Pittsburgh Public Schools Day of Nonviolence / Photo by Ben Filio

Pittsburgh Public Schools Day of Nonviolence / Photo by Ben Filio

Balancing the Triangle

Pittsburgh Public Schools is the second-largest school district in the state, with around 25,000 students enrolled in 54 schools spread throughout the city and Mt. Oliver. This includes a lot of families from different backgrounds, spread out over a fairly large geographic area. In order to engage families and the surrounding community, the Office of the Superintendent hired a team of 6 professionals who make up their Family, Youth, and Community team. Remake Learning spoke with FYC team members Camara Watkins (coordinator), and Lenell Reid (project specialist) to learn more about best practices, community schools, and something Lenell calls the “triangle effect” of family engagement.

What does parent and family engagement mean to PPS?

Camara Watkins: One thing I have learned is to value and appreciate multiple definitions for engagement. That’s so important to communicate, so we can honor families in what they are doing. Making sure a child is awake, ready for school, dressed, and on the bus is engagement. I want families to feel honored and recognized for what they are doing. Because parents are doing so much! Asking a kid to do their homework—that’s engagement. It’s important for me that schools recognize that, that we as educators honor that. This is all part of the research-based definition of family and community engagement that we have learned by becoming certified through the National Network of Partnership Schools.

What makes parent engagement so important?

Watkins: It’s important to acknowledge that students are people being raised within a context of their family, the surrounding community, and school. Ignoring a piece of that is unwise. Some people see schools as isolated places, but that’s not true. We acknowledge who people are and that the people who know children and students best are their parents, guardians, and family members. It’s important to us to know their value system and what’s important, and think about how we can shape their educational experience in a way that matters to that individual student.

Currently, we have our team here in the office of the Superintendent because he sees family and community engagement as an extension of our work. Our superintendent recognizes that it’s incredibly important for student achievement to make sure there is dedicated staff thinking about parent engagement as part of their work.

Lenell Reid: When parents are engaged and involved, teachers, students, and parents are all accountable to one another. That triangle effect is very powerful. When families have a relationship with a teacher, it’s easier for that teacher to reach out to discuss issues that may arise. We think of the relationship as an equilateral triangle: all sides are equal and important to help that student succeed. In this framework, students are never alone. No leg of the triangle is ever alone. Parents, students, and teachers are partners working toward the common goal of success for that student.

What can you tell us about the Parent Advisory Council (PAC)?

Watkins: The idea behind it is to have a leadership group of parents who both inform the district at a policy level and district wide level and are then also parents armed with information to share with other parents. One of the best ways parents learn is through other parents. Parent and staff representatives from each school come together, helping to tell us what’s going on in each school and we bring information each month to share with other parents in that school. We want to make sure parent input is incorporated throughout the district. As we look at policies and plans we want to know how parents experience them. We don’t want things to happen in silos.

Can you tell us about the role of the Family And Community Engagement (FACE) coordinator at each school?

Watkins: There is a person in each school who knows that community and can support staff and students and community members, bringing them together to form a network of support for students. The FACE coordinator is a full-time staff member in the school, so they hold other roles in that community as well. Parent engagement means much more than just meeting attendance. How can we help parents feel part of their children’s school community without meetings? Our FACE coordinators organize a Parent Student Community Council (PSCC) for each school. Anyone in the community interested in supporting the school can come to that group and give the principal input, look at data, talk about school events and community resources. The FACE coordinator makes sure that information is shared with the school community.

What is the PSCC and how does it differ from the PTA or PTO?

Watkins: This is an important distinction. The PSCC is a school and principal-led group that is open to the entire community with a goal of gathering input so the school can run at its best. The PTA or PTO are parent-led groups. The people who set the agendas are parents, as is the leadership. Not every school has one of these groups. Our standard is that every school has a PSCC and best practice is to hold the meeting back-to-back with the PTA/PTO meeting. One thing to note is that the PSCC is not a fundraising group. Federal Title 1 funding for parent engagement has guidelines for how these funds can be spent.

What sets PPS apart in your approach to parent engagement?

Reid: Our PPS parent survey comes from our desire to hear from parents annually. Not only do we survey the parents, but we make changes based on the results in terms of how we operate as a district, even how we operate in our PAC meetings! Anything worth doing is worth evaluating, and we really seek that feedback. For example, we re-launched our website after consistently hearing that 50% of parents had difficulty finding things online. We looked at other district models and tried to make it better and more intuitive!

Watkins: Even though the district is large, we do things to make it feel smaller and help people feel connected to the people making the decisions. Our superintendent and the chiefs of departments are available, they go to schools, and people can come to our meetings. It’s not just for show! Parents were involved in the creation of our roles, sat on the interview panel for my job literally giving input about who was right for this role. Parents give input on curriculum changes, textbook adoptions…everything.

How are educators and innovators helping parents better understand how learning is changing?

Reid: We launched the Home Access Center district-wide where parents and students can stay up-to-date on attendance and assignments and communicate with teachers. Some schools use additional tools. One example I love is CAPA’s Schoology program. That allows teachers to put info into one place where students and parents can go in and look. This is a wonderful, innovative tool that once again helps that triangle!

Watkins: At a district level, all of our curriculum information is online. We are all in this together. If you want to understand what your child should know this year, the benchmarks are online. We send those home with families, too. Really wanting parents to be partners means we want them to know our goals and also how they can support those goals.

How is the district’s Strategic Plan important in terms of parent and family engagement?

Reid: Our Strategic Plan really isn’t just Dr. Hamlet’s plan. This is something we are creating together as an entire group of people who care about our education system. The outcomes, strategies and initiatives in that plan—parents were part of creating that. The plan represents a major change for our district and parents helped shape that direction, what we will work on over the next 5 years, and what our measurements for growth will be.

Watkins: One meaningful change is that our vision statement makes sure we are preparing our students for college, career, and life. Our focus used to be preparation for college, but our parents and community pointed out the need for holistic preparation. We are officially recognizing preparation for career and life preparation. Also, I think it’s important to know that most of what we as a district worked on first were the initiatives that help create a positive and supportive school culture in every school. If you read through the objectives in the Strategic Plan, parent and family engagement is called out – everyone shares the responsibility for creating positive relationships with families and we are creating effective family and community partnerships in every school.

Tell us about the community schools initiative and how that ties into parent engagement?

Watkins: Community schools are the ultimate example of educators and community members coming together to say we all care about the success of students. We all want them to learn in a place that honors where they are and we will do what it takes. If parents need something, they know where to get resources, support, clothes and food. Community schools recognize that the community is an extension of the school. What happens in the community happens in our schools, so we have a specific strategy and dedicated resources to make sure relationships are working well and resources are coming together. Our end goal is for our students to be the best people they can be, and that means including the community around them.