Educator Views on Family Engagement

97% of principals and teachers agree that families and educators should be equal partners in supporting student learning

Scholastic has released a principal and teacher report resulting from a survey of 4700+ schools. The entire report can be found here. It does an excellent job of covering topics ranging from community and family engagement to professional development to the state of books at home.

The findings of the family engagement topics come as no surprise as we hear similar sentiment from educators daily. The question is, what is being done to address these views and needs?

87% of teacher and principals believe ongoing two-way communication with families is the most important activity in engaging families

Technology can play a key role in providing two-way communication in native language. At LivingTree we believe that technology can provide the perfect foundation to build partnership that can become entrenched through in person events and face to face conversation. Moving away from single direction information flow to platforms that encourage two way conversation should be part of planning conversations this spring. Mobile access and automatic translation should be part of the evaluation metrics to ensure every family is included.

Addressing two way conversation is not the only need that is top of mind for educators. Principals and teachers alike indicate that they need help and would like training and strategies for working with families.

74% of principals and teachers say they need help with family engagement

59% of principals and 47% of teachers are looking for strategies for working with families

Luckily there are many resources available for training and information. We featured some of our favorites on our blog in Fall 2016 (all FREE resources):

NAEYC Engagement Principles

Harvard Teaching Cases

Flamboyan Institute Rubric

We’re also excited to share that Livingtree provides family engagement professional development with tailored courses for teachers, leaders, and family ambassadors. We would love to share best practices and help you put together a plan that is perfect for your district’s goals and culture. It promises to be an ‘engaging’ conversation!

Maria Cantu SHARES Her Classroom

Maria Cantu has been educating children for 12 years; 9 of those years at Daniel Ramírez Elementary School in Pharr, Texas.  She knew she wanted to become a teacher when she was volunteering at the Boys and Girls Club the summer of her 9th grade year. “I instantly fell in love with teaching.” In addition to teaching at the school, she is the CLF leader, is responsible for school PR and is the school’s sponsor for the Mighty Hawks soccer club!  “Go Hawks!

Ms. Cantu is also the proud mama of 5 kids: 3 girls and 2 boys (14, 13, 9, 8 & 7). WOW! The two youngest attend Ramírez Elementary where Ms. Cantu teaches. “My kids continue to exceed my expectations in all aspects of academics”.


Describe how you communicated and shared information with your students’ parents prior to using LivingTree.  Before using LivingTree, communicating with parents was mostly all ‘business’; I put notes on the weekly homework sheet, made phone calls when needed, used memos periodically, and scheduled parent teacher conferences.  I wasn’t really sharing the day to day joys of student learning and achievement, nor was I establishing the close rapport with parents that I sought. With LivingTree I can truly SHARE with parents what is happening in the classroom daily.

What feature or aspects of LivingTree do you appreciate most? Our school has implemented LivingTree campus wide so we have a community of teachers who post [in LivingTree].  I love that we can share our classroom achievements with one another.  I get to see other teacher’s classrooms; it has brought about a sense of camaraderie throughout our school.

Being so busy, how has LivingTree helped YOU specifically? Every year the district requires us to complete an evaluation for McREL.  To complete the evaluation, we are to provide ‘artifacts,’ documentation showing how we are growing as a teacher.  I provide lesson plans and pictures from the school year…we all know pictures are worth a 1000 words.  LivingTree makes it easy to find all my information for the entire year in one place; “very quick, easy and effective”.  I shared my ‘process’ with other teachers. They are now also using LivingTree as the tool for ‘documenting’ what they are doing in the classroom.

LivingTree has an App and can be used from a PC; which do you prefer? Both are valuable and user friendly.  The app is convenient – I use it for messaging, but I tend to use it mostly for sharing photos.  I sit at the PC when messaging and completing my McREL evaluation.

What do the parents of your students say about LivingTree? Parents and students alike love LivingTree.  Parents are “very happy” to see their child’s picture posted showing them hard at work, receiving an award, or celebrating a special day.  And my students love it too! It has gotten to the point where they say, “Mrs. Cantu, take a picture for LivingTree.”   

Proactive Family Engagement Efforts

As shared in District Administration Magazine – Q&A with Joni Carswell of LivingTree

Increasing student success with proactive family engagement efforts – Having a single platform to house all activity and conversation can help districts transform family engagement!

What are the benefits of an effective family engagement program?

Decades of research shows that family engagement is the number one driver of student success. Engaged families result in lower truancy rates, higher test scores, and higher graduation rates. Having positive relationships with families reduces teacher stress and increases their sense of community and belonging.

Many teachers engage with families via email, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media apps. What’s wrong with that?
Public social media can be problematic due to privacy, security, general noisiness and account setup. On public channels, school communication is competing with personal, political and a variety of content streams. It’s unruly—a parent with multiple children would end up trying to follow 20+ accounts that are not connected. There’s also limited promise of COPPA and FERPA compliance to protect our children’s images and information.

Why does a district wide or systemic approach matter?
For parents, a classroom by classroom or campus by campus approach is typically extremely chaotic. Each teacher may be using a different method or worse, a parent is going to a different website for every teacher. Teachers are charged with setting up the page or group as well as keeping after parents to pay attention or join. This wastes valuable time. With a district wide or systemic approach, these burdens can be alleviated for both families and teachers. Setting up classrooms for the teachers with all connections in place such that they simply log into their accounts and share as desired saves a tremendous amount of time. For a parent, presetting an account having relevant class, grade level, campus, and district content flow into a single place can be the difference in an engaged vs. a checked out parent.

