Engaging Families With Technology
South Florida's FamilyTech Program Increases Parental Involvement, Student Success
How to involve families in the formal education of their children is a question researchers and educators have been trying to answer since the first bricks were laid for the nation's public education system. White middle-class parents still occupy the most visible forms of parental involvement (i.e., school board and PTA membership), but participation rates even by these mainstream families are alarmingly low. The question of how to engage parents is even more pressing today since connections between individuals, groups and institutions are being threatened. For example, latchkey children are the norm, and the gap between the poor and middle class continues to widen. How can families who are struggling to put food on the table be asked to take time to sit down and help their children with schoolwork.
A solution must be found, for family involvement has been proven to be associated with a myriad of stellar outcomes, including greater standardized test scores, higher grades, better attendance, improved social skills and a greater likelihood of admission to postsecondary institutions (Henderson and Mapp 2002). The extant knowledge base delineates several core themes deemed necessary for engaging families in their children's education, particularly when applied to non-mainstream populations. Mutual respect between parties and acceptance of each family's unique circumstances are central among these themes. While such recommendations do much to broaden the perspective of those in the field of education, they do little in terms of providing specific practices for application.
This article bridges the divide by providing hands-on strategies for researchers and educators alike to implement with families from diverse cultural backgrounds, including the culture of poverty, to increase parental involvement in children's formal schooling. The practices described herein also apply to families of students with special needs who, likewise, may feel marginalized by the school system. This work is the culmination of a multiyear investigation into the use of technology to elevate parental involvement, thereby improving student achievement with elementary students and their families. It proved technology to be a flexible and useful medium for attracting and engaging family participation.
FamilyTech, the technology program this article is based on, was initiated by the South Florida Annenberg Challenge. The SFAC is one branch of The Annenberg Foundation, a private organization with $500 million earmarked for school-reform initiatives. The mission of the SFAC is to mobilize private and public resources in order to make comprehensive changes in public schools, thereby increasing students' achievement gains in the South Florida region. Thus, the SFAC brought together the school, the community and business partners whose financial contributions for reform initiatives were matched by the SFAC organization.
The FamilyTech partnership consisted of business representatives from the Citicorp Foundation, as well as community representatives from The Education Fund and P.L. Dodge Foundation Inc. FamilyTech was implemented across the three school districts of Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach. Within these districts, 10 public elementary schools were selected for participation based on criteria delineating that the majority of the school population be composed of minority students, and that a majority of the student body be eligible for free or reduced lunches.
These criteria were chosen because research has shown that students from minority groups and high-poverty areas are at the greatest risk for school failure and dropout. Therefore, these students have the greatest need for intervention. Classroom selection was based on a teacher's willingness to stay with the same students over a two-year period for the length of the program's implementation. Thus, participating teachers were required to instruct at a higher grade level during the second year of the study.
Students in each of the targeted classrooms were given a refurbished computer on long-term loan that was donated by a FamilyTech business partner. FamilyTech funds were used to educate teachers on how to incorporate computer technology into instruction, as well as to train parents on the use and maintenance of the computers and software at home.
Teachers reported that the quality of parental involvement significantly improved and the percentage of parents involved with the school more than doubled due to the FamilyTech program (Birnie 1999). Prior to implementation of the program, 80% of the participating schools were classified as 'D' and 'F' schools, based on student performance on standardized tests by the state. Following the FamilyTech intervention, this number dropped to 10%.
At the conclusion of the study, participating students were more likely than non-FamilyTech students to score above the 50th percentile on the mathematics (57% versus 19%) and reading (44% versus 14%) subtests of the Stanford Achievement Test. More than 90% of stakeholders (i.e., teachers, administrators, parents and students) reported being satisfied by both the implementation and outcomes of the FamilyTech program (SFAC Evaluation Team 2002). By putting computers in the hands of students and in the homes of their families, we learned valuable lessons about gaining parental participation that have applications for educators and researchers nationwide.
Shared Goals and Expectations
Families who do not share the same spoken language as their children's teachers or whose status in the United States is temporary, perhaps even undocumented, can be expected to be at least hesitant to visit a school and communicate with its staff. In order to reach these individuals and other non-mainstream families, their fears must first be acknowledged and assuaged. Therefore, it is imperative that contact serve the dual purpose of connecting with and empowering families. Parents need to know that school personnel respect their views — even when these views differ from the mainstream — and value the families' power and abilities in terms of promoting their children's education.
Because technology is associated with its own vocabulary and language, it is an excellent platform from which to make connections and build working relationships with non-mainstream families. In such a scenario, families do not have to give up their native tongue for the language of the teacher or school. Instead, both teachers and families are augmented by the addition of the language of technology.
In order to join with families, it is also vital that the families recognize that school staff members share the same expectations and goals for their children as they do. Technology also plays a pivotal role here, because regardless of one's educational level or work experience, technology touches all of our lives every day. For individuals living in the United States, the mastery of technological skills for school and workplace success is a universal assumption. Therefore, technology-based programs for improving family involvement possess an inherent level of stakeholder buy-in that can greatly contribute to their success.
Families need to be clearly told — either through the initial written correspondence or first oral contact — that no matter their country of origin, the language spoken at home or the jobs held by parents, we all want our children to succeed to a greater extent than the previous generation. By acknowledging commonalities, educators join with families in an open process that facilitates working together.
