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Engaging Families Through In-Person Events (Cajon Valley Virtual Learning Program)

How one virtual program supported students' social skills and fostered community-building

Overview

This brief case study features the work one school system completed to address the challenge of family engagement in their virtual and hybrid learning environment. It is part of a larger brief exploring the work that three school system teams undertook in TLA’s Strategy Lab program, which is a networked learning experience that leverages our Real-Time Redesign (RTR) process to help teams identify and address root-cause equity barriers.

Context: Cajon Valley Union School District

Cajon Valley’s Virtual Learning Program has an enrollment of 250 students in grades K-8 and describes their instructional model as a combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning. They joined Strategy Lab to explore ways to increase engagement for their diverse student population.

The Challenge of Family Engagement

The team entered Strategy Lab interested in tackling two challenges:

  1. The need to help students to build social skills; and

  2. The need to provide in-person activities to foster school-wide community-building.

Evidence from their team assessment and workbook entries revealed that:

  • Although district leaders consistently articulated clear expectations for virtual learning to families, they were unsure how much families understood expectations.

  • Leaders indicated that they do not communicate with families in an accessible manner and were in the beginning stages of communicating with families in their preferred languages. This was reinforced by the fact that some families appeared to be non-responsive to teacher and school emails, implying the need for support in communication efforts.

  • The district did provide opportunities for families to share input. For example, the district held one community meeting and invited a diverse group of families to join their School Site Council. However, the team stated that input typically came from families with a higher social-economic status as well as those with more time and availability to voice their concerns or opinions.

  • Engagement across different student and family demographics was uneven. In particular, the team noticed that students and families from predominantly Latino/a or households positioned furthest from financial opportunity were typically less likely than other groups to attend class, complete assignments, or respond to communication efforts.

  • Parents wanted their children to have similar opportunities as those in traditional in-person settings (e.g., field trips, meetups) to build community and engagement. Students in the virtual program also did not have the same opportunities to communicate in person with peers or teachers – something they believed might be negatively impacting students’ social skills.

As the team worked through activities associated with the Strategy Lab needs assessment process, they identified a problem of practice: the challenge of how to build community and foster engagement for students and families.

Designing and Piloting a Measurable Solution: Family Meetups

To address this issue, the team decided to design and pilot a program that focused on providing in-person opportunities for teachers, students, and families to get to know each other. The intent of this pilot was for students to become acquainted with one another as they participated in activities and games with their peers while also increasing family engagement. The pilot had two components:

In-Person Learning Events: The pilot initially consisted of two in-person events for grades 2-4 at a school site adjacent to a park. During in-person meetups, the school hosted team-building activities related to academic content such as a literacy ‘Scrabble’ and trash-collecting in honor of Earth Day. Students also engaged in games with their peers such as four-square and basketball. The day’s activities were structured so that students and their families would rotate from station to station, providing participants a chance to try something new while also having the opportunity to meet other families.

Two-Way Communication: The school contacted parents using ParentSquare (a communication application) to inform them about scheduled in-person meetups. To foster engagement, the team invited families to help with fundraising to support the activities (e.g., snacks, beverages), publicized the events via ParentSquare, and encouraged families to come to the meetups. Since the school collected feedback from families after each event, they were able to address concerns as they emerged. For example, after the first in-person event, some families expressed issues with childcare and transportation, so the school broadened the span to invite all students from grades K-8 and increased the number of events from two to three, allowing families additional time to plan their travel and participation, opening up more opportunities for engagement.

What Happened

According to data collected during the pilot, teachers, students, and families alike found value in the in-person meetup events. While attendance at the first event was not as high as initially anticipated, the team learned that families were more willing to attend when the activities were scheduled during the school day.

Students reported having a positive experience with their peers, with 53% of participating students sharing that they established a new friendship and 52% of families reporting that they met someone new. The team noted these meetups seemed to encourage family engagement with the school – specifically noting that some family members reached out and wanted to help facilitate future events. However, the district also learned from feedback that the school needed to provide better communication to allow adults to request time off from work.

What’s Next

Currently, the district team is planning to use the lessons they learned from this pilot to scale the program for the upcoming year. They are planning to implement a monthly in-person event school-wide, alongside additional opportunities for field trips.

Resources for Taking Action

Below are some tools and ideas that can help system leaders and educators think about this strategy in their own context: