Federal grant will expand Colorado family engagement in schools

People seated in folding chairs listen to a school board meeting in a gymnasium.
Community members pack the house at a 2020 Denver school board meeting. Education leaders hope to create more meaningful avenues for parent engagement. (Kevin J. Beaty / Denverite)

When Luis Murillo started leading parent academies as a principal in Center, he prepared presentations on how school boards work and where school funding comes from — the things he thought parents needed to know.

He quickly realized parents were looking for something different. They wanted to know how to deal with bullying and racism their children experienced at school, how to know if their kids were on track to graduate, and even how to check grades online. 

The parent academies that Assistant Superintendent Murillo conducts now in English and Spanish in the Alamosa School District show parents how to navigate the school system, know their rights, and understand the copious data schools collect. 

“There is a disconnect between a portion of our community and the school district,” Murillo said. “We want to create a more connected community, and when we get there, we’ll see better outcomes for students. I don’t just mean academic achievement, though that is part of it. It’s about transparency. It’s about trust. It’s also about getting off our pedestals.”

This is the kind of family engagement work that Colorado education leaders hope to see spread around the state with the help of a new $4.7 million federal grant. Parent engagement is key, they said, to addressing some of the most pressing issues facing students, from reading challenges in the early grades to poor attendance in high school.

Colorado was one of eight states to be awarded money this fall from the U.S. Department of Education. The National Center for Families Learning will lead the work to create a Colorado Statewide Family Engagement Center. Local partners include the Colorado Department of Education, the Colorado Education Initiative, the Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition, and the Black Parent Network. 

The five-year grant will support the creation of a statewide advisory committee, with at least half the members being parents and caregivers. That group’s work will include studying how school districts engage families and developing meaningful ways for parents to influence policies and school governance. The statewide effort also will strengthen family literacy programs and offer parents training in how to engage productively with school boards.

Additionally, the money will support the creation of regional hubs for training and information, as well as expand work already happening in five school districts that can serve as learning labs for others. Those districts are Denver Public Schools, Greeley-Evans District 6, Alamosa School District, Pueblo City Schools, and Mesa County Valley District 51. 

“Each of these districts already has a track record and investment in family and community partnership, and this is an opportunity to expand on what they’ve been doing and learn from it,” said Samantha Olson, vice president for strategy at Colorado Education Initiative.

Schools haven’t always felt like warm and welcoming places for the community, Murillo said. COVID restrictions and school safety measures put up new barriers in recent years, when schools need parents more than ever.

Alamosa’s parent engagement efforts include revamping the website and Facebook page to be more user-friendly. It’s the first place many parents look for information and sets the tone for other communication, Murillo said. The district is also planning more newsletters and videos. Reaching parents means communicating in English, Spanish, and Q’anjob’al Mayan.

With the grant, Alamosa plans to create a parent liaison unit at every school and expand a relatively new home visit program. He wants parents to know that educators have the same dreams for their children that parents do.

Joyce Brooks, a retired teacher and longtime education activist in Denver, said parent engagement too often has looked like “checking a box” — sending a survey or holding a meeting but not really listening. That’s especially true when it comes to Black parents, she said.

“I’ve heard parents say they were treated as though they didn’t matter when they offer suggestions, that they don’t know what they are talking about. Just the way the front office of their school treats them, not getting all the information they need,” she said. 

Brooks helped found the Black Parent Network to be a resource for parents where they can ask questions and learn in an environment where they know they’ll be respected. The founding members were motivated in part by a desire to close persistent academic gaps and in part by a sense that those statistics were creating too bleak a picture of Black students’ abilities, Brooks said.

The group has created parent toolkits to help with everything from getting special education services to incorporating Black history and culture into lesson plans. Members are also analyzing Denver schools’ Black excellence plans. The plans are intended to push educators to improve outcomes and opportunities for Black students in Denver schools. 

Brooks said the plans are a great idea that she would like to see replicated in other school districts, but the plans themselves have fallen short of expectations. Brooks said bringing parents to the table would create much more meaningful plans.

Participating in the grant will give Black parents a strong voice in improving family engagement and education statewide, Brooks said, and also allow the network’s efforts to expand beyond a few school districts.

​​Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at emeltzer@chalkbeat.org.

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