Everyone wants their kids to attend schools that see parents as valued partners. Schools that foster a positive, inclusive learning environment. But how do you know if it’s true?
These questions were on the minds of Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) staff after they conducted a division-wide survey on family engagement. The original findings uncovered needs—and barriers—to adequately reaching (and engaging parents). But they didn’t go deep enough into how to resolve those issues. So ACPS partnered with ICF’s Education team to focus on actionable recommendations to improve communication and family engagement initiatives through a qualitative evaluation.
It makes sense that an educational system would want to learn from its students’ families. Research shows that children whose parents and families are engaged in their education do better in school. “The ACPS school board actively strives to foster a welcoming environment that encourages family decision-making on education and activities to support student learning and development,” explains ICF project manager Kristen Usher.
Equity in Education
The primary challenge revolved around the availability of resources and services to engage all families across all contexts. Alexandria City is known for its diversity—with parents and students speaking at least one of 120 languages—which presents as many challenges as it does opportunities. “We used an ‘equity lens’ to assess the extent to which non-English speaking and non-white families were engaged in comparison to English speaking and white families, from elementary through high school,” Usher continues. ICF’s team also focused on ways to sustain family engagement into middle and high school in developmentally appropriate ways.
‘Secret shoppers’ at school
The work began with interviews and focus groups—talking to principals, staff, and parents from across elementary, middle, and high schools, as well as the ACPS central office. Then ICF employees literally walked the halls to observe the school dynamics themselves. With the client’s blessing, the team also used a modified ‘secret shopper’ methodology, posing as parents to call the front office. And assessed how welcoming each school was to those who spoke different languages—English, Spanish, Arabic, Amharic, and Mandarin. The year-long evaluation gleaned insight into which language services ACPS provides, which are used, what services are needed, and where there are gaps.
For the most part, the news was good for ACPS families. But there’s always something to learn. Based on our recommendations, ACPS recommended the school board hire more bilingual parent liaisons, including staff to provide translation services within its communications office. ACPS is also discussing with PTA leaders how to create a more inclusive, welcoming environment. And the school board and ACPS staff formed an Action Planning Committee to explore feasible next steps with senior leadership, school principals, families, and community partners.