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Engaging Families During the Transition to High School: The key to success involves multiple interactions, not “one and done”

By Martha Abele Mac Iver and Adie Simmons  

Reprinted from Principal Leadership Magazine  

October 1, 2017

Ninth grade may be the most critical year of a student's life—a time when students are making decisions that will dramatically affect their futures. Although middle schools seek to prepare their eighth graders for high school, principals have too often ignored a crucial ally. At this critical juncture in students' lives, when they need appropriate family guidance and support, schools' efforts to engage families decline. Don't miss the opportunity for partnership activities that could significantly improve students' chances of success in high school.

A continuous Improvement Approach

Seattle Public Schools is working to address this issue head-on. In partnership with researchers from Johns Hopkins University, the district has launched a continuous improvement program called the Family Engagement for High School Success Initiative. Members of middle and high school teams received training about the continuous improvement approach and how to equip families to support their students' attendance and course performance during the first year of high school. A district family engagement manager offered monthly coaching to schools as they planned, implemented, and reflected on their family engagement activities. Members of school-level family engagement teams were equipped to engage in a regular "cycle of inquiry" process designed to encourage systematic information gathering and reflection to improve future planning and implementation of family engagement efforts.

Beginning Transition to High School in Eight Grade 

Engaging eighth-grade families more directly about their child's transition to high school was relatively new for some of the participating middle schools. They began new collaborations between the "sending" middle schools and "receiving" high schools, with several middle schools holding high school information nights for families for the first time, and other middle schools extending their family engagement efforts with new attempts to more fully inform families of eighth graders about the high school course registration process.

One option offered to schools for communicating with eighth-grade families who might not attend an event at the school was a series of four interactive homework assignments. These assignments guided students to discuss the transition process and their plans for high school success with a parent or other family partner at home. The approach was designed to engage all parents—including those unable to attend meetings at the school—with information about how to excel in high school. The interactive activities helped to guide student-led conversations with a family member about attendance, GPAs, course passing, and hopes for success.

Welcoming New Ninth-Grade Families 

High school leaders began to understand the importance of giving busy families multiple opportunities to connect with the school during their student's transition to high school. Some high schools not only held their own spring and fall welcome events for new ninth-grade families, but they also worked with their feeder middle schools on high school information sessions held at the middle school.

 High schools also held conferences and other types of family activities during the first semester to encourage families in their efforts to support their freshman's course performance. School leaders increasingly saw the need to communicate in ways that would help each family to support their student's attendance and course performance in ninth grade.

Communicating with Families in New Ways

Schools began to consider how to expand the ways in which they communicated information to families. These included the use of a school app that parents could download to their mobile phones to receive important school information. Some schools used another type of text messaging system and provided information at family events on how to enroll in this free service. One high school created a useful communication tool for incoming ninth-grade families in the form of refrigerator magnets (produced in both English and Spanish) with important school contact information on them.

Beginning Cycles of Inquiry

By the second year of the initiative, almost all 21 participating schools progressed to the stage of conducting cycles of inquiry with the help of the district family engagement manager. Their efforts indicated that school leaders could reflect on how to improve the quality of their transition activities in the next year. Members of school teams often reflected on who had not attended their events, often identifying families of color as absent, and thought about how they could improve reaching out to those families. One common conclusion was the need for more diverse methods of advertisement, including invitations to immigrant families in their home language, to increase family attendance. Some schools recognized the need to make their events more interactive rather than simply long presentations to listening audiences. Schools considered how they might receive more feedback from families and developed creative ideas to encourage exit-survey completion.

Although Seattle schools had previously conducted some activities to welcome families of new ninth graders, the continuous improvement framework of the Family Engagement for High School Success Initiative has helped them to be more systematic in planning, reflecting on, and improving their partnership activities. Providing opportunities for school teams to meet with those from other schools to share ideas and brainstorm about addressing challenges has helped create the beginnings of a networked learning community focused on improving family engagement practices.

Working Towards Continuous Improvement

Not surprisingly, this work has faced some challenges. Not all schools have been able to devote the time or human resources to focusing on family engagement in the transition to high school. K–8 and middle schools are not held accountable for the outcomes of their students once they get to ninth grade, and some school leaders have chosen to allocate time to needs they consider more pressing. Other schools delegate family engagement completely to the PTA, even though this strategy does not reach all families that need information about high school. Convincing all school leaders of the importance of family engagement on improving student outcomes remains a challenge.

But Seattle has seen progress in engaging families at this critical transition point. The goal is to see reduced rates of chronic absenteeism and course failure in ninth grade as family engagement during this critical transition increases. Improving those ninth-grade leading indicators should result in higher rates of on-time, college-ready high school graduates. The continuous improvement process is still underway, but Seattle schools are now making a more concerted and reflective effort to reach out and ensure that all families receive the information needed to support their students during the critical transition to high school.

 Adie Simmons is the founder of Washington Family Engagement and manager of the Family Engagement for High School Success Initiative at Seattle Public Schools. Martha Abele Mac Iver, PhD, is associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education in Baltimore. 






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