The Power of Positive Family Engagement

By Christopher Gearlds

High-stakes assessments are creating quite a stressful learning environment for students and teachers in schools. Teachers just can’t do it alone, so parents have an extremely important impact on their child’s success.

I’ve been a principal at the intermediate level in the past and now I’m a principal at Warren Early Childhood Center, so I’ve seen firsthand the impact of what positive parent engagement can have in schools. I’m also a parent of two wonderful children (sixth and second-grade), so I understand the impact my wife and I have on our children by being involved in their schooling.

With all of this experience watching the difference parent involvement makes, I have made it my personal mission as an early education principal to provide as many parental development resources to families in my school community as possible. I want other families to feel confident in supporting their scholar at school and at home.

Become an Expert on Your Community

Over the last nine years I’ve worked with many families that come from an urban setting. I’ve been able to learn about them as a family, as well as learn about the community culture, perspective and needs.

School administrators sometimes get caught up in only providing educational events that are in compliance with federal, state and local governance. We often fail to realize the true needs of our community. In the last three years, I have surveyed the parents at my school to get an understanding of what kind of support they need, and have reached out to community partners to connect families with the parental development opportunities they desire.

The teachers at Warren Early Childhood Center and I feel that the focus on family engagement is what sets us apart from many schools in Indiana and around the country. When you enter our classrooms, you are greeted with family pictures of all the children and their families. Our vision is to make our classrooms an extension of their homes.

Before school started, I brought families together for a parent orientation night. We focused on setting expectations, as well as finding out their strengths as a family in order to plan events that use their talents and time effectively throughout the school year. This approach helped families feel empowered to lead different activities and motivated to feel they are making a positive impact on the school.

Identify a Problem

Working in a section of Indianapolis where the poverty rate is one of the highest in central Indiana, I have recognized that our families need family resources to support various needs, such as a job search, family trauma, food/home items, homelessness and living on a tight budget.

As I met with parents, I realized their busy schedules often caused them to choose the easiest route for dinner—a fast-food restaurant. Parents would say, “To cook a healthy meal would require too much time and the cost would be very expensive.”

My interactions with them convinced me that we needed to provide parental development opportunities for families to learn how to cook a healthy meal on a tight budget. We decided to host a special “Healthy Meals Night” at the Warren Early Childhood Center.

Find a Solution

To help with this, we decided to partner with our food service staff, Chartwell Food Services. I went to our head Chef and asked if we could work together to plan a Healthy Meals Night for parents and create meals that:

  • Took less than 10-minutes to create.
  • Cost less than $10.

We were able to provide a sampling of meals that met the needs of many different cultures: American, Asian, Latino and Italian. Parents walked the hallways of our building with their student, sampling foods they could make at home. Families were able to take home cookbooks with recipes from the evening, as well as recipes for other meals that met the healthy guidelines and budget requests. This family event has been able to provide more than 500 families with healthy meals on a tight budget.

Family Engagement is the Key

As an active member of my school community, I take great pride in providing resources for all families to be successful. Schools and community centers often say, “We have an open door policy,” however, unless we use the many talents of parents and personalize events for families, it is hard to actually get families engaged.

If we are personalizing education for students to maximize their potential, then we also need to personalize parental development for our families. This type of positive partnership will create a culture where everyone is excited about learning and working together to create the best possible education and life for every child.

Christopher Gearlds is the principal at the Warren Early Childhood Center in Indianapolis, Ind.

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