Family engagement is one of the strongest predictors of children’s school success, according to 40 years of steadily accumulating evidence. When communities and schools work together, students and their families are more successful, and the entire community benefits. In 2017, Ogden High School (OHS) administrators and the college and career readiness coordinator saw a clear need to address engagement. At the time, family and community participation in back-to-school activities, parent-teacher conferences, and other events was low. OHS is an economically and culturally diverse community in Utah, and it was clear that families did not feel connected to the school or see it as a resource.

OHS began rethinking how they had traditionally encouraged family engagement by creating a Family Engagement Team (FET)—a group that was able to establish the right focus and create clear, research-based practices directly aligned to the school’s vision and goals—bringing together crucial resources. Through this process, the FET has strengthened community partnerships to support diverse family needs and student growth. As a result, OHS families and students have reported feeling more connected to the school as a whole and a better understanding of the school’s goals, including how they can support the school’s efforts toward growth and success for their students.

The Family Engagement Team

The FET consists of the vice principal, the college and career readiness (CCR) coordinator, and OHS’ family and youth specialist for the United Way of Northern Utah. Basically, the engagement team provides a structure to identify the problems of practice; to plan, collaborate, and align resources; and to monitor, track, and adjust toward systematic growth. Each member brings something to the table that allows the team to focus on increasing community and family engagement. The vice principal ensures that the team remains driven by the school’s improvement plan to support the right focus and planned actions while also ensuring that appropriate school funding allocations and resources can be utilized effectively. The CCR coordinator organizes and aligns the postsecondary supports and initiatives, such as ACT readiness, scholarships, FAFSA and college admissions support, and career and employment options. The CCR coordinator works closely with the United Way specialist.

That collaboration was a significant strength. The United Way specialist—operating under the mission to “unite people and organizations to build a healthy, stable, and well-educated community where individuals, families, and neighborhoods thrive”—was able to support the planning and organization efforts of the team and bring crucial community resources and tools into the process. This ensured that the team wasn’t just working within a school bubble and helped them better understand the diverse needs of the community and individual families. By partnering with OHS’ surrounding community through the support of the United Way specialist and aligning the work and support of the CCR coordinator, the team was able to maximize its support to families and student growth.

Aligning to School Improvement

According to the U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences, family and community efforts are often uncoordinated and separate from school improvement plan efforts, which creates a divided focus and decreased success. The OHS team wanted to ensure that its efforts in increasing family engagement supported the school’s plan for student growth and success—and helped families understand their role in supporting their student’s learning and achievement within the context of the school’s goals.

The team focused on events that brought students and their families to school: back-to-school night, parent-teacher conferences, and a targeted community celebration night. The back-to-school night focused on launching the school’s goals of attendance, literacy, and graduation with post­secondary readiness into the community. The night’s activities celebrated each goal and gave families a broad understanding of how the individual goals would support their student’s success. Each parent-teacher conference focused on a specific goal and allowed the team to organize activities and resources to deepen the understanding of each goal.

Community Celebration Night in the spring focused on bringing the community into the school’s improvement plan efforts for all grade levels and was an opportunity to celebrate where the school had seen improvement and growth with the entire community. The team shifted the traditional focus away from meet-your-teacher-and-talk-about-grades events to opportunities to educate and provide targeted resources for families. They focused on the school’s improvement plan while also keeping families and the community updated on the progress and providing opportunities for celebration.

Eliminating Barriers and Increasing Involvement

Research shows that the more culturally and economically diverse a school is, the more barriers exist for families to embrace events like those that the FET organized. As a result, when planning each event, the team took a close look at possible barriers and articulated specific strategies and action steps to increase reasons for families to participate, including:

  • Translation services provided by Latinos in Action
  • Tours of the school in different languages
  • Childcare services and targeted young student activities provided by student government
  • Dinner (like taco trucks) in return for participation
  • Community resources for health, employment, and other family services booths
  • School club and sports activity booths
  • Teacher and department booths
  • Parent classes targeting school improvement goals
  • Student performances from OHS groups and feeder schools
  • Different spaces outside of the typical classroom, such as the outdoors, for a more fair-like atmosphere
  • Prizes and incentives from community businesses
  • Communication about events in multiple languages across multiple platforms

The team’s planning process allowed it to be intentional about what barriers needed to be addressed and provided targeted resources to help eliminate challenges. Planning also actively involved student groups and community institutions that represented the school’s diversity and provided an additional reason for families to come and participate.

Continued Improvement

Ogden High’s Family Engagement Team used the continuous improvement cycle of Plan, Do, Study, Act to ensure it saw growth and had a positive impact. In addition to studying possible problems of practice, identifying target goals, and planning outcome-driven action steps, the team gathered multiple forms of evidence and feedback at each event to drive how the members planned future events—including adjustments and follow-up opportunities.

The team organized a digital survey in English and Spanish that was given to each family group that asked questions about communication preferences, school goal initiatives, and resources. This process also served as a way to gather attendance data. Community participants filled out surveys, which helped gain feedback.

The team organized a stamp/punch card system that required families to participate in at least two activities—including visiting with teachers about progress—before turning the card in at the taco or food stand. This allowed the team to ensure more participation in the events and gather data about what booths or resources were the most popular or valuable. After each event, the team analyzed the surveys, attendance data, and other evidence to celebrate with the school and community. This helped the team plan adjustments for the next event or follow up with a specific family or community member. The school could also use the survey results to help support their school improvement plan goals and action steps.

Through these efforts over three years, OHS saw a 21% increase in attendance at back-to-school night and parent-teacher conferences. Students and families reported that they felt more connected and invested in their school by knowing its improvement plan and goals.

The team continued to work toward improvement in the 2020–21 school year by making these events digital but keeping the elements that had been successful in the past, providing resources and access, aligning to the school’s improvement plan, and involving the whole school and community. While last year had increased barriers for families regarding school engagement, the team continues to use the foundation and process it established four years ago to ensure that it remains focused and continues to improve.

Heather Gerrard is the assistant principal of Ogden High School in Ogden, UT, and the 2021 Utah Assistant Principal of the Year. She is also a 2021 NASSP Assistant Principal of the Year finalist.

Sidebar: Engagement Ideas to Consider

  1. Establish a team that utilizes key members of the community.
  2. Align to the school’s improvement plan to create focus and support.
  3. Eliminate barriers such as language, space, food, and childcare.
  4. Include student groups of all ages in activities and performances.
  5. Provide parent classes and community resources.
  6. Follow the continuous improvement system process for reflection and action planning.
  7. Utilize surveys.
  8. Celebrate and promote progress within the school and community.

Sidebar: Meet Heather Gerrard

A 2021 NASSP National Assistant Principal of the Year Finalist

Heather Gerrard lives in Layton, UT, with her husband, Steven, and 8-year-old son, Jameson. She spends her spare time outdoors in the Wasatch Mountains, running, hiking, fly fishing, and camping. She also enjoys cooking and gardening. She feels her greatest accomplishment at Ogden High School revolves around closing the opportunity gap through college and career readiness programs and supports. Gerrard’s leadership has fostered a focus on increasing student participation in these programs by more than 50% while ensuring that teachers could support their diverse student populations in these programs for more sustainable growth. These efforts have supported an increase in OHS’ graduation rate to over 95%. At the same time, OHS increased its ACT composite score and participation in rigorous courses such as AP and IB, and raised concurrent enrollment to 87.9%, with an increase in pathway completion and pass rates.