A new policy memo released last week involving the University of Utah and other researchers contends that educational systems need new strategies to engage families and communities.
The authors of the memo – titled “Recasting Families and Communities as Co-Designers of Education in Tumultuous Times” – describe how justice-based approaches to family engagement enable parents and families, particularly those from communities of color, to contribute as fellow leaders in transforming schools and education systems to better serve all children, families and communities, stated a press release published by the U of U on Thursday.
The memo also outlined several recommendations for school, system, state and federal decision-makers.
“We hear so much rhetoric that positions families of color and families from immigrant and refugee backgrounds as problems,” stated Paul Kuttner, associate director of University Neighborhood Partners at the University of Utah and member of the Family Leadership Design Collaborative.
Our project is rooted in the knowledge that this is patently false. These families are solutions. They are the leaders, experts and researchers we need to address injustice in education.
The justice-based approaches described in the memo are grounded in the understanding that families and communities possess historical and lived knowledge about how to “persist through challenging times and bring critical expertise to efforts to advance educational justice and community well-being,” stated the press release.
The national FLDC research project – led by Ann M. Ishimaru from the University of Washington’s College of Education and Megan Bang from Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy – began with 10 sites around the country in its first phase, including Salt Lake City. The researchers then selected five sites to continue into phase two, which involved more design work and knowledge sharing, with Salt Lake among the other sites.
The Salt Lake City group was called the “Family-School Collaboration Design Research Team” and was convened by staff at University Neighborhood Partners, a U of U office that works to bring together university and westside communities and resources in reciprocal learning, action and benefit, according to the press release. The core research team included Gerardo Lopez from U of U’s College of Education, as well as parent co-researchers, graduate assistants and a partner from the Salt Lake City School District.
Based on years of UNP’s work with families and schools in Salt Lake’s west side, the team chose to focus on its redesign efforts on School Community Councils. SCCs are “decision-making bodies in all Utah schools that are tasked with approving improvement plans and allocating funds from the state’s land trust,” and they’re meant to involve a majority of parents and families in shared decision making with educators, stated the press release.
“Unfortunately, many Utah schools struggle to bring this vision to reality,” said Kuttner. “Too often, they are sparsely attended groups that end up rubber-stamping plans they had little voice in. We looked at the problems with SCCs and knew they could not be solved in a top-down way. Instead, through the research process, we put the problem into the hands of those with the most knowledge and expertise—families and educators themselves.”
UNP’s team hosted a series of “design circles” that brought together westside parents and educators to reimagine what a strong SCC would like in a Salt Lake school – one that truly fosters the family’s voice and power, which involved educators and families learning from each other and bringing their collective knowledge and imagination together to take on the problem.
In the course of seven meetings, the group produced the following:
A report for schools laying out core principles and practices for “reimagined” SCCs.
A comic booklet, which families helped design, to use as tool to inform other families about SCCs and their right to participate in them. The booklet will be piloted this fall.
Influenced the decision by the state to broaden what SCC funds can be used for to include family engagement.
An emerging training for schools on how to create welcoming environments for families.
Many families involved in the design circles have gone on to take leadership roles in SCCs and other school bodies.