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College of Education

Building relationships between families and schools improves student experience

COVID-19 presents challenges, opportunities for family engagement center

By Carol J.G. Ward

After a year of planning, the Carolina Family Engagement Center began implementation of school partnerships across South Carolina in August 2019 and had just started to build momentum when COVID-19 hit this spring.

“We were at a critical point when this happened because our work involves relationship building and personal interactions to create a foundation that will help schools be more strategic and intentional about family engagement,” says Karen Utter, project director and associate director of the South Carolina School Improvement Council.

Through partnerships between five regional liaisons and 25 public schools in South Carolina, the center works to encourage and support the use of effective, evidence-based family engagement practices, programs and activities. The center also works with teachers and teacher teams to develop and implement classroom family engagement plans.

“There is a strong research base that suggests family engagement is related to improved academic achievement, student development, graduation rates and test scores, teacher satisfaction with their jobs and parent satisfaction with their schools,” says Lorelei Swanson, the Upstate regional family engagement liaison.

Established by a five-year, nearly $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education in 2018, the Carolina Family Engagement Center used its first year for planning, hiring and training staff, building infrastructure and recruiting schools and teachers as partners. The University of South Carolina - the only university in the Southeast to receive funding - is host to one of 12 centers nationwide under the Statewide Family Engagement Center Program.

Housed in the South Carolina School Improvement Council office in the College of Education, the center incorporates the expertise of six faculty specialists to provide feedback to center leaders and regional liaisons and participate in community projects.

March and April were expected to be key months for training, solidifying relationships with school and community stakeholders, and planning and goal setting for the next school year. Then schools closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the center’s focus changed dramatically.

“One of the first things we did was reach out to our school partners and our teacher teams to see how we could support their efforts to meet the needs of all students and families during this challenging time,” Swanson says. “For some teachers and schools, we became a sounding board to listen to their individual struggles and connect them with resources available through our community partners.”

The center has also found ways to continue its capacity-building efforts while meeting the immediate needs of school staff. For example, when Swanson learned that non-certified school staff were in need of virtual professional development opportunities in order to log their required hours, she quickly developed an online family engagement training that was geared specifically to these personnel.

As soon as schools closed, the center shifted its information dissemination efforts to focus on important COVID-19 information and resources for educators and families. In addition to relying on its website and social media, the center is looking to “pre-internet” methods of communication to reach families without internet access. For example, liaisons are working with partner districts to develop fliers that can be customized for each school community and distributed with student learning packets or posted in key locations such as grocery stores or gas stations.

“One of our most creative and exciting projects has been organizing an Online Virtual Talent Show that allows students in pre-K through 12th grade from across the state to showcase their artistic talents with their family members,” Swanson says.

The shows, which give families an opportunity to connect and decompress by doing something creative together, have included singing, dancing, acting, original artwork and poetry.

While the Carolina Family Engagement Center is primarily an outreach and service project, data is collected from the 25 partner schools for research and evaluation to measure the impact of its work. The evaluation team has identified 25 comparison schools in other districts that are not receiving the liaison support or other interventions.

They’ve developed metrics to measure whether we have built capacity – knowledge, skills and awareness -and whether this resulted in any change in terms of behavior,” Utter says.

In addition, a survey of parents in partner schools was planned this spring. The center is considering ways to proceed for gathering family feedback. Utter also sees potential research opportunities in collecting stories from families and regional liaisons from the pandemic experience.

Before COVID-19, Utter says the center was developing a good understanding for what the schools’ and students’ needs were and what their goals were.

“We were ready to blossom in terms of implementation, but then we had to adjust our expectations,” Utter says. “One of our challenges, then, is how do we sustain those positive gains? We're also trying to make sure that we don’t get so lost in COVID-19 that we forget about the longer-term goals we were working on when we were so abruptly interrupted.”

As focus has shifted, teachers, liaisons and center staff are concerned about families who may become disconnected or isolated during quarantine because of socio-economic disparities and lack of internet connectivity or devices. The Carolina Family Engagement Center fosters equitable education opportunities for all students but has an emphasis on underrepresented or disadvantaged families and families of children with special needs.

“COVID-19 and its impact on minority communities or low-income communities highlights these disparities,” Utter says. “The subject of our next community partner meeting will be to look at what we are doing to reach out to these families and whether we are doing enough.”

While the current situation has been challenging, Utter and Swanson see opportunities for the family engagement center’s outreach and impact.

“When I have conversations with district leaders and principals and teachers, my sense is that in the long term this experience has the potential to strengthen school-family partnerships and build capacity in the ways schools connect with families,” Swanson says. “It also is an opportunity for families to be more aware of how they can be engaged in their child's learning.”

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