In compliance with the Every Student Succeeds Act and in an effort to increase student success, the Arkansas Department of Education hosted a meeting this week in Pine Bluff to discuss family and community engagement in Arkansas. The meeting was held at the Arkansas River Educational Cooperative on Wednesday, and it is the first meeting they’ve held that includes stakeholders and state board members.

The goal of the meeting is to create state standards for family and community engagement that will promote student achievement and support the needs of all students, families, schools and communities. Stakeholders, of different backgrounds and perspectives, participated in round table discussions, which allowed networking and an opportunity for them to provide feedback regarding family and community engagement.

Kathy Swan, director of Arkansas River Education Service Cooperative, opened the event by giving an introduction and explaining the history and function of the ARESC. Afterwards, Kim Wright, director for Family and Community Engagement, provided information about provisions made to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which includes parental, family and community engagement as a requirement.

The U.S. Dept. of Education has asked Arkansas education officials to address specific aspects of its ESSA plan, specifically those “that deal with base-line achievement data and interim measures of student progress.”

“We’ve always had parents involved, but now we want two-way communication where schools, families, communities and everyone involved show commitment in moving the needle on student achievement.” said Wright. “We really want to make a difference in our state for our students.”

The meeting was facilitated by Aurelio Montemayor from San Antonio, Texas, who is with the Intercultural Development Research Association. Montemayor gave a brief introduction and proceeded to begin round one of the roundtable discussions. The round table discussions consisted of various questions regarding ways to increase family and community engagement. Stakeholders were given 30 minutes to discuss various questions and create a short summary to present to everyone.

Questions asked in round one included: What are the specific benefits for our children, our schools, and our communities in having an authentic and dynamic engagement of families? What forms of family engagement could schools carry out to effectively serve children and families? What are the best methods of communication with parents, school employees, community members, etc.?

Many answers were given from stakeholders in response to the questions. “The more we connect with parents, and the more authentic that connection is, the higher the level of trust is between home and school,” said Bethany Hill, principal at the Cabot School District. “To increase engagement, we should shift to making the parents feel like they are a part of what’s happening in the school community and in the community where the school resides.”

Larry Clark, Sr., system software engineer for Blue Cross Blue Shield and mentor at Life Skills for Youth, discussed using social media as a way to engage with parents and the community.

“Everyone has a phone and there are a variety of social media outlets, so it is important that schools know how to use them, but be sure to have some guidelines for social media use,” he said.

“We should discuss communication methods with parents and allow them to tell us what is the best method of communication for them,” said Deianka Moton, leadership development coordinator and mentoring recruiter for Choosing to Excel in Conway.

Thurman Green, Little Rock Community Engagement consultant, discussed having a holistic approach to engaging with teachers, students, parents and the community.

“If teachers feel support from parents and from the community, they are more likely to stay in our school districts and more likely to be more engaged with our students, which helps increase overall academic performance,” he said.

Green went on to explain that when students see their teachers, parents and neighbors caring so much about their education, it motivates them to give their best for success.

“Schools should have more activities that are goal-related and not just doing things just to post it on social media and say we did it. We should do things that are yielding positive results,” he said.

Changing the narrative from negative to positive was also discussed as a way to increase engagement.

Parents are often receiving calls about the bad things their student is doing in school, but if parents are also receiving calls and notes about the good things their students are doing that will make them aware that their students are doing good things in school and it motivates parents to be more engaged, experts agree.

The meeting continued with rounds two and three of discussion questions and answers with a conversational/networking lunch in between. A closing summary was given and before leaving, stakeholders were asked to complete an evaluation about the effectiveness of the meeting.