Dayton schools call family engagement weak point, push new strategies

After 18 months of strategic changes, Dayton Public Schools leaders acknowledge the district still needs to turn a corner in family engagement — both communicating better with students’ families, and helping those families be better involved in their children’s education.

The district is trying to create a PTO group at each school, expects to announce its new Parent, Family and Community Council this month, and just hired a new director of outreach and student activities.

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“We need to reassess the way we engage the public. I think we’ve been approaching it the wrong way,” said school board Vice President Jocelyn Rhynard, who led a series of town hall meetings last school year. “We need to make a better effort of coming to people, rather than expecting them to come to us.”

Much educational research supports the idea that family engagement can help a student’s performance, whether it’s simply a parent stressing the importance of education, or more actively reading to a child, asking about their academic work or volunteering in school.

The Ohio Department of Education calls family and community engagement “a critical part of helping our students achieve academic success,” and offers a variety of best practices and other guidance on its website.

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But when Dayton held its most recent series of town hall meetings at a variety of schools around the city, there were times school employees outnumbered the parents and other family members who attended.

Angela Worley, who leads a Facebook group for “DPS Engaged Parents,” said the town halls were a good effort, but she questioned whether some in district leadership really want to hear what parents have to say.

“They ask the questions, but they almost turn a deaf ear on the answers. We’re telling them what to do (on engagement), and they’re actively choosing not to do it,” Worley said.

Angie Brown, who is only one week into her job as Dayton’s director of outreach, after doing similar work in Lakota schools, said building better relationships through trust and communication will be key. She said it’s important for a community to identify with a school as “my school” and feel that connection.

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“If the community isn’t involved, they do not take stake in the school district. They begin to point fingers (rather than problem-solving). And when I say community, I mean everybody,” Brown said. “So how do we do that? Through communication, through not being afraid to hear what they have to say, through being able to listen.”

Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli, who has overseen massive changes in DPS the past 18 months, said a large school district can seem overwhelming to people, and Dayton has to do a better job of addressing that.

“I think we have to start at the school level, and I think we have to make sure that our parents understand they’re welcome there,” Lolli said. “We have a lot of work to do.”

Parent challenges

At two late 2018 town hall meetings, multiple parents said school leaders need to earn parents’ trust after years of feeling as though they weren’t being heard. Rhynard said it was clear at those meetings that many parents didn’t feel welcomed in the schools.

Parents who spoke up gave many reasons for frustration — some had bad experiences when they attended DPS themselves, so they came in with distrust. Some said they needed guidance on how to help their kids academically, but never got it. Others simply gave up when calls or emails weren’t returned.

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April Murdock’s older son will be a senior at Dunbar High School, while her younger son goes to the Richard Allen charter schools. She doesn’t get involved at the school board level, but makes sure teachers know she’s involved in her kids’ education and available. She said some communication could be better.

“I see the (robocalls), but I get a million of those,” she said. “Tell me the specifics – if there’s a uniform dress code that’s about to change on this date, great. But don’t call to tell me that, oh, we’re just so happy that you’re here, and you’re great. Give me the meat and potatoes I need to know, because I’m juggling my schedule and their schedules, and I’m transporting them. I’m busy.”

Murdock cited a few successes in parent engagement. She said after years of struggle to know what her son’s grades were, Google Classroom has given her much better access to keep up. And she said events such as the Dunbar Day festival allow her and her son to see school employees not just as authority figures, but as people being active in their community.

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Worley, whose daughter will attend Stivers in the fall, said Lolli is correct that Dayton needs to feel more welcoming from the first moment parents interact with a school. She’s concerned that the second straight year of massive school principal turnover will make those relationships tougher to build.

“I think it’s very counterproductive … I don’t know this person and they don’t know me,” Worley said. “Each building has its own personality, and you can’t necessarily bring what worked at one place to another school.”

Engagement strategies

Lolli said DPS is holding a new weeklong training retreat with its 25 building principals this summer, and family engagement will be one of the topics, as those leaders prepare for back-to-school meetings with their communities. She said schools will be encouraged to make meetings more community-friendly.

“We’ve done incentives, giving out little $5 or $10 gas cards that have been donated,” she said. “Feeding people – you can’t expect people to come to a 5:30 p.m. school meeting if they haven’t eaten. Also having celebratory-type meetings, rather than just, ‘this is how it’s going to be’ … That kind of attitude is something we’re going to work with our principals on.”

Rhynard said the new Parent, Family and Community Council’s first goal will be to support existing Parent Teacher Organizations at the schools that already have them (just over half) and establish new PTOs at the other schools.

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“Parents know their local leaders, teachers and principals more than the superintendent or (central office) chiefs,” Rhynard said. “We want to make sure that the connections we have between teachers and parents are sustained and supported.”

Brown said it’s part of her job to make sure teachers and other educators know how important the family connection is, as the parents are the child’s first and continuing teacher. Then beyond that concept, she said teachers need support to put good relationships into practice.

Rhynard, whose work as an involved parent led her to run for school board two years ago, said activities like movie nights and after-school events help get parents into the school for the first time, where they can meet other parents in the same boat and hopefully come back to build a small community.

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That parent-to-parent connection can be especially valuable in Dayton, where trust of top district leadership has been an issue at times. Some other schools and agencies use the approach more formally.

Trotwood schools tried using “parent engagers” to cold-call a certain number of residents per day, telling them about good things going on in the district. Preschool Promise has nine part-time paid “outreach specialists” who hold small events like “popsicle parties” at apartment complexes to share information about their program.

“We’ve done a great job in these first couple years of getting the families who are somewhat connected to things in the community,” said Preschool Promise Executive Director Robyn Lightcap. “But we’re not hitting on all cylinders yet to get the families who are more disconnected, and that takes a lot of hand-to-hand effort.”

Whose job is it?

Some would argue that family engagement in a child’s education is purely the family’s job. But at a town hall meeting, school board President William Harris said too many students lack the most basic supports at home, such as food and a consistent place to sleep, and their families shouldn’t be ignored if they’re too bogged down to reach out for academic help.

Worley said DPS needs to focus on those students’ basic, immediate needs if it wants them to also succeed academically. To that end, the district is hiring more mental health therapists and partnering with Five Rivers Health Centers to open its first in-school health center this fall. Worley said the district also needs to follow through when parents do raise concerns, to show those parents it’s worth their time if they make the effort.

Murdock said some responsibility for school engagement has to fall to the students’ parents, saying there are some situations the school can’t fix. But Lolli said DPS will try its best in every case.

“It’s communication from everybody — from our principals and teachers making sure that people feel welcome, and making sure that people understand we’re here for them and here for their children,” Lolli said.

As Dayton pushes hard on family engagement, Murdock urged school officials not to forget a key member of each family.

“When they make changes, they should take in consideration the viewpoint of the children,” she said. “The initial impact is them, and no one takes time to ask the children how they feel about things. They’re growing and learning to use their voice, and we can’t teach them that if we’re not giving them an opportunity to do it.”


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