This past summer, Miguel Cardona, Secretary of Education, urged Congress to make available $103 billion in discretionary funds as a “down payment” toward improving the funding disparity for high-poverty schools. The request came on the heels of a June 2021 report published by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights highlighting the “harsh and predictable” disparities in access to resources among students of color, especially those from Black, Hispanic/Latinx, and Native American families, relative to their peers.
Should new funding be made available, many believe it could represent a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to create lasting change in public education. Most districts, I suspect, will reasonably gravitate toward investment in resources that help spur progress in the outcomes they are accountable for, such as curriculum, edtech tools, and teacher training to drive academic achievement.
But districts and schools hoping to reverse the persistent and widening trend of inequities experienced by students of color, particularly those residing in high-poverty schools, have an opportunity in front of them: to invest federal funds in families to ensure every student thrives.
Families of color are an untapped resource in the student success equation
A fall 2020 survey by Tyton Partners shows that parents’ awareness of options, access to resources and alternative learning models, and ability to afford alternatives remain a significant issue, particularly for lower-income families of color. COVID-19 has only exacerbated the challenges these parents face in supporting their children.
Given the chronic failures and shortcomings in family-school relationships, leading researchers, like Harvard University professor Karen Mapp, have called for solutions that include more collaboration between families and schools that go beyond the one-way communication families receive at curriculum nights and limited in-person school events. To do this well, schools must view families of color through an asset-based lens, acknowledging that every family has strengths and resources to offer, while maintaining mindfulness of the social and structural barriers to engagement. In fact, research increasingly shows that this untapped reservoir of latent resources—the social capital of students’ families—may be the linchpin of students’ success in the years to come.
An often overlooked lever for scaling support and access to resources—for both students and families—is to nurture relationships between families within a school community. Recent research shows that when families of color connect with one another, those connections help parents have greater self-efficacy and access resources such as learned experiences from other parents, information about out-of-school programs to supplement their child’s learning or wellness, or simply emotional support to validate that they aren’t alone. Parent-to-parent connections also bring positive changes both in the way families interact with one another and in how they influence the schools attended by their children, particularly for those who share common cultures, languages, and/or experiences.
By building these relationships, parents are, in turn, expanding their networks and building social capital that translates to a wider net of support and resources available to their children long term.
Getting strategic with federal funds
One way federal funds can be utilized toward family engagement is to invest in programs or partnerships with community organizations that can facilitate the sharing of knowledge, resources, and support between parents. For instance, Union Capital Boston (UCB) is a community development model that encourages civic engagement and increases access to employment among under-resourced Boston residents in need of help through a platform that financially rewards member participation in community events. Since 2014, UCB has nurtured a partnership with KIPP schools in Massachusetts (KIPP MA) to build and sustain a high level of engagement and ownership among families in their children’s education journeys. “UCB equips KIPP MA families with the skills and confidence to lead. In turn, our families feel valued and have a reliable resource for continuing civic engagement and advocacy in and outside of KIPP’s buildings,” said Nikki Barnes, executive director of KIPP MA. Through this partnership, families attend networking nights and discuss topics ranging from ways to better understand school report cards, to parent de-stressing strategies, to advocating for increased education funding for all Boston students.
Families and Schools Together (FAST), an afterschool program that involves families in group activities designed to foster connection between parents, is another example. FAST provides families with frequent opportunities to engage with the school outside of traditional structures, such as having meals together or exploring ways to help their children succeed academically. This flexibility is particularly beneficial for under-resourced, minority families who may feel disconnected from their school PTA.
For some schools, leveraging families’ social capital to support students’ academic journeys will require first equipping families with relevant skills. Springboard Collaborative, for example, sees the benefits of this firsthand in the literacy gains shown by its students. Through weekly family workshops, parents learn to be effective one-on-one literacy coaches at home and build habits that outlast Springboard’s programming. “For every hour that a teacher leads a workshop, parents are equipped to deliver 25 hours of instruction at home,” said Gibes de Gac of Springboard. As a result, 91% of families report learning strategies they can use to support their child outside of school.
These highlighted programs are illustrative of the varied strategies that federal funds could be utilized to support in order to authentically engage and leverage families. Rather than expecting parents to come into schools, school activities can be conducted in community spaces that are already welcoming and open to parents and families. These spaces can often help overcome language and childcare barriers as well. Home visits by school staff, financially compensated for their time, could also be critical avenues for communicating with and coaching families on effective strategies for supporting their children at home.
Families are a requisite resource for schools committed to meeting the complex needs of present and future generations in a rapidly changing world, but specifically, in helping ensure students of color in high-poverty schools receive the support they need to thrive. Today, under the Every Student Succeeds Act, districts have the latitude to prioritize specific resources through their schools’ comprehensive support and improvement plans. For districts to be successful in mitigating the long-standing “harsh and predictable” inequities faced by students of color, one of those investments must be in their families’ social capital.