Building a sense of belonging in Utah schools

Three members of the U’s University Neighborhood Partners (UNP) team recently returned from Washington, D.C., where they presented their work for the Flamboyan Foundation’s National Family Engagement Fellowship. Jennifer Mayer-Glenn, director of UNP and special assistant to the president for campus-community partnerships, and Paul Kuttner, associate director of UNP, have been members of the four-person Utah fellowship team for nearly two years. The group has already completed a community needs assessment, piloted a test strategy and developed a strategic plan that aims to advance equity through family engagement at schools throughout the state. They were joined in D.C. by Almaida Yanagui, a community organizer at UNP and advisor to the team, whose story is featured in a video that Flamboyan has produced about the team’s work.

 

“What we’ve learned throughout our research and the work that we do is that many of our families don’t view schools as places where they are truly welcomed, listened to and valued,” said Mayer-Glenn. “We know that family engagement is a key factor in the success of students and schools in Utah, but there are significant barriers to ensuring all parents and students are engaged.”

Their pilot initiative involved workshops for schools on how to create more welcoming environments and engage in reciprocal, equitable relationships with families. Their vision is that all families in Utah will experience schools as spaces of belonging where they are welcomed and valued, where they can build relationships and learn with educators and where their engagement has a positive impact on students and the school.

“We are now launching the Belonging Schools Initiative,” said Kuttner. “We’re looking to partner with district leaders to guide them through developing their own unique plan to improve family engagement in their schools. We’re also developing an online family engagement hub where anyone can go to find resources, examples and tools to continue this work. And we’re convening a statewide family engagement collaborative with diverse representation from schools of all grade levels, parent-led organizations and both private and nonprofit partners.”

In addition to Mayer-Glenn and Kuttner, the Utah fellowship team includes Sheryl Ellsworth, the family/community engagement specialist at the Utah State Board of Education, and Jadee Talbot, the associate director of community centers for the Granite School District. There are four other Flamboyan family engagement cohorts located in Atlanta, Memphis, Dallas and Milwaukee.

“It was a privilege to be selected for the Flamboyan Fellowship,” said Mayer-Glenn. “There aren’t very many opportunities to increase knowledge of current family engagement research and best practices and to learn from others doing similar work. Most importantly, it pushed us to learn directly from families in Utah. Our learning over the past two years has been significant and we hope it will have a lasting impact on family engagement practices in Utah.”

Throughout the next year, the team and its advisory board—made up of local families, teachers, administrators and other stakeholders—will begin convening partners from around the state, identifying funds and connecting with districts interested in the Belonging Schools pilot initiative.