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Power to the parents

University scholars demonstrate that parents are the solution—not the problem—when it comes to education reform.

At a moment when immigrants, people of color and other marginalized groups face another wave of systemic violence in U.S. immigration detention centers, a new policy memo released July 16, 2019, involving University of Utah and other researchers contends that educational systems need new strategies to meaningfully engage families and communities.

In the memo, “Recasting Families and Communities as Co-Designers of Education in Tumultuous Times,” the authors describe how justice-based approaches to family engagement enable parents and families, particularly those from communities of color, to contribute as fellow leaders in transforming schools and educational systems to better serve all children, families and communities.

PHOTO CREDIT: University Neighborhood Partners

Paul Kuttner, associate director of University Neighborhood Partners and member of the Family Leadership Design Collaborative.

“We hear so much rhetoric that positions families of color and families from immigrant and refugee backgrounds as problems,” said Paul Kuttner, associate director of University Neighborhood Partners (UNP) at the U and member of the Family Leadership Design Collaborative (FLDC). “Our project is rooted in the knowledge that this is patently false. These families are solutions. They are the leaders, experts and researchers we need to address injustice in education.”

The justice-based approaches described in the memo are grounded in the understanding that families and communities possess historical and lived knowledge about how to persist through challenging times and bring critical expertise to efforts to advance educational justice and community well-being.

The national FLDC research project, led by Ann M. Ishimaru at the University of Washington’s College of Education and Megan Bang at the Northwestern University School of Education and Social Policy, included 10 sites around the country in its first phase, including Salt Lake City. The researchers then selected five sites to continue into phase two, including Salt Lake City, which involved more extensive design work and knowledge sharing.

The Salt Lake City group was dubbed the “Family-School Collaboration Design Research Team,” and was convened by staff at UNP, a U office that works to bring together university and westside communities and resources in reciprocal learning, action and benefit. The core research team included Gerardo Lopez from the U’s College of Education, as well as parent co-researchers, graduate assistants and a partner from the Salt Lake City School District.

Based on years of UNP’s work with families and schools on Salt Lake’s west side, the team chose to focus its redesign efforts on School Community Councils (SCCs). SCCs are decision-making bodies in all Utah schools that are tasked with approving improvement plans and allocating funds from the state’s land trust. They are meant to involve a majority of parents and family members in shared decision making with educators.

“Unfortunately, many Utah schools struggle to bring this vision to reality,” said Kuttner. “Too often, they are sparsely attended groups that end up rubber-stamping plans they had little voice in. We looked at the problems with SCCs and knew they could not be solved in a top-down way. Instead, through the research process, we put the problem into the hands of those with the most knowledge and expertise—families and educators themselves.”

PHOTO CREDIT: University Neighborhood Partners

“Design circle” meeting.

UNP’s team hosted a series of “design circles” that brought together westside parents and educators to reimagine what a strong SCC would like in a Salt Lake City school—one that truly fosters family voice and power. This involved educators and families learning from one another and bringing their collective knowledge and imagination to tackle the problem.

Over the course of seven meetings, the group produced the following results:

  • A report for schools laying out core principles and practices for “reimagined” SCCs.
  • A comic booklet, which families helped design, to use as tool to inform other families about SCCs and their right to participate in them. The booklet will be piloted this fall.
  • Influenced the decision by the state to broaden what SCC funds can be used for to include family engagement.
  • An emerging training for schools on how to create welcoming environments for families.
  • Many families involved in the design circles have gone on to take leadership roles in SCCs and other school bodies.

The memo also outlines several recommendations for school, system, state and federal decision-makers.

The FLDC and its research is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.