How Policy Shapes Family-School Partnerships

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Episode 66│How Policy Shapes Family-School Partnerships

Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022

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Show Notes

Dr. Darcy Hutchins

Is your school district prioritizing Family-School Partnerships? The Director of Family-School Partnerships at Colorado Department of Education, Darcy Hutchins, shares how states and districts can embed best practices into their protocols to ensure strong family-school partnerships. She also offers advice for where families can look for information about policies affecting their own communities.


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Helen Westmoreland: Welcome back to Notes from The Backpack, a PTA podcast. I'm Helen Westmoreland.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: And I'm Kisha DeSandies Lester, and we are your co-hosts.

Helen Westmoreland: As some of you may know, we at National PTA just finished updating the National Standards for Family School Partnerships, which guides family engagement at all levels of the education system since 1997. Until now this resource hadn't been updated since 2008, that is a long time. Kisha, what were you doing in 2008?

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Well, 2008 I was single, working for another association. No husband and no kids.

Helen Westmoreland: Woohoo. Fancy free.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Yeah, I've had a lot of time on my hands and I didn't know it

Helen Westmoreland: Well clearly these revisions were long overdue, but I know our listeners may be wondering, why should I care about this? As a tool for schools, districts, and even state education agencies?

Kisha DeSandies Lester: It's a really good question that you're asking Helen, and I think understanding what the standards are, what are those key tenets, will really help people understand why it's so important for building strong partnerships.

Helen Westmoreland: That's right. Those key tenets are welcome, all families, communicate effectively, support student success, speak up for every child, share power, and collaborate with the community.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Yeah, learning about family engagement policy can make us more effective PTA leaders, more informed community members and stronger advocates for our own children. That's why what you just shared, Helen, is so important and today we're excited to welcome Dr. Darcy Hutchins to the show to introduce us to the world of family engagement policy.

Darcy Hutchins holds a PhD in education policy from the University of Maryland, College Park and is currently the Director of Family School Community Partnerships for the Colorado Department of Education. In her role, she provides support to districts implementing family school partnership programs, and she staffs the State Advisory Council for Parent Involvement, and she also teaches in the School of Education at the University of Denver. You are a busy lady, doing important things. Welcome, Darcy.

Darcy Hutchins: Thank you, Kisha. Thank you, Helen, for having me.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Well, we are so happy to have you here today, can you start by sharing a bit about yourself and what makes you so passionate about Family Engagement Policy?

Darcy Hutchins: So when you say a bit about myself, are you thinking that I'm a diehard Yankees fan, and love cats? Or, specific to family engagement?

I'm a huge Yankees fan and I love cats, but when it comes to family school community partnerships, I actually started my career teaching first grade in Baltimore City schools. And it was teaching first grade in the classroom where I really developed a huge passion for, back then what we called parent involvements. And you know, looking back over the 20 plus years of my career, it's been really interesting to see how the stars have all sort of aligned. So I was working on my master's while also teaching, and my master's degree is actually in family school and community partnerships from Johns Hopkins, and right when I was finishing that program, there was a job opening up at Hopkins working with Dr. Joyce Epstein.

So working with one of my idols., I was there, which is when I met Helen, that's right in the mid two thousands, and I would travel all over the country and I had the opportunity to  take a firsthand look at what schools and districts were doing for family engagement. So the passion grew even more. And then I would say, I could tell when it was time to move on for a new challenge, which is right around when I finished my doctorate, and again, stars aligned and some legislation, passed in Colorado, Senate bill 13-193, that created my position now at the department and on a whim, moved out here didn't know anybody out here. But it's been nice to really take what I learned as a classroom teacher and all of the research. and best practice that I gained over the eight years that I was at Johns Hopkins to now actually apply it and do the fun work of implementing it at a state education agency.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: That's really awesome.

Helen Westmoreland: Well, Darcy, we are so happy for you to bring that expertise here today. I wanna start off with a question about, you know, as a parent, it's like you really know sort of how to make change sometimes in your classroom, then like a little bit in your school, then maybe your district, but like, what a state education agency actually does is a little hard to wrap your head around, particularly when it comes to family engagement, which feels like such an intimate  partnership.

Could you tell our listeners a little bit about your department's role? What can they expect when it comes to family engagement policy at the state level?

