During the 2020-21 school year, schools and families learned in particularly dramatic ways that they can’t effectively support students without being in partnership with one another. Every family faced its own unique challenges navigating distance learning, and many schools had to create new family communication strategies on the fly. While school-driven efforts have been herculean, results have been uneven at best. As many schools have come to realize, communication doesn’t beget connection—to effectively meet the needs of students and their families, two-way engagement far exceeds one-way communication.

For schools committed to creating and sustaining equitable learning environments for students, finding ways to value and cultivate the resources inherent within families is no longer a nice-to-have. Effective family engagement hinges on trust and reciprocity between families and schools, not simply disseminating information.

Fortunately, a host of programs and technology tools are helping schools leverage the untapped potential of families. When integrated within robust family engagement strategies, these programs and tools aim to strengthen the agency of both families and educators as partners in supporting students. These models feature families serving as:

• academic support to drive student learning,
• guidance support to help students navigate out-of-school and postsecondary pathways,
• informal mentors to cultivate and expand students’ career options, and
• sources of community for each other to promote student wellbeing.

As they adopt and adapt these emerging approaches, K–12 leaders have a tremendous opportunity to activate the latent social capital within families to improve students’ experiences and outcomes. Whether they succeed depends on where and how schools activate family networks, and for what purposes. This paper details five emerging opportunities for leaders to explore.


  • Mahnaz Charania
    Mahnaz Charania