Enhancing Family-School Partnerships in the Digital Age

In an elementary school where 22 languages are spoken and 31 percent of are from low-income backgrounds, Principal Joe Mazza strives to involve all families in education—using the medium of modern technology.

“Technology is not a replacement for personal relationships,” says Mazza, who has been at Knapp Elementary School in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, for five years. “But it allows us to enhance those relationships in ways never before possible.”

While family engagement is a mandate of U.S. education reform, most school principals have been slow to adopt attitudes and behaviors that transcend a system originally designed to keep parents outside of the learning and policy-making process. But the digital age is forcing schools to change—to break down barriers between home and school.

The Knapp School maintains a family engagement wiki, which serves as a digital hub of connectivity for parents. Mazza has also convinced 90 percent of Knapp teachers to use Twitter for professional development, to increase student learning, and to engage with parents. Weekly school emails, a regular stream of daily tweets, and even a “Knapp App” reach all but 12 percent of families who lack access to technology.

For the past two decades, the research on family engagement has definitively shown that students do better in school and life when schools work in partnership with parents. While family engagement is a mandate of U.S. education reform, most school principals have been slow to adopt attitudes and behaviors that transcend a system originally designed to keep parents outside of the learning and policy-making process.

But the digital age is forcing schools to change—to break down barriers between home and school. While social media and other forms of digital communications can stretch the comfort zones of teachers and administrators accustomed to more rigid boundaries, researchers firmly believe that improved collaboration with parents has long-term benefits for student learning and development.

School principals must lead the way. “We have to meet parents where they are,” Mazza says. “That means training them to use technology so they can become part of our community of learners.” Mazza walks this talk by offering technology skills training for parents and holding school meetings that enable virtual and in-person attendance. To ensure everyone has access to information, he mails copies of all important correspondence to families without technology at home.

On the other side of the country, field trip chaperone Katie Womack of Orinda, California, snapped photos of her 10-year-old daughter and other students as they interacted with various museum exhibits. Womack explained, “Most parents can’t leave their jobs to chaperone a field trip. Yet they really want to be engaged in the process.” With encouragement from children’s families, Womack shared photos with other parents via group text messages.

A similar fifth-grade outing at Knapp Elementary School was broadcast in real time via Twitter, complete with its own hashtag. Parents who were at home or work could experience the trip virtually. Even the school principal followed the Twitter feed.

Can virtual family-school engagement enhance student learning? Most researchers would say it is too soon to tell, that we need more data. But when we look at this type of engagement through the lens of systems-thinking—the view that interconnected and complex relationships improve learning and innovation—there is considerable research to suggest positive outcomes for children, families, educators, and society.

For example, parents, grandparents, and other adults who remotely follow a field trip or school activity are likely to engage children in deeper conversations about their experiences. Beyond a simple, “How was your day?” an adult might say, “I heard about your simulated earthquake experience! Tell me more about it!” Stories would likely be exchanged, extending learning from school to the broader world.

At least two studies have already linked these types of interactions with deeper engagement between families and students in elementary, middle, and high school.

Like Mazza, Shannon Smith, vice principal of W. Erskine Johnston Public School in Ottawa, Canada, belongs to a group of connected principals worldwide who share ways of using technology to enhance children’s learning, including how to increase family engagement.

Smith acknowledges the importance of building relationships, seeking feedback, and listening to parents. “We live in a time when top-down leadership and closed-door meetings are no longer seen as the way to get things done,” she said. “How can we use social media tools to engage in conversation, rather than simply pushing out information?”

Indeed, the answer to Smith’s question is important for today’s schools. As digital media becomes more integrated into the lives of schools and families, it has potential to create collaborative learning communities that better meet the social, emotional, and intellectual needs of students. But if schools use technology only as a way to inform rather than engage parents, valued two-way communication is diminished.

Womack says, “As a parent, it feels good to know I can send a quick message to a teacher, letting her know, for example, that my daughter is struggling with an emotional issue that day. And I feel grateful when I get timely feedback from a teacher that helps me reinforce positive behaviors or alerts me to potential problems. That’s what partnership is all about.”

Today, the kind of interchange Womack describes can occur through email, text messages, Tweets, and other kinds of digital communication. Parents and teachers must learn to use digital media with the same respect and consideration that is demanded of face-to-face relationships.

While I am optimistic that digital media will improve family-school partnerships, there are obstacles to overcome. First, families without access to technology are at a distinct disadvantage. To reduce disparities in student achievement, all families must have equitable access to technology and training, allowing everyone to be active digital learners.

Second, most technology is currently designed for interaction between device and student, with little attention paid to bridging that experience to the larger sphere of parents and teachers. To develop children’s abilities to collaborate, think critically, and innovate, digital media producers must design experiences that involve families, educators, and other students in teamwork. These experiences will help engage families whether they are in the same room or separated by thousands of miles.

Ready or not, the digital age is here. New opportunities exist to build collaborative partnerships between families and schools that help kids thrive in school and life. Will we seize them?

Marilyn Price-Mitchell, Ph.D., is co-founder and president of the nonprofit National ParentNet Association, whose 15-year mission has been to advocate for family-school-community partnerships. A developmental psychologist and expert in positive youth development, Marilyn blogs at Roots of Action and Psychology Today. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

This article is commissioned by Amplify Education Inc. The views expressed are the author’s own, and do not represent those of Amplify Education Inc.