Darcy Hutchins: Yeah, absolutely. And I will just preface what I'm about to say with, I've been at the Colorado Department of Education now for almost exactly nine years, and I'm still trying to figure out what a state education agency does, and every one is different. So you know, it's a little bit of an enigma. So I hope the listeners will know that what I'm about to say isn't necessarily universal for all state education agencies, but it's what we do in Colorado.

My role falls under three buckets. So the main part of my job is supporting district level staff.

The state Department works with districts who work with schools who then work most directly with families and students. The reality is I'm a bit removed for the most part, from actual parents. I really view the state education agency's role as helping to connect districts with best and promising practices, resource and really in implementing, state and federal education laws as they pertain to family engagement. I also help coordinate across the departments’ family engagement efforts. And then I also staff, as Kisha mentioned, SACPI, so the State Advisory Council for Parent Involvement and Education.

It's a legislated body of 24 members. We have one parent per congressional district in Colorado. It has non-profit agencies. It has school board, school executive, teachers, different state departments. So it's a pretty broad body that informs preschool through higher education, family, school, community partnerships.

Helen Westmoreland: So I think I'm hearing states you do some coordination, training, some monitoring, make sure they're doing what they're supposed to, and probably funding.

Darcy Hutchins: That is all accurate. So it's interesting because I'm a fully state funded position, and so when it comes to the Every Student Succeeds Act, section 1116, so that's a family engagement piece of federal legislation,. I don't do any monitoring for compliance. And not all state departments. Like that because a lot of my counterparts in other state departments are the title one specialist, for example, for family engagement. So I provide the supports, the training, the professional development, the technical assistance. So more of that, one on one and cohorts coaching, if you will. So that when schools and districts are monitored for compliance for title one, for example, then they are found in compliance. And again, not just the bare minimum of what they should be doing, but really exceeding expectations. Hmm.

Helen Westmoreland: That is helpful. Thank you.

Darcy Hutchins: You're welcome.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Could you tell us a little bit Darcy, about your approach to family school partnerships and what challenges you regularly see in this work?

Darcy Hutchins: When I was a classroom teacher, my approach to family engagement was, let's get parents in the door, mm-hmm. let's communicate with parents, again, now updated terminology. Families, mm-hmm, be more inclusive. I would say as I spent my eight-year tenure at Hopkins, I really saw the critical need for an a systemic support system for family engagement. And that's really the only way we're gonna move beyond those random acts of partnership to make sure that family engagement is integrated and elevated into everything that schools and districts do, because I think that's the ultimate goal, for student outcomes, obviously. Mm-hmm.

I would say, my area of expertise is how do you organize sustainable and scalable structures in schools and districts to support student outcomes through family school, community partnerships?

In terms of the challenges, I don't think this podcast is long enough to really get into all of them. I will say something that I'm currently seeing and. , it's probably what I've seen throughout my entire career is that family engagement is often back burnered when there are more pressing or urgent educational things to address. I can beat my head against the wall and talk till I'm blue in the face about the importance of having proactive family engagement and how that's actually the most cost-effective school improvement strategy. It's so critical it will save you such headache down the road, but, preaching it and practicing it are two different things.

And I'll give you just a quick example, so in one of the districts that I'm currently working fairly closely with, there is a director of family engagement in that district and between staff shortages and, attendance and truancy issue that's arisen that director of family engagement is now also over attendance for the district, particularly around the truancy and the fact that, you know, staff are connecting family engagement with truancy. That reactive piece is, I would say frustrating for me, but not necessarily uncommon.

Helen Westmoreland: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. I think you have a unique vantage point being at the state level and for us as parents and our listeners, it's like, well how do you know if it's really being valued at the district? And I think that that's a good example. You've got someone dedicated to it who doesn't necessarily have 10 other jobs or even one huge other job on their plates. We talked at the top of this episode about the national standards for family school partnerships. Could you share a little bit about how you're using those in Colorado and what you think parents should be looking for and asking for when it comes to making sure there's some consistency in how this work is implemented? .

Darcy Hutchins: Yeah, absolutely. So the, the short answer to your question is this, The National Standards for Family School partnerships are embedded in pretty much everything that we do. I would say it's in big part because the standards are written into Colorado legislation and Senate bill 09-90, so dating back to 2009. It's the same legislation that created SACPI, that advisory council. It also said that at the state level, we need to align our partnership work with the National standards. So I would say that's not the only reason why I implement them. Mm-hmm. But that does give teeth to it and supports the work that we're doing. It was a really easy one to one switch for me coming out to Colorado. That's right. So Kisha, you asked me what is my approach to family engagement and I mentioned the organizational structure.

