How do you build trust with families when you don’t share the same language or culture? That was one of the first questions Manisone Xaybanha asked herself when the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO) hired her to support family engagement at Sacramento Elementary in Parkrose School District.
“I knew building relationships with the Slavic community was going to be my biggest priority,” Manisone said. “I hosted events and invited them in, but they didn’t show up. So, I had to dig deeper and understand why.”
She went to Slavic church and Slavic community events, she set up meetings with community leaders and strategized with her colleagues. That’s how she discovered that, on top of language and cultural barriers, news about a controversial ‘After School Satan Club’ at Sacramento was making Slavic families feel alienated and afraid.
Manisone was determined to build back the trust. “I kept talking to families and learned that they believed in early learning and really wanted to be involved in school, they just didn’t feel welcome,” she said. “I had to find new ways to make them feel comfortable and ready to engage.”
Manisone wasn’t alone in this challenge or in her commitment to families. She was one of eight P-3 (prenatal to 3rd grade) Coordinators hired last fall with funding from Early Learning Multnomah to support family engagement. The coordinators worked at eight different SUN Community Schools in Multnomah County. Each of these schools has a diverse population, high concentrations of English language learners, and many children arriving at kindergarten with little to no preschool experience.
Each P-3 Coordinator had different priority populations, but the challenge was the same: Ensure families feel welcome and ready to engage in school as early as possible, so their children are prepared for kindergarten and successful in early grades.
There was no rigid playbook for the coordinators—in fact, flexibility was key so they could meet the unique needs of families. But P-3 Coordinators had a few main strategies to help families feel welcome:
Play and Learn groups:
P-3 Coordinators facilitate these no-cost early learning groups for children 0-5 and their parents at least once per week at each school. It’s a chance to invite families into the school so they can get to know staff. It also provides opportunities for children who are not yet in school to develop key academic and social skills through facilitated early learning activities. It’s a particularly important resource for families who are priced out of preschool and on the waiting list for Head Start.
“I really like that my daughter thinks this is school and is excited and uses the words, ‘I would love to go to school.’ To have that association this early that school is a really fun, cool place to go, it makes you want to keep up with it.” – Play and Learn participant
P-3 Coordinators are trained to facilitate these intimate conversations among parents to build community, foster peer-to-peer support, and empower leadership among parents who might not otherwise connect with each other. Parent Cafés go beyond the average PTA meeting to give parents a safe space to talk about being parents. P-3 Schools are the first schools in Oregon to be implementing this nationally recognized family engagement model.
“While attending the Café, I found I am not alone in my day to day struggles as a parent. I felt safe enough to share my experiences with others without fear of being judged.” – Parent Café participant
Culturally specific empowerment:
Community needs are unique at every school, so P-3 Coordinators create culturally specific groups for families who might be marginalized or underrepresented in the school. These groups help families feel welcome, giving them a place where they belong and can discuss issues in their own language.
“Chau [P-3 Coordinator] has worked really hard to get our Asian families more involved, and coming to playgroup. It’s just a matter of them knowing that they can get involved and that we want them. That school isn’t just a teacher-driven thing, it is something that takes the whole family.” –Jennifer Ferro, Lincoln Park Elementary School
Kindergarten Teacher Home Visits:
P-3 Coordinators often attend family home visits with kindergarten teachers to connect with new families and understand how they’d like to be involved in the school community. They may also serve as built-in interpreters for families who speak their language, or be able to access resources for families.
“The most influential thing Minerva [P-3 Coordinator] has done for me is support me during family visits. I believe family visits help our diverse community get to know our teachers and dispel any negative or scary impressions they might have from their past. The families Minerva and I visited last year are thriving in our school community and when they see me they treat me like family.” – Theresa Neathery, kindergarten teacher at Wilkes Elementary School
Kindergarten teacher support:
Throughout the day, some P-3 Coordinators will float through kindergarten classrooms to offer support to teachers. This can mean providing sensory breaks for children who need them, making phone calls to families, or giving one-on-one support to children in the classroom.
“There’s so much going on at the schools a lot of time the staff is really, really busy…if parents have concerns, it becomes difficult to get time with a principal or teacher. If there’s someone that can help them and be given an opportunity to have their voice heard, there’s more communication.” – P-3 Coordinator
Early Kindergarten Transition:
P-3 Coordinators support the summer EKT program, a two- or three-week summer camp for incoming kindergarteners with little to no preschool experience. While children attend the kindergarten classroom, coordinators facilitate a workshop with parents about what they can do to help their kids get ready for school.
Social service supports:
Because it’s their job to know the students and their families, P-3 Coordinators are one of the first to know when children need support with something at home—whether it’s new shoes before school, or a safe route home.
“It is hard for such a diverse community where almost all our students ride the bus to school to collaborate and feel a sense of belonging. Minerva [P-3 Coordinator] is there to make phone calls, support meetings, help with home visits, and get services, which is something teachers can't do. She helps fill our families' buckets so that they can give more to their children, our students.” – Theresa Neathery, kindergarten teacher at Wilkes Elementary School
P-3 Coordinators do more than just get families into the school building. They help families make deep, long-lasting connections with their school and other families. And P-3 Coordinators’ willingness to go the extra mile—like Manisone did with Slavic families at Sacramento—is one big reason the program has gained so much traction in its first year.
Building relationships with families might not happen overnight, but the foundations P-3 Coordinators are making now will have benefits for years to come. The 2016-2017 school year was just the first step.
In the 2017-2018 school year, ELM and its partners in the SUN system are looking at ways to expand and improve this promising strategy. SUN will be working with researchers at PSU to analyze learnings from the first year. This work will help SUN and ELM better understand the conditions needed for P-3 schools to thrive, allowing families to connect with schools earlier and more deeply—so more families feel like they belong.