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Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators

Revolutionizing family engagement

Comprehensive mechanisms to support our school communities

By Michael McCormick | January | February 2022
In recent years, family engagement has become quite the buzzword in education. At Val Verde Unified School District, it is not just a passing fad, but something that is fully embraced by our district as a whole. With the transition to the Local Control Funding Formula and the flexibility awarded by the Local Control Accountability Plan in the last decade, our district was able to revolutionize what family engagement meant for our community. The transformation of our district in recent years has come to be a tale worth sharing.
VVUSD is located in Riverside County, California, and serves close to 20,000 students every year from grades TK-12 who reside in portions of Perris, Moreno Valley and an unincorporated area of Riverside County. The demographic breakdown is .03 percent American Indian; 1.5 percent Asian; .2 percent Pacific Islander; 1.3 percent Filipino; 77.7 percent Hispanic; 12.2 percent African American; 4.3 percent White; 2 percent two or more races; and 3,802 (19 percent) of the students are identified as English Learners. In addition, 83.1 percent of the students in the district fall within the socioeconomically disadvantaged bracket.
What has VVUSD done to keep the family engagement fire burning and not allow for the light to dim? The truth lies in the truly comprehensive way in which our district has made it a priority.
First and foremost, our Board of Education marked family engagement as one of their keystone yearly goals and it has continued to be a staple of our district’s LCAP from the get-go. Allotting the funding to support our VVUSD vision for family engagement has been essential to our efforts. To better understand what has made our district’s family engagement endeavors so successful and revolutionary, to the extent that VVUSD was selected as one of the few districts in the California Engagement Initiative as part of California’s Collaborative for Educational Excellence, it is important to note that VVUSD’s philosophy of family engagement is built around three important pillars and is embodied by all stakeholders: 1) engagement over involvement; 2) strength-based family partnerships; and 3) a focus on empowering families as leaders and change agents.
First, engagement over involvement refers to a shift in thinking that requires us to move beyond traditional forms of parent involvement where parents are asked to “show up, listen and learn” and instead operate from a space where families “engage, inform and decide,” where families own their role as equal partners and are moved to talk about and act on what they feel is important. Simply put, we don’t believe in telling families what matters, but rather aspire to listen to the ideas and priorities of our families in order to co-construct what matters.
Another practice in place is our emphasis on strength-based family partnerships, where we begin by recognizing and valuing the strengths that families pass onto their children and leveraging those strengths in a way where families and students know they are not only welcome, but respected. Finally, we are highly focused on the empowerment of families as leaders. For us, this means carving out pathways where families connect with their unique strengths, build upon their preferred leadership styles and exercise their to make positive changes for our students.
An important and strategic practice that our work revolves around is the importance of building strong relationships with community partners. Throughout the years, our relationships with our local allies have served to strengthen the ties with our families by helping us address the varying needs of our community. These relationships have become even more relevant during recent times as we sought ways to support our families with the challenges brought about by COVID-19. Specific examples include having been able to set up timely vaccine clinics with health care providers and providing additional mental health supports and resources when the need arose exponentially as a result of the taxing circumstances that were brought about by the pandemic. It is thanks to these strong relationships that we are able to offer dozens of free classes and workshops for our families. The numerous series we offer are family-driven offerings that concentrate around five different areas: Family Support for Student Academic Achievement, Adult Education, Parent Leadership, Health and Wellbeing and Parent Networking Support.
A key practice for us has been consistency and the development of a team that not only believes but remains truly vested in the work. Family engagement requires passion and a true love for families and the community. A fundamental part of this includes making continuous personal connections with our families, and the development of trust within the community; crossing over from ideas on paper, to accountable actions that families can see in action. For this, communication is key. We make it a top priority to make sure that our promotional materials for events are offered in both English and Spanish. Inclusivity is something that we are continuously striving for. As an example, in the past year we kicked off family network meetings for our newly arrived Guatemalan families. Such sessions are offered with interpretation into English, Spanish and Q’anjob’al. All of this requires a conscientious effort, one in which serving our community is ingrained in every aspect of the work and everyone takes ownership for making family engagement successful. This can be in the form of placing over a thousand personalized phone calls a year, making sure our automated messages are sent in two languages, ensuring our flyers are translated and keeping our website and Twitter feed updated continuously. It all involves a careful balancing act.

Flexibility and a keen eye for being able to adapt to extenuating circumstances is also a time-proven practice worth highlighting. Family engagement at our district went from hosting award-winning highly attended Family Engagement Symposiums with hundreds of people or participating at the Mexico-United States Migrant Education Forum in Mexico City, to transferring all of our services onto a digital platform and drive-thru events. Our most recent event of this nature, the Back to School Boogie, which boasted hundreds of participants, highlighted the culture and heritage of our African American Families. For years our district has invested in mass means of communication platforms that enable us to get the word out quickly and efficiently to our community to promote what we are offering at any given time.
Finally, how do we know we effectively engage families, honor their voices and ensure we offer authentic, meaningful partnerships and services? By holding ourselves accountable for the work that we do. Long before the State of California developed a Family Engagement Framework or shared self-reflection tools to help guide the work and see if districts were meeting their family engagement goals, our district was holding focus groups and distributing satisfaction surveys to our families. Our community is the one that drives the work. Our families share what they want and what they believe is relevant. Before it may have been a huge in-person event, today it could be an informational session that provides resources for families experiencing homelessness and educates the community on the subject. Having a team of various stakeholders that understands the importance of making family engagement a core component of the work of schools and district and the responsibility this entails is fundamental; having the funds and support of board members and district leadership is key; partnering with families as the true leaders they are, as well as our community partners as allies, is absolutely transformative.

Michael McCormick is the superintendent of Val Verde Unified School District.
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