partnership, this is the kind of thing that will bring good results to our schools.

How is FIS building parent engagement?

  • We advocated so parent engagement could be incorporated as one of the eight priorities under the LCFF state legislation. 
  • Providing schools with the know-how, the expertise among the school staff on how they can offer a welcoming environment. We have created metrics and rubrics to measure that.
  • Making sure the district is using LCFF funds to promote parent engagement and schools are investing on it. Once resolutions have been approved by the board, they need to be implemented.
  • Having direct contact with parents, offering workshops on college readiness, family literacy, and other awareness campaigns.

How can parent engagement be measured?

There are several ways, but some we have used and seen good results with include:

  • Increasing parents’ civic participation
  • Parents participating in local elections, school board elections, state elections
  • Feedback from families
  • Academic impact

Do you collaborate with traditional schools only or also with charters? Which are easier to work with?

We collaborate with both. It’s  easier to work with charters because charters have more flexibility to implement changes and try new things than traditional schools. With them, it is harder because it is such a large district. We work closely with Camino Nuevo, KIPP, Alliance College-Ready, PUC, and Magnolia. We work with a total of 15 school districts in California. Since LCFF requires school districts to invest in parent engagement, other districts across the state have asked for our support on learning and implementing better practices and training for their staff. Some of those districts are Moreno Valley, Downey, Azusa, and Bakersfield.

How many families do you work with currently?

We work with about 80,000 families that receive information about our campaigns, and another 4,000 families from our partnerships with schools with whom we work actively in our workshops or campaigns.

How is it different to work with a majority of Latino families?

Almost 75 percent of the families we work with are Latino families, most of them are immigrants. We start by understanding that Latino immigrant families are here to offer their children a better education. You need to acknowledge that and give them the confidence to act on behalf of their children. There’s a more personal relationship that schools need to develop with these parents.

Another important aspect is to develop their social skills so they can develop a support network with other parents, and being able to work in groups. They feel better when they know they are not alone in facing challenges with their children’s education.

Parent or community facilitators in schools also play a key role while working with these families. They need to relate to them culturally, recognize the sacrifices most of them have been doing for their kids, and make them feel comfortable.

All these apply to working with Latino parents, but also in general when working with adults.

What are the biggest misconceptions about parent engagement?

  • Engaged parents are the ones that attend a school board meeting.
  • It is a waste of time, it doesn’t work.
  • Parents don’t love their kids enough, and that’s why they are not involved in school activities.
  • There’s no link between parent engagement and student achievement.

What’s the main obstacle to getting parents involved in schools?

That mindset I just mentioned, in teachers, school administrators, and staff. As long as we don’t change that mindset first, schools won’t be able to see the great advantages they can get when they create that partnership with parents. It’s true it means more work in the short term, but in the long term it would actually be less work and they will see many benefits out of it.

Is it costly for schools to implement parent engagement strategies?

It could be costly if there’s no flexibility to implement new plans or training. Changing the mindset in a school would require training and professional development of the staff, and training is costly.

Also, with teachers that are under restrictive contracts, as is the case with the contract between LAUSD and UTLA, it would require a whole renegotiation of the terms in which teachers would need to work about parent engagement. If a school needs to make changes on that aspect and it is not in the teacher’s contract, it’s could be difficult and costly if there is not flexibility in their contracts.

But the money is there, and in fact it is required by LCFF. LAUSD invested in the year of 2015-16 close to $5 million out of their over $6 billion budget. The district’s investment in parent engagement is so minimal. It’s not even one percent of the budget.

For charters, it is not as costly because they have contracts with their teachers with a different mindset. Since they start working at those schools, they know they have to give extra time to parents, volunteer, and be more flexible. Their contracts are not as restrictive.

What are the best strategies for schools to be successful in building parent engagement?

  • Encourage parent engagement since the start of a new school year.
  • Train your entire staff, include all personnel from the school’s office to the principal.
  • Create opportunities for interaction between staff and parents, field trips, events, home visiting projects.
  • Ask your teachers to make phone calls to families, increase the interaction in any possible way.
  • Create an expectation for teachers, let them know that it would be part of their evaluation and hold them accountable.
  • Make it a priority, include it in the school’s goals.
  • The principal should not wait until the end of the school year to evaluate or get some feedback from parents. More than handing out a survey, the principal should talk to parents as frequently as possible. 

What are the main things parents can do to support their children’s education?

  • Ask questions, any questions. You have the right to ask any questions so you can better support your child in school.
  • Your level of education is not relevant for you to take an active role in your child’s education.
  • It doesn’t matter how long you have been in this country or your status.
  • You don’t need to have some knowledge of the education system to ask questions. You can learn, no one was born knowing everything!
  • There’s always information and resources to help you and your child.
  • Be vigilant about how your child is doing in school. We are their first teachers.
  • Remember that teachers care about their students that school year, but not later. You are the one who will care for your child always.

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