Student teachers in classroom

Family dynamics

$5 million grant to foster more family engagement in SC schools

The University of South Carolina’s College of Education was awarded its largest grant in nearly 20 years — a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement to fund a statewide program to better engage families in South Carolina public schools.

The Statewide Family Engagement Center Program (SFEC) awarded 11 grants nationwide. The University of South Carolina is the only university in the Southeast to receive the grant.

“This new $5 million investment will help to create closer, more effective relationships between families and schools in every corner of the Palmetto State,” says Prakash Nagarkatti, UofSC Vice President for Research. “Congratulations to project director Karen Utter; co-directors Tom Hudson, Gina Kunz and Abe Wandersman; project evaluators Tammiee Dickenson and Ashlee Lewis from the College of Education’s Research, Evaluation and Measurement (REM) Center; and their partners at the South Carolina Department of Education and in the community on this major award.”

The five-year grant will create the Carolina Family Engagement Center (CFEC). The University of South Carolina will lead the CFEC, with the South Carolina Department of Education as its primary partner. The grant will fund seven new staff members, six of whom will be assigned to different regions across the state to work directly with families and schools.

"Part of our mission is to improve education for all students," says Jon Pedersen, dean. "Of course, this includes preparing highly qualified educators, but also advancing research and initiatives, such as this program, that will allow schools to better serve students and their families."

The center will work with public schools to implement and enhance effective family engagement policies, programs and activities that lead to improvements in student development and academic achievement.

“The active and positive involvement of all families in the education of their children is an essential ingredient in the success of our schools and our students,” says Molly Spearman, South Carolina Superintendent of Education. “The Carolina Family Engagement Center will be a strong addition as we continue to reach out and grow the involvement of student’s families across the state.”

Research shows that when families are engaged in a child’s education, school drop-out rates decrease and grades improve. With South Carolina ranking in the bottom half of the country in education, health and child and economic well-being, the center leaders say the need for successful school reform and improved student achievement is critical.

“When schools, families and communities work together on behalf our students’ success, we all benefit, particularly our children,” says Tom Hudson, executive director of the South Carolina School Improvement Council (SC-SIC) and a co-director of the Carolina Family Engagement Center. “But such meaningful collaboration doesn’t just happen spontaneously. The center will work to provide both families and schools with the capacity, tools and resources needed to truly engage in their children’s education.”

The active and positive involvement of all families in the education of their children is an essential ingredient in the success of our schools and our students.

Molly Spearman, SC Superintendent of Education

In the past year, the SC-SIC (housed at UofSC) and the South Carolina Department of Education have partnered to provide a series of training sessions for more than 100 parent liaisons — school staff members who serve as go-betweens for families and schools.

“These trainings focus on topics including how to better engage families of color and how to best communicate with parents whose primary language isn’t English,” says  Karen Utter, SC-SIC associate director and CFEC project director. “Many of our school systems already have ways they are involving families, so we are not starting from scratch. But our state lacks a unified and evidence-based approach to engaging families. That’s what this grant will help us accomplish through collaboration with our partners.”

The CFEC’s initiative will provide 24 schools in six regions across the state with ongoing training and technical assistance in supporting comprehensive family engagement programs which will address the specific needs of each school. CFEC also will sponsor programs that provide opportunities for teachers and parents to build the knowledge and skills needed to serve as leaders in family engagement and school improvement in their communities. Through these initiatives, as well as extending the reach of services already offered by CFEC partner organizations, the center’s ultimate goal is to see measurable improvements in student achievement and development. 

“Equity demands that every child have access to a quality education no matter that child’s circumstances or zip code,” says Utter. “CFEC will serve all families, with an emphasis on low income and disadvantaged families including homeless children, students with disabilities, minorities and children in foster care. Trusting relationships are the foundation of effective family–school partnerships. The programs we create must be grounded in a respect for all cultures and families, and families must be involved in developing programs and practices.”


Partners across the state

Other partners whose collaborative efforts will impact the work of new center include: 

Family Connection of South Carolina
South Carolina First Steps to School Readiness
South Carolina Center for Fathers and Families
The Consortium for Latino Immigration Studies, Arnold School of Public Health
PASOs, Arnold School of Public Health
Francis Marion University's Center of Excellence to Prepare Teachers of Children of Poverty
Children’s Trust of South Carolina


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