“Family engagement” is a term that’s been bubbling up at South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education meetings lately.
The term was featured in a presentation on the results of the second Intentional Integration Initiative survey last month. Asst. Supt. of Access & Equity Dr. Kevin Gilbert reported that family responses to two questions (83% of families agreed that “School staff … ensure we feel welcomed and supported …” and 72% agreed that “administration … ensure we feel welcomed and supported”) showed areas where the district could improve “family engagement.”
And the BOE itself identified “family engagement” as one of four preliminary Board goals for 2023-24 coming out of its August 1, 2023 Board retreat, as reported by BOE President Kaitlin Wittleder.
Wittleder noted that “Family engagement … was brought up by members of SEPAC (the Special Education Parents group) in the public speaks portion of the meeting.”
Indeed, Beth Cosentino, speaking as President of SEPAC, had outlined for the Board what family engagement could mean moving forward. Cosentino’s comments served as a reminder the importance of such engagement — but also something of a chastisement regarding past practices.
Cosentino asked that the BOE memorialize its commitment to family engagement in policy, noting that “research has shown: when families are engaged student achievement levels are higher; teacher retention is better; and school climate and culture is improved.”
She asked that Board members harken back to their campaign days and go out into the community and engage with families. Cosentino also asked that “ on the school and classroom level”, the BOE and district stop relying so heavily on PTAs and HSAs to fill the role of Family Engagement: “Here’s the thing, it doesn’t. It doesn’t because it’s not representative of the entire community. Ask the presidents of these organizations and they’ll tell you the same and that they wish they were.”
“For Family Engagement to be equitable, it has to come from the school itself and the teachers and staff that work there,” said Cosentino.
Saying that she was speaking for all families and students, and not just those with special needs, Cosentino asked that the district engage teachers and staff to develop “an expectation and plan at every level: From Preschool through High School on what Family Engagement can and should be. One of the common missteps that can happen when creating these expectations and plans is to not involve parents in the development of them; parents need to have a voice in this process for the work to be effective and sustainable.”
Watch Cosentino’s public comments at the 5:42 mark in the video here:
Read Cosentino’s full remarks here:
Hello, I’m Beth Cosentino, in Maplewood. I’m speaking this evening as the President of the Special Education Parent Advisory Committee here in our district and on behalf of the SEPAC SOMA Board.
Tonight, we have recommendations for you to consider as you work on creating the district goals for the upcoming year.
Before we share the recommendations, I’ll read the Mission Statement of our school district as it’s found on the district website:
“The mission of the South Orange Maplewood School District is to empower and inspire each student to explore and imagine, to pursue personal passions, and to collectively create a better future by creating a learner-centered environment through multiple pathways; re-imagined structures, systems and supports; innovative teaching; partnering with families; and maximizing community expertise and resources.”
The first recommendation is to include Family Engagement practices on every level throughout the district. And with that, to write a Policy for the district that encompasses what we already know and research has shown: when families are engaged student achievement levels are higher; teacher retention is better; and school climate and culture is improved.
Here are some examples of what this could look like: Starting with the BOE members… When you all were running for BOE, you made a point to be places where people were who you thought would vote for you. Now, you can be in the community as a current board member to listen and learn and ask parents what they think would help their children achieve success.
Another example is on the school and classroom level: many believe that a PTA or HSA fills the role of Family Engagement on that level, but here’s the thing, it doesn’t. It doesn’t because it’s not representative of the entire community (ask the presidents of these organizations and they’ll tell you the same and that they wish they were.) Those organizations are OUTSIDE the school district and although they are VERY IMPORTANT partners with Dr. Taylor and the principal at their schools, they are not equitable. For Family Engagement to be equitable, it has to come from the school itself and the teachers and staff that work there.
So let’s talk about the teachers and their role… There needs to be an expectation and plan at every level: From Preschool through High School on what Family Engagement can and should be. One of the common missteps that can happen when creating these expectations and plans is to not involve parents in the development of them; parents need to have a voice in this process for the work to be effective and sustainable.
You may have noticed that I am NOT speaking specifically about parents of disabled students. Every student’s family in our district deserves to be engaged. For there to be a truly inclusive equitable diverse community it means that the effort must be made not just by the teachers and staff members and board members and administrators who care, but as an integral part of what we do.