So what was hammered into me during, my Hopkins day is that there are four components of a comprehensive partnership structure in schools. So you have a framework, you form a team, you write a plan, and you evaluate. The national standards are that framework. They're the way that we encourage primarily schools, but also districts to categorize their activities. So in order to have a comprehensive partnership structure in place, you wanna make sure that you are hitting on all of those standards. Now, going to your question about what parents should maybe be looking for in schools. In Colorado, we have what's called the school Accountability Committees.

There are school accountability committees and district accountability committees. And so general terminology is probably a school improvement team. Mm-hmm. So whatever your state calls them, that's what every school has. Some schools are mandated to do this, but we encourage that all schools involve families in two different ways. So involve families as stakeholders in drafting the plan.

In Colorado, we call it the unified improvement plan. And then the second way is actually having family engagement as a school improvement strategy on their unified improvement plan. So families is a stakeholder voice. Mm-hmm. as a school improvement strategy. Mm-hmm. And so I would encourage parents, first of all to ask, does the school have a school improvement team? How can I be involved? Where is it written on the plan? Because this should all be public information, so finding out if family engagement is either a goal, a priority in Colorado, we call it a major improvement strategy. Or maybe it's an action step to achieve a major improvement strategy.

I don't wanna say it's an easy step, I'll say it's a simple idea. That that families could do a little digging probably on their own, because it should be public on the school's website should be, it's the optimal, two words, the optimal phrase.

Helen: We’re going to take a quick break.

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Kisha DeSandies Lester: So I selfishly was excited to hear that you started out as a first grade teacher. My son is in first grade.

Darcy Hutchins: It's the best grade. It's the absolute best.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: What would you say to parents? We talked about helping parents understand, what they should know when it comes to what the state is doing to support foundations for family school partnerships. What would you tell them is one or two of the most important things they need to know about family engagement and helping empower them as the families and also students to build strong relationships with their schools.

Darcy Hutchins: Thanks Kisha, that's a great question and I would say it's really tricky to be honest. I'm not gonna sugarcoat it, because so much of it is dependent on the school and right how welcoming they are of families and how willing they are to bring families in to share power. I just touched on two of the standards right there. Welcoming community, mm-hmm, and sharing power. As I've spoken to many families in Colorado and across the country. The relationships that students have with their teacher is often determined, honestly a lot by the relationship that the teacher has with the family.

So, and I actually, I did my dissertation on that in middle school to find out like how the relationships between district staff, school staff and families impact how the schools interact with students? I would say, while we recommend that schools are the ones who should initially reach out to families, school staff particularly the principal, should not just sit back and wait for families to come to them. But if they don't, if school staff don't initiate that contact, I would recommend the parents with no ulterior motive other than to say hi. I’m Helen Westmoreland, just wanted to introduce myself, just to get to know the teacher. I would also say to look for opportunities to volunteer and let me preface that by saying, volunteer has a very broad definition, or it should have a broad definition.

So we recommend that volunteering is either in the school, for the school or as audience members. I know obviously a lot of families are, you know, working during the day, aren't able to be in the school building, that's fine. There's still lots of ways that they can still support the school and those little gestures will show the staff, that families care about the school, about their children. But again, it's tricky because a lot of it is up to how school staff receive it. Something that I would like all families to know,

So this comes from research. William James has done multiple meta-analyses about what forms of family engagement are most impactful for student outcomes. And a lot of his research was done in secondary schools, and what he found is that the more subtle forms of engagement are more impactful than the overt forms of engagement. So asking your child, What did you learn in school today? Having high expectations that's more impactful than being in the school and volunteering, as I just said, than  being on the school improvement team, it's more impactful to have those subtle forms of engagement.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: It's really empowering and you know, from my vantage point, I definitely always think like, how does this impact what I'm going through right now? So I think a lot of the parents are thinking how does all of this, family engagement policy impact me and my child and my child's school and the district. So all of this information is super helpful.

Darcy Hutchins: Good. And I will say too, your question, Kisha, is really challenging for me and it's honestly why I like working with districts and schools so much to encourage them to be the ones receiving families because it's really hard talking directly with families who, I'm sure so much feels out of their control. So I just wanted to acknowledge that as well. It's really hard. It's really challenging.

