As part of our Beats Me series, we spotlighted Milwaukee Public Schools parent coordinators, who are tasked with the on-the-ground work of connecting families and schools. But that mission extends beyond a single person in each building.
MPS is in the middle of a national partnership to create a more effective family engagement plan. And some Milwaukee schools are already going the extra mile.
Every other week at Hopkins Lloyd Community School, children, families and school employees gather in the gym for "homework diners." One evening in November, eight families were there, filling paper plates with mac and cheese and salad. They sat at tables with teachers — talking, working on students' homework, and playing games.
The homework diners are one way the north side elementary school is trying to build relationships with families and help students academically.
Foster parent Tobias Butler was at the November gathering with his energetic 5-year-old, who interrupted him a couple times as he talked about the homework diners.
"I enjoy it because it [helps] me to understand what they're doing and what my kids is learning in school every day," Butler says.
The 5-year-old chimes in, "Very good in school."
Natasha Sanford, a mother of three girls at Hopkins Lloyd, says one her daughters' teachers comes to almost every homework diner.
"It's interacting with the parents and the kids to actually get to know the parents personally," Sanford says. "Instead of having a phone call to let you know that your kid is being good or bad in school. I think this is a perfect opportunity to get to know each of the students and parents personally."
Special education teacher Felicia Harvey echoes that. Harvey says getting to know families helps her understand students.
"If you know the families, they're more apt to tell you if there are issues or problems or even ask for help," Harvey says. "And especially if you share a meal with someone, that's important. And that really is, like, something that's special."
In partnership with the United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Wauksha, MPS has gradually built its cohort of community schools. There are now 11 across the city.
"Our role is to help the whole child so that students aren't only being helped academically, but when they go home, their parents have resources to jobs and housing and they're not bringing that baggage from home to school, which can ultimately affect their education," says Glenn Carson, the community school coordinator at Hopkins Lloyd.
The way schools like Hopkins Lloyd build bonds with families could serve as an example for MPS as it re-evaluates its family engagement strategy districtwide.
Since 2018, MPS has been involved in a Flamboyan Foundation fellowship focused on that goal. The DC-based foundation has been working for 10 years to help struggling districts improve student outcomes through stronger family bonds.
One of their most successful projects is a relationship-building home visiting program in DC Public Schools.
"There was a really strong correlation for students who received a home visit and increased attendance and reading on grade level by the end of the year," said Megan Lucas, a senior director with Flamboyan who is working personally with MPS.
Flamboyan helped MPS conduct a "landscape assessment" studying the current state of family engagement in the district. Lucas says even though MPS has dedicated more staff to parent outreach, not everyone was on the same page.
"The central idea that arose from their landscape assessment was that there wasn't a unified understanding of what family engagement was or could be in Milwaukee and that included Milwaukee Public Schools," Lucas says.
Now, MPS is working with Flamboyan on a strategic plan to clarify the definition of family engagement and implement more effective strategies. MPS Director of Strategic Partnerships and Customer Service Kellie Sigh oversees family outreach in the district.
"One of the evolutions has certainly been moving away from, 'A parent showed up at a parent teacher conference or family night and therefore check, they're engaged,' " Sigh says. "We know families engage in a number of different ways, and we want to become more nimble."
Sigh and Lucas say even though the strategic plan is not done, one priority will be providing more support to teachers.
"What we've heard from families is the teacher who is with that child eight hours a day should also be practicing real family engagement," Lucas says.
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