Direct Benefits for Parents
Trying to raise students' interest in school, enjoyment of learning, academic skills or standardized test scores are lofty goals. However, often not enough effort is provided to get parents involved in their children's education. Programs that offer a direct benefit to the parents are the most likely to succeed (Lopez, Scribner and Mahitivanichcha 2001). In the FamilyTech program, computers were loaned to students for use at their homes, and computer instruction was provided as part of the students' school day. But, the program did not stop there. The FamilyTech program was also designed with computer training for parents as part of the intervention, which served multiple purposes.
First, it gave parents a free opportunity to learn skills that they could use at home (e.g., e-mailing family members who live outside of the country, keeping track of appointments with a computer calendar, overseeing household expenses with a budget spreadsheet) and at work (e.g., expanding skills used in current positions). Parents recognized the important role computers play in the world of today and tomorrow. They were also eager for their children and themselves to become more proficient in the use of technology.
Second, computer training afforded parents a chance to keep pace with their children. Following training, parents and students shared a common understanding of computer technology. Parents were better able to assist their children with schoolwork on the computer and with computer-related problems. Instead of waiting for children to ask their parents for help with homework, parents were given computer activities during training sessions that were to be completed at home with their children. In addition, when computer issues arose, parents reported being more comfortable initiating contact with the schools. Informally interacting with teachers during computer training sessions also contributed to this effect. In addition, calling schools concerning the computers was perceived as a positive issue, and parents expressed less reluctance to contact schools over positive versus negative issues.
Third, by training parents on the computers and enabling them to assist their children with computer-related schoolwork, parents automatically became more aware of what their children were learning at school. In fact, following the implementation of the FamilyTech intervention, teachers reported that the number of families involved 'to a great extent' with their children's school more than doubled from pre-intervention numbers.
Finally, in our work interviewing and observing families, it has been our experience that technology programs that provide a direct benefit to parents almost always result in parents reporting increased self-esteem and self-confidence. Such benefits have a positive impact not only on the family and student, but also on the community at large. These advantages were evident even among families who experienced some difficulties in their computer training. It was not just the gaining of new technological skills and knowledge that made the difference, but the simple act of knowing that someone believed in them and cared enough to provide them with computer training.
Redefining Family Involvement
Technology affords families greater and more varied means of contributing to their children's academic experience. For example, parents who do not speak English can still assist with school papers by operating spelling and grammar software programs with computer-highlighted queries translated by students or marked by parents for students to solve independently. A large number of software programs are also available in multiple languages.
Non-English proficient parents who may be hesitant to speak with teachers in person, as well as parents who do not have the time to meet during normal school hours (e.g., parents who work multiple jobs) can still maintain regular communication with school personnel through e-mail. Families can also be kept up to date on classroom instruction, homework and special events via school and class Web pages. The opportunities for technology-based family involvement in children's education seem limitless.
Refining and Expanding Data Collection
Just as technology can bring families closer to education and facilitate involvement in their children's education, technology can also bring researchers and educators closer to accurately measuring these changes in participation. When intervening to improve parental involvement, how does one know whether the involvement has been successful. When working with diverse populations, it may be necessary to consider less conventional means of measuring outcomes. For example, PTA membership is a common indicator used to reflect parental involvement at school. However, organizations such as the PTA may not exist, particularly in high-poverty neighborhoods, or may levy dues on their members that some families cannot afford. In such situations, PTA membership cannot be expected to accurately reflect parental involvement or interest in participation with the school.
Technology opens new means for data collection and expands upon the types of data that can be obtained. For example, families for whom transportation is an obstacle need no longer be 'missing data.' In such instances, families could be e-mailed questions or interviewed over the computer. Surveys also could be completed online and used as a follow-up for incomplete or missing mailed surveys.
With data being input from a personal computer it would be easier to reach additional family members or caretakers who may be involved in a child's education. This is because questionnaires sent to a child's parents might not tap into this reality, and asking multiple family members to sit through an interview or attend a data collection session is too time consuming and infeasible. When data is collected from a source such as an online survey, evaluators do not have to worry about distributing the correct number of copies of the survey, paying for return postage, or having respondents lose materials such as the return address or envelope.
The unique circumstances of the families targeted for increased involvement must be considered at every step of the program or research project. Educators and researchers have to be prepared to remedy a host of factors that would ordinarily go overlooked. For example, FamilyTech organizers recognized that just providing families with computers did not mean the families would be free to use the computers to their fullest extent. During interviews, it was brought to our attention that some families shared their households with not only multiple generations but multiple branches (e.g., an aunt's or uncle's family) of the same family. In such a scenario, it would be impossible for a student to tie up the household's single telephone line by working online.
Other families simply did not have an operational telephone line or could not afford the extra fees for Internet access. As a result, FamilyTech computer training sessions were held at the children's schools, and parents and students were allowed access to the schools' computer labs on particular weekends. Families were also informed about local libraries that offered computer terminals and free Internet access.
Technology is a high-interest medium that offers high returns for both parents and students. Its flexibility, value and applicability make it an ideal topic for reform programs aimed at increasing parental involvement in children's education.
Birnie, B. 1999. 'Citibank FamilyTech Evaluation Phase 2.' The Education Fund: North Miami, FL.
Henderson, A., and K. Mapp. 2002. 'A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family and Community Connections on Student Achievement.' SEDL's National Center for Family and Community Connections with Schools. Online: www.sedl.org/connections/resources/evidence.pdf.
Lopez, G., J. Scribner and K. Mahitivanichcha. 2001. 'Redefining Parental Involvement: Lessons From High-Performing Migrant-Impacted Schools.' American Educational Research Journal 38 (2): 253-288.
South Florida Annenberg Challenge (SFAC) Evaluation Team. 2002. Unpublished raw data of stakeholder satisfaction with SFAC case study programs.
This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2003 issue of THE Journal.