Helen Westmoreland: Well, you must have read my mind cuz that's what I was thinking. You  prefaced your answer with like, it depends, hopefully your school is doing proactive outreach, hopefully they're doing these things, but they might not be. I know for many parents they do feel frustrated, like I'm trying to get in and I can't get in. Is there a role at the state education agency level around resolving some of that conflict? What is the process if a district or school is just chronically not being a good partner to their parents? What is the avenue for fixing that if you're a parent in your community?

Darcy Hutchins: That's a great question, Helen. Again, my not very good answer is it depends on the state education agency. So for example, in Colorado, we are a very local control state as a lot of states are. So a lot of the control is left up to school districts as opposed to at the State Department. So that said, I actually just got a phone call last week from a parent.

Helen Westmoreland: I was wondering, I'm like, do parents call you complaining?

Darcy Hutchins: Very rarely. I may get like five complaints max in a year. So truly not a lot. I think if I was in the special ed units mm-hmm, then that would be different cuz they do have a person who only deals with complaints. In my role, no, I don't get a lot of complaints. When I do. It's often questions about the school accountability committee and parents who are frustrated that there either isn't one or the principal is a head of it, even though in legislation it says that a parent needs to be the chair or co-chair.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Okay.

Darcy Hutchins: And I can give them some suggestions of what's worked in other schools and districts, but ultimately my answer to them has to be, well, that's up to your local school board. You need to talk to your local school board about that, because the local school board are the ones to hold  the district and schools accountable.

Helen Westmoreland: Mm. That is good advice. Very good advice.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Well, this has been really informative. You shared some really great information to help families understand the big picture when it comes to family engagement especially at the state level. Out of everything we discussed today, what do you want listeners to walk away understanding about family engagement policy?

Darcy Hutchins: About family engagement policy, can I turn your question into, I will answer your question, but I also wanna add another question. Sure. That's okay. So in terms of family engagement policy, I would say get to know what your district's policy is because families should be involved in the development of policy, in the evaluation of a family engagement policy and that's part of federal law, part of ESSA, Every Student Succeeds Act.

In Colorado, in state policy, it says that families should help schools and districts implement the district's family engagement policy. So between state and federal legislation, families are involved, or should be throughout the whole process. So that's my piece of advice is get to know what your policy says, because you as a parent can either use that as some leverage, if things aren't necessarily going the way you hope they would when partnering with your child's school, but also it might give you some ideas in either how you can be supporting learning at home, supporting the community, because in Section 11-16 of ESSA. It has a whole section about capacity building opportunities for both staff and families.

So, and then the question I would like to add is, what advice do you have about family engagement in general? So not just policy. Mm-hmm. , and I don't know if that was coming.

But, I would say oftentimes my experience has been that people think that family engagement just happens or it's just fluff. And one of my colleagues at University of Denver, she said something to me two years ago that has really stuck with me, and she said, the thing that people need to know about family engagement is that it's soft skills based on hard facts. Mm. And so we have decades and decades worth of research showing us the importance of it and how to do it and why we need to do it. But, a lot of it really is the more relational, soft skills. Yeah. And it doesn't mean that it's not important. Mm-hmm. But that's the reality of it. It's about building trust.

When I was teaching first grade, I would say the most impactful thing I did was got, I got to know my students parents' names, first and last name, and that made a huge difference because it showed that I cared.

Helen Westmoreland: And did anyone teach you to do that?

Darcy Hutchins: Nobody talking. I'm just brilliant.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: We agree.

Darcy Hutchins: No, no. It honestly, forming relationships is something that comes more naturally to me. It's just one of my more innate skills. I whole lot, I have a whole lot of things that don't come naturally to me, but that's one of the ones it did, and then it was only, again, looking back, reflecting on my career that I could really see that the simplest ideas, which don't mean that they're the easiest to implement, but the simplest ideas were often the best ideas.

Helen Westmoreland: Mm-hmm. Awesome. Thank you. Well, Darcy, this has been awesome. Thank you so much for joining us.

Darcy Hutchins: Thank you. I had a great time.

Helen Westmoreland: I feel we, we have learned a lot. And to our audience listening, thank you for joining us. We encourage you to visit to explore more resources related to family school partnership policy.

If you're listening on the release day of this episode. We also hope you will join us live tomorrow, November 17th, which is National Parent Involvement Day at 7:00 PM Eastern Time for a virtual town hall, celebrating the launch of the updated standards. I'll also be sharing brand new family engagement data from our recent National Survey of Families, and the recording will be available after the event. Please be sure to check it out and tune in for more information.