This “Back to School” season is unlike any before. On top of the typical nervous excitement of a new school year, the stress and trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to take a toll. At the same time, we see many more eyes opening to the ongoing legacy and impact of racism on communities, families, and children. So, how do we approach a new school year after all that has transpired?   

 Family engagement researchers Karen L. Mapp and Eyal Bergman offer some compelling answers. In Embracing a New Normal: Toward a More Liberatory Approach to Family Engagement, they write: 

 With this report, we are issuing a…call to action: for the PreK–12 sector to walk through the door opened by COVID-19 and the antiracist movement and address the often-ignored and unspoken dynamics that prevent the cultivation of effective partnerships between families and educators. 

 Given the historic infusion of nearly $200 billion in federal stimulus funds for education, they call for a “new normal” that builds on what we have learned over the past 18 months about how family engagement is fundamental to education equity. In their words: 

The new normal must be built on antiracist and social justice principles. Families from all backgrounds must be seen and celebrated as “the geniuses that they are,” in the words of Shantae Toole, cofounder and codirector of First Teacher in Boston. They must be embraced by educators as equal partners and recognized as experts on their children and communities. 

 As a special education parent, former special education family liaison, and new staff member at the Federation, I feel seen in this report. The Federation was founded by activist parents whose expertise was routinely dismissed by educational institutions that too often warehoused children with disabilities rather than educating them. Today the Federation invests deeply in multi-lingual and anti-racist approaches to supporting parent advocacy and leadership while working collaboratively with school districts and agencies to strengthen their collaborative relationships with families. 

Mapp and Bergman note that too often, families—especially parents of color and immigrant families—are treated as spectators rather than full partners in their children’s education. In their words, “families are expected to be seen at back-to-school nights and parent-teacher conferences but not necessarily heard.” By contrast, their report shares many inspiring examples of schools and districts where structured family engagement plans and activities tap into the deep assets that families can offer towards their children’s learning and success.   

Everyone who believes that families are geniuses when it comes to their children should read this report. In fact, anyone who doesn’t believe this idea should read it too.  

Whether you are an educator, nonprofit professional, or volunteer group leader – I hope you will join me in reflecting on the ways our work can be positively transformed through partnership with diverse families. Mapp and Bergman advise us to ask ourselves these questions: 

  • Am I seeking input from, and do I listen to and value, what all families have to say? (Respect) 
  • Am I demonstrating to all families that I am competent and that I see them as competent and valuable caretakers? (Competence) 
  • Do I keep my word with families? (Integrity) 
  • Do I show families that I value and care about them as people? (Personal Regard) 

 

It’s a new school year, friends. Let’s try something new—something more equitable and liberatory–together. 

Rosalie Rippey is the founder and owner of Rosalie Rippey Consulting, a nonprofit and public sector outreach and communication practice as well as the Project Manager for the Secondary Options Family Engagement project. For two decades, she has worked in organizations serving children, youth and families – including child welfare, parent advocacy, and public school district settings. She is also a parent of two teenagers and an experienced collaborative advocate for their diverse learning needs.