Bridging the Gap: Building Strong, Effective Family-School Partnerships - Action for Healthy Kids
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Bridging the Gap: Building Strong, Effective Family-School Partnerships

We know that kids do best when their families and schools are working together to support them in reaching their full potential. This is true now, as we plan for the next normal, more than ever. Strong and effective family-school partnerships are absolutely essential to keeping kids engaged in learning and healthy in body and mind.

In 2018, the Global Family Research Project conducted a thorough review of the leading family engagement research and found that the research “consistently confirms that family engagement is one of the most powerful predictors of children’s development, educational attainment, and success in school and life.” But while there’s a clear need for family engagement, there’s also a clear disconnect between schools, which broadly proclaim their interest in and need for family input, and families, who say they want to provide feedback but have not done so. In fact, a nationally representative survey conducted by AFHK in January 2020 found that while 86% of parents are interested in providing input on kids’ health issues, 72% have decided against raising concerns with school staff.


What is the Challenge?

So if schools want to hear from families, families want to provide input to schools, and they all recognize the need to work together, what’s not working? And, more importantly, what needs to change for families and schools to partner effectively?

The full answer, not surprisingly, is a complex one. In school communities across the country – particularly those with concentrated disadvantages and inequities – historical barriers to family engagement have created mistrust between families and school staff. Cultural and language differences, systemic racism and inequities, and unrealistic expectations of parents’ time and capacity have resulted in families being labeled as “hard to reach” or worse, written off as not caring about their kids’ education and health. As the gap between families and schools has built up, those layers of mistrust have become engrained in assumptions each group makes about the other and bridging that gap has become more difficult.

But the need to bridge that gap is especially urgent now, with distance and hybrid learning environments the norm and the pandemic blurring the lines between caregiver and teacher, school and home.


Bridging the Gap

To meet this challenge, we need strong, effective and sustainable family-school partnerships. These partnerships need to be rooted in open communication, mutual trust, a shared understanding of historic barriers, and a commitment to developing and implementing solutions together. They’ll need to be developed by building the capacity of both families and school staff to improve their skills and knowledge, make connections, shift their beliefs, and build their confidence in working together. And they need support from districts and school leadership to empower educators to see families as co-creators and create welcoming environments that invite families to be engaged through a variety of roles, based on their capacity.

In recognition of this urgent need, AFHK has redesigned our model to support families and schools in underserved communities in building these family-school partnerships. We are committed to creating resources, training parent leaders in these communities, and facilitating workshops with families and school staff to identify and overcome barriers to family engagement, build mutual trust, and develop the sustainable family-school partnerships needed to support kids’ health.

We know the value of these partnerships because we’ve seen them work. In 2016, parents from eight schools in southwest Denver started meeting regularly with Denver Public Schools (DPS) district staff to discuss student health, unite their voices, and advocate for healthy changes to their schools’ wellness policies and practices. Initially founded as part of a partnership between DPS Food and Nutrition Services and AFHK to meet the specific needs of Spanish-speaking families and address their concerns related to school meals, the group soon broadened its reach to become the DPS Health & Wellness Southwest Advisory Committee, include more family members and address a broader range of school health and wellness topics.

Through facilitation from AFHK staff and many long, difficult conversations, district staff and families began to come to a shared understand of both the barriers that have historically stood in the way of families like them from engaging with DPS and the process and strategies for making change to district and school policies. As a result, the committee – made up primarily of monolingual Spanish or bilingual parents that DPS has typically had a hard time connecting with – has been able to build mutual trust, create an open dialogue with school and district leadership, and advocate for the following successful changes at the school and district level:

  • Stronger school policies and practices around access to water
  • Updated lunch menus that feature more culturally relevant items
  • Quality concerns related to food temperature addressed
  • Improved customer service
  • Healthier celebrations and snacks at schools and at home
  • Increased family engagement and community involvement

These changes would not have been possible without intentionally bringing together families and district staff to identify and overcome barriers and create the kind of strong, effective and lasting family-school partnerships that we need in communities throughout the country.

Considering the Next Normal

Building partnerships of any kind have to start somewhere and are rooted in strengthening communication. Especially now, parents and caregivers are being tasked with a near-impossible combination of roles during this time: working from home, home-schooling, counseling, managing your and your family’s stress, economic challenges, and more.

Parents and caregivers – it’s easy to feel like we need to do it all. Give yourself grace and acknowledge what you can do with the capacity that you have. Talk with other parents, connect with a trusted teacher or school staff members and discover ways to start small and begin working towards long-lasting collaboration through nutrition, physical activity and social emotional learning.

For those parents and caregivers who have the resources and energy to focus on strengthening and supporting the school community: we encourage you to ask educators how you can help with virtual learning, setting up virtual connection groups for families and students that are free and open to all instead of separating away from the school. And if you have the time and capacity, please think about other parents and caregivers in your community who may not be aware of these resources and reach out to ensure they also have access.


Additional Resources

Stay informed, active and healthy with more resources and activities by visiting Back to School: Safe & Healthy in an Uncharted Landscape.