The annual Standing Ovation for DC Public Schools event, sponsored by DC Ed Fund, honors DCPS principals and teachers for excellence in education innovation and student achievement growth. This year, the first annual award for Excellence in Family Engagement recognized a Literacy Lab partner school, C.W. Harris Elementary, for the high-quality family engagement efforts implemented during the 2015-16 school year. By focusing on partnerships and strengthening relationships with families, the teachers and staff at C.W. Harris have cultivated an environment where outside partnerships, students, and parents feel actively involved in their community. C.W. Harris Elementary principal, Ms. Heather Hairston, shared how building relationships with the larger school community ultimately leads to universal trust and better student outcomes.
1. What is the importance of family engagement?
When working in turnaround schools, especially those that have historically been low performing, it’s easy for us to focus on curriculum, staffing and good teaching practices, but – when I was appointed – we realized that we would not be able to move this work in a way that was sustainable unless we leveraged our families. One thing we know is that our families are here to stay. When we looked at the numbers of students who have been here since age three and those whose families attended this school, we knew we really needed to leverage how we were engaging our families. Typically you see low-impact types of things that are more about the way school feels and less about what happens in school. Our work with family engagement has been able to do two things – build meaningful and trusting relationships with our families, especially through our home visit practice, and create structured opportunities where our teachers are talking to students about their data and talking to parents about student’s goals through academic partner meetings that happen three times a year.
2. C.W. Harris works with a variety of different community partners. How have you utilized your community partners in the family engagement process?
We are very fortunate to have a lot of community partners. One of the things that makes our school unique is while 16 partners may seem like a lot, much of the work aligns or is complimentary to each other. We were able to leverage our partnerships because we were very critical at the end of last year about our partners and whether or not we were getting what we needed. If the partnerships didn’t make sense, or if there wasn’t a way to leverage it, or the needs of the organization didn’t necessarily align with the school, then we had to be really deliberate about who we wanted our partners to be. We looked at the different aspects of our school, such as the various after school extracurricular programs and our mentoring program for our young boys of color started by our Assistant Principal, Calvin Hooks, and be very specific with our partners about what support was needed. In order for school leaders to make good decisions that create partnerships that work, they need to be really specific about what their needs are and make sure that the need is aligned with what the organization can provide.
3. At C.W. Harris, you have two Literacy Lab Pre-K tutors and two K-3rd grade tutors that work with many of your students every day. I spoke with former Literacy Lab tutor and current Administrative Clerk at C.W. Harris, Alysha Brown, and she mentioned the tutors help with the after-care program and morning announcements. What are some ways that you have seen the tutors get involved within the C.W. Harris community and family engagement?
We are very lucky because we have a strong school-family culture. It is very easy for us to insert and include the Literacy Lab tutors and partners. They are included in all staff updates and receive “school swag” to help them feel an important connection to the school. Tutoring is one-on-one with specific students, so we wanted to be really deliberate and thoughtful about the ways to involve the tutors within our community. The tutors are mentors within the Young Queens mentoring program, assist with escorting students on and off the stage at the honors assembly, and help with the morning announcements. We want to find things that are important, meaningful, and support the tutors’ skill sets and then share that with the school community. We don’t look at the tutoring work as something done in isolation. They have a strong tie to our school family, so it fits naturally that their work would extend to the way they engage with our students’ families. We see them talking to parents, volunteering to go on home visits, and helping to prepare materials for family engagement nights. They are doing things as part of our school community because we have included them since the beginning.
4. You have done a great job engaging families thus far. What are you goals for continuing to build your relationships with families both inside and outside of school?
For us, we really want to continue to leverage our families. We want to continue to make sure that we are not making assumptions about the people we serve, and that we are building really meaningful and trusting relationships with them. Again, our families aren’t going anywhere. Our goal is to continue to make sure that we are teaching our parents and helping them advocate for their children. We will continue to value our parents because they know more about their children then we do. We want make sure that we are setting a high bar for what can be done with families, because they really are the thing that can change a school.