This started out as a comment, but it made more sense to promote it to a full-blown post.
Unfortunately, I did not find the documents I was looking for. But I did stumble upon a host of other research; in particular, a partnership between PTA and the Harvard Family Research Project. This site is actually quite amazing, if rather dry and dull to read. Here are two papers I have read recently:
As I think about it, the argument is not whether or not Family Engagement is worthwhile or important, but rather “What can we do about it?” How do you engage families from very diverse backgrounds, whether they are a dual-income, ultra-professional, busy-all-the-time family or a single parent working two or more jobs just to put food on the table?
The only thing that comes to mind is community partnerships. Where those that have the time and resources can help engage children of parents that do not have the time and resources (or choose to spend them elsewhere). It’s not a blame game, but rather, how can we all work together to help us all be better.
Personally, I do not find it hard at all to blame the values of our society for our current economic and political morass. Which should be clear from the first post.
So what next?
We have to accept that the current system is broken. Yes, there are some good things about it, so let us identify and hang on to that which is favorable. For instance, we have some ties to the University in our backyard – they send over students to interact with our children for Fun Days, Carnivals, Tutoring and mentoring. We benefit from some of the research (Dr. Mark Aber comes to mind). We also have the Champaign Urbana Schools Foundation which organizes generous gifts and incentives to reward outstanding individuals. We have lots of amazing folks striving mightily to reach the needs of our children. But the brokenness is clearly demonstrated by such symptoms as poorly attended forums, board meetings and PTA.
After that, we have to be serious about reform. In some ways, I wonder if it would behoove us to obliterate the school district (the burdensome policies especially) and start from scratch. When thinking about reform, it is way too tempting to think about our limits, to be trapped inside the box of “that’s how we have always done it”. Want a practical step? Bring back “Great Schools, Together” with a passion. Breathe new life into it. It had a lot of potential at the beginning. Tie that in with Imani Bazzell’s work with “Great Campus”. Both efforts have shown that we have a tremendous amount of skilled and intelligent people who really want to see Unit 4 thrive. Why are we not tapping into them?
Empower school principals and teachers to be the face of the school district. Do not saddle them with rituals, policies and rules that create busywork. Hire somebody else to do that. Even in the context of online information – why are local schools burdened with coming up with their own PTA web resources? And to carry that further, why does the district not have a webmaster who is in touch with the latest technology? The public needs to know they can reach out and connect to school officials (email, website, phone, snail mail, face to face) and be confident that they are heard.
Finally, the idea of “Board Meetings” needs to be revamped. I understand that the district has business to do, and that there are many many many hours devoted to keeping the system running. But the BOE members and public-facing staff are overwhelmed with “business”, which saps their time, energy and strength from being public-facing. Streamline the business so it happens like clockwork, and devote more time to engaging the community. Lynn Peisker has done a good job putting a pretty face on Unit 4, and Sue Grey has started to put grit into the words of improving that image – in a way, they are working backwards and trying to draw the public in. This is a good approach, and I sincerely hope it works, but at some point their efforts are going to hit the brick wall of District Business.
Which is where a new Superintendent comes into play. We have to be clear about our priorities as a community. We have to want Family Engagement and Communication to near the top of the list. In fact, I personally would place those two values much higher than School Performance – in my mind, performance follows engagement like night following day. We have to make sure that we reject (actively, vehemently) any candidate that does not match our criteria and do whatever we can to grab hold of the one who does.
Ok now I am rambling. More to follow. Later.