How can districts ensure equity and participation in their family engagement initiatives?
Technology and Simplicity! Two of the biggest challenges of family engagement are reach and the unintentional chaos created by too many communication channels. Technology such as mobile applications and instant translation solve the reach dilemma by offering the ability to connect every family in a community regardless of preferred language or income. Beyond reaching every family, technology can simplify engagement for everyone. Families and teachers are frustrated and overwhelmed by the time spent trying to determine HOW and WHERE to connect. Consolidating efforts to a single, secure place easily accessible via mobile calms the chaos of managing many students, families, subjects, etc. Simplifying HOW and WHERE allows the school community to focus on actual engagement.

What is LivingTree’s Tiered Social Network®, and why is this model important to school districts?
LivingTree’s Tiered Social Network® provides a systemic solution for family engagement. It takes the burden off the teacher and parent and allows for two-way conversation in 100-plus languages on web or mobile. Each group (class, grade level, etc.) has its own private community which nests into the organizational layer above it. Conversation and content flow up, down and across the tiered network based on group membership and relationship to the community. LivingTree’s Tiered Social Network® uniquely gives administrators at each level the full view and analytics of the smaller community networks feeding into their part of the organization. LivingTree empowers communities to engage and ultimately achieve greater student success.

Digital tools help districts overcome language barriers to family engagement

As shared in Education Dive

Digital tools help districts overcome language barriers to family engagement – One social network’s automatic translation feature has helped parents better interact with teachers

Ensuring language barriers do not get in the way of parent access to essential school and district information is not just a strategy for increasing engagement, it’s required by federal regulations. And in districts with dozens of different languages spoken by families, meeting these obligations is no easy task.

Schools across the country have added interpreters and translators to their staffs, purchased subscriptions to telephone interpretation services, and coordinated with community agencies to make sure qualified interpreters from a range of backgrounds are available for important meetings and school events.

When it comes to basic family engagement, some schools have begun to take advantage of digital tools with built-in translators to go one step farther. The nation’s most diverse zip code, 75038, is in the Irving neighborhood of the Dallas metro area. It’s largest population group is Asian, and they make up just 25.7% of the neighborhood. The zip code is also 25% black, 23% Latino and 23% white.

The Irving Independent School District serves much of the 75038 zip code, and, like this neighborhood, has a particularly diverse student body. This year, its students speak a total of 52 different languages. Lesley Weaver, division director of communications, says the district has interpreters on staff who can interpret into and out of some of the most common languages while also coordinating services for families who speak other languages.

While the district website has long featured an automatic translation feature, which currently translates into more than 100 different languages, Weaver has been particularly pleased with a private social network the district debuted in 13 schools in the fall of 2014 and later rolled out to the remaining 25.

LivingTree can be downloaded as a free cellphone app or accessed online, just like Facebook. Teachers can post updates about classroom lessons or upcoming events, sharing text, photos and videos in a private network that— most important for Weaver — allows two-way communication. Parents can like and comment on posts and send private messages to teachers. Thanks to the automatic translation, every user can be reading and writing in his or her preferred language.

“We know that regardless of income, regardless of language, parents want to be connected to their child’s education,” Weaver said. “All parents want what’s best for their kids.”

Living Tree gives parents an easy and direct way to communicate about day-to-day classroom activities. But while it features automatic translation, computers will never be perfect at something so complicated as translating nuanced language.

“We remind teachers in trainings that they need to be cognizant of the things they’re posting,” Weaver said.

Among the best practices they are reminded of is staying away from slang or innuendo because it may not be translated accurately. One example Weaver offers teachers is based on a standard turn of phrase — it’s common to say “we’ve got a lot of great things ‘in store’ for the new year” but “store” will almost certainly be translated into business by automatic tools.

So far, Irving ISD has about 8,200 active users on Living Tree. In a district with 35,000 students, that’s far from 100% parent participation, but considering the last app the school marketed garnered just 1,400 users, Weaver considers Living Tree a success and an important addition to its family engagement efforts.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act says individuals cannot be discriminated against by national origin, and the courts have made clear that language barriers that prevent meaningful access to public institutions amount to exactly that. In January 2015, the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice released joint guidance to help schools and districts meet their legal obligations to English learner students and their parents and guardians with limited English proficiency. This document was the clearest and most comprehensive outline of school responsibilities on this matter to date.

From the joint guidance, schools and districts must make sure LEP parents get all the same school information provided to English-speaking parents including — but not limited to — information about: “language assistance programs, special education and related services, IEP meetings, grievance procedures, notices of nondiscrimination, student discipline policies and procedures, registration and enrollment, report cards, requests for parent permission for student participation in district or school activities, parent-teacher conferences, parent handbooks, gifted and talented programs, magnet and charter schools, and any other school and program choice options.”

Schools must also have a defined process for identifying parents who need translation and interpretation services and then providing it. And they need to provide language assistance with “appropriate, competent staff” or similarly qualified outside resources. That means asking bilingual staff members to translate in IEP meetings or pulling children in to translate for their parents during parent-teacher conferences is not allowed.

“Some bilingual staff and community volunteers may be able to communicate directly with LEP parents in a different language, but not be competent to interpret in and out of English … or to translate documents,” the guidance reads. School districts can be — and have been — found liable for relying on untrained or unqualified interpreters.

While app-based, automatic translators cannot fulfill a district’s responsibilities under the Civil Rights Act, Irving ISD has found its chosen tool can at least round out engagement efforts across a diverse community.

“We want families to feel like they have good, accurate, current information about what is going on in their child’s school as well as how they can help them,” Weaver said.

Its social network can at least do that.

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