Family Engagement: Beyond a Deficit Mindset


As a reading intervention teacher at a D.C. Title I school, I see my seventh and eighth graders’ intelligence, curiosity, silliness and resilience. I see also in stark contrast and vivid, quantitative detail how far some need to grow to reach a beginning reader level and ultimately grade level comprehension.

Why Are They in a Reading Intervention Course as a Secondary Student?

We know the story’s broad brush strokes found in the research literature—from missing crucial vocabulary mastery windows as early as age three (though this understanding has recently come under scrutiny) to the school's failure to provide literacy specialists at the preschool and early elementary grades who could have shored-up gaps with structured, targeted literacy intervention (which specialized study and certification to do effectively). If we’re honest, it can be easy to take the next step and connect these dots and end up with a deficit mindset of family academic engagement in the home and with the school. If only the parent would do X, we wouldn’t be here.

What Strengths Can Parents Bring to the Conversation?

It’s well-documented that family engagement is a primary indicator of students’ academic success. I’ve listened as the local conversation has shifted from "Does it matter?" to "What strategies work best?" I suggest that the school and home will ultimately make the most efficient and effective progress on behalf of student success if schools start approaching this work not as an ESSA requirement, nor as a quick fix to perceived parent or caregiver deficiencies, but rather by asking and observing what strengths parents bring to the conversation?

The parents with whom I’ve been partnering may not be accessible during the general workforce’s business hours, but with the ubiquity of SmartPhones—why should they have to be?  My solutions may not be for everyone—such as sharing my personal cell phone number so I can text (by far parents’ preferred communication strategy) with parents and vice versa, but in over a decade, I’ve not had a parent abuse this access. And with free apps like Remind and others, it’s never been easier to take a moment to send a text with links to, for example, the teacher’s website with uploaded assignments, to 100s of families.

I watched and asked what works for families and dropped what doesn’t. When I connect with each a parent, I know even those who are the hardest to reach or may struggle to most to be supportive will respond as soon as they can when they recognize my cell number.

It’s up to me find out what will drive reliable communication that builds the relationships needed for authentic family engagement, particularly if I choose to serve striving readers, who often have more than just their reading struggle to overcome.

Sometimes my students tell me they wish I had less connection with their homes, but the research and my own experience are clear: without parent involvement, we forfeit student gains.

Beth Dewhurst has been serving Washington, D.C., students since moving to the city in 1992. After growing up in rural Pennsylvania, she became the first in her family to graduate college. Now with an M.A. in teaching from George Mason University, she is in her 10th year at Stuart-Hobson Middle School, where she teaches reading to seventh- and eighth-graders.

She also spends her days engaging with families and writing grants to ensure students have opportunities to connect their reading to the arts and sciences—and especially to future college and career paths.

Beth has taught at a Title I school in Virginia and directed educational nonprofit services for D.C. students and adults. She’s working on a doctorate of education with a technology specialization. She lives in D.C. with her husband, Tom, and they have three children.

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