Successes and Challenges of the Village at the District Level
Through the We Are A Village initiative, we have created an early education transition process that fosters collaboration with services providers and district staff by offering continuous opportunities for relationship building for children and families. Success means a constant reminder and intentionality of high expectations for family engagement that includes opportunities for educators from community agencies and district administrators to come together regularly to share their work and review challenges and opportunities – creating a process for continuity for families transitioning to the school district.
We take a very proactive approach to engaging families and children who will be transitioning into the district the following school year, beginning as early as the winter before they enter the district. This proactive approach for systemic change means that we need to be intentional in developing an early calendar of activities and interventions that need to take place as part of this work and constantly reviewing and assessing its outcomes.
Our work is based on reaching out to families very early on. We schedule visits – by me or other project staff and the kindergarten school principal – to the preschool and Head Start sites to meet families and share the programs offered in kindergarten. We invite families to visit the school and participate in parent educational workshops. We provide stability by having these early visits be followed by a series of monthly meetings, offering flexible schedules (mornings, late afternoons, and evenings) to respond to the needs of working families. These family meetings are opportunities for families of incoming kindergarteners to hear from families of current students about their fears and concerns when they were in their shoes, their experience with school transition, and their current experiences in the school.
During the summer we personalize our engagement through transition/welcoming home visits for all children transitioning into the district: kindergarten, elementary, middle, and high school. Every family is visited by a team (a parent peer navigator, a district home-school liaison, and the i3 collaborator) to welcome them into the district and bring informational packets that include a survey with the purpose of taking their pulse about their children’s education, information on the first day of school, a calendar of upcoming workshops, and opportunities for families to get involved. This transitional process culminates with a “block party” or back-to-school celebration in the community, which includes a resource community fair where multiple community agencies provide information about services and resources for families. The process continues throughout the year with monthly parent workshops, principal coffee hours, parent-teacher groups, and invitations to participate in a Family Leadership Institute.
Despite these many strides, any initiative that requires systemic change will always face many challenges that can distract from the original vision. For Village partners, a clear challenge was in implementing cross-system family engagement trainings to build teacher buy-in on meaningful family engagement. Perhaps the biggest challenge for this intervention was finding mutual times when both parents and school staff were available for joint educational opportunities to learn from and appreciate each other’s strengths and commitment to their child’s success. This goal quickly became unrealistic as teachers’ and families’ schedules are very different, with little flexibility.
Key to the buy-in was not only “speaking the same language” in terms of professional development opportunities, but literally, in being able to communicate with families in their native language. Although it is helpful to have a handful of bilingual staff members, including the five i3 collaborators and Title I home-school liaison, this also meant that these individuals were constantly pulled into translator roles, rather than drawing on their skills and talents to create opportunities for both teachers and families to interact. This need for translation took away from the limited opportunities for the connections, trust, and relationship building that are fundamental to any transformation. The constant transition of school leaders and staff can always present challenges to the culture, vision, and structures at the school level. Thus, creating consistent interventions that do not rely on an individual, but rather on the school and family community, is critical to the continuity and sustainability of systems change initiatives like the Village.