When Principal Reymundo Cervantes arrived at Henry B. Gonzalez Personalized Learning Academy in 2017, parent engagement was not at its highest, to say the least. Five years later, as he leaves to take on the leadership of Pleasant Grove TAG, family involvement has more than tripled, and the elementary school in Southeast Dallas has become the district’s Whole School Model for Family Engagement.
“I believe it is because of the work and commitment of our teachers to ensure that students will achieve, knowing that parent involvement is key,” Dr. Cervantes says. “The staff is going the extra mile to involve the parents in different ways – not only with the district’s mandatory parent conferences, and workshops and events, but much more.”
Several years ago, Dallas ISD partnered with the Washington, D.C.-based Flamboyan Foundation, which champions real family engagement in schools across the country to support children’s education, and Gonzalez was in the first cohort of that partnership. Since then, the district has adopted its own model for family engagement, continuing the work under the Dallas ISD Family and Community Engagement department.
The department’s manager, Virginia Green, said, “Gonzalez exemplifies the five pillars of community engagement: home-to-home visits, listening interviews, intentional professional development, having an active leadership team, and offering families a variety of opportunities to engage. “
To involve the parents, Cervantes said, “We don’t wait until the first parent conference. We start right away in the new school year, making one-on-one phone calls to meet the parents. In the first year of the program, in 2018, the teachers went and visited the homes. That was an eye-opener for many of them, not only because they were received with open arms by families, but also because it helped them to be advocates for the students’ learning. Our reaching out first helped to build that trust.
Building Parent Trust
“The protocol is about getting to know the families – where they come from, what’s their biggest achievement as a family, etc. That helped them to become more comfortable, and it opened up more opportunities for them to volunteer as well.”
As a result, parent involvement has been increasing every year – from about 600 volunteer hours in 2017 to 2,200 hours at the end of the 2019-2020 school year, he said. “The following school year (2020-2021) we had about 1600 hours” due to the pandemic.
COVID put a pause on in-person home visits, but the principal says the relationship with parents did not suffer during the worst of the pandemic. “That is because we had staff doing visual home visits. The parents were already used to our teachers reaching out, setting up appointments after school, and so on. And when we transitioned (to online visits during COVID), that was a big help. The parents already trusted us. So when the pandemic hit, for us it was not a struggle connecting with the parents.”
The community engagement pillars were crucial in supporting staff and making the connection with the school’s vision, the principal said, which is “to empower future world-changers in a personalized learning environment through collaboration, transformative thinking, and leadership.”
“Parent involvement should be a priority of any school,” he said, “because when parents feel they have opportunities to voice concerns and questions, and feel that somebody is listening to them and that they are part of the decisions, the community changes in a positive way. Everybody is taking care of each other and looking out for each other because in the end, we all want the best schools for the kids.”
Student-Guided Home Visits
Without parent support, he adds, “Our kids are not going to succeed at their highest level.” The home visits – whether in person or virtual – are key to building that support. “As a personalized learning campus, we try to find new ways for students to express and show their progress. We don’t grade our students just by how well they do on tests – we try to open up different ways for them to show their progress.”
One way is by “authentic assessment,” during which the student guides the listening interview between the teacher and parents and presents their own data to support their statements. “When students have the Zoom meetings with their parents and teachers, the student has a script. The student starts the meeting by talking about their own progress, their strengths, and some areas of opportunity. They then turn to the parent and ask, for example: ‘Mom, do you have anything you’d like to add?’ So this is a different way of having the student show how much they’ve learned. And it’s developing a new type of social skill, communication skill and much more.”
The school’s model of personalized learning extends beyond the student. “It goes to personalize our support to the teachers and as well to the parents. One of the other ways we reach out is to ask the parents for their input about what areas they would like to be involved in or learn about during the school year. Based on that survey, we create our workshops for the fall and spring semesters. So every teacher participates. They pick topics from the parents’ input, they learn from that, and they prepare a session for when the parents come. When the parent comes, they have a list of sessions to choose from and pick the one they want to go to. It’s tailored to the needs of the community.
“Having professional development embedded in the calendar for teachers as well as for parents helps to set the baseline and the expectations of what can be. Later on, the family and community engagement strategies that we put in place on our campus allow us to space out activities throughout the school year to always be connected with our parents in multiple ways.”