Federal grant to expand Colorado school, family engagement

When Luis Murillo began leading parenting academies as director at the center, he prepared presentations on how school boards work and where school funding comes from – things he thinks parents should know.

He quickly realized that parents were looking for something different. They wanted to know how to deal with the bullying and racism their children experienced at school, how to know if their children are on their way to graduation, and even how to check grades online.

The parenting academies that Assistant Superintendent Murillo is now conducting in the Alamosa school district in English and Spanish teach parents how to navigate the school system, know their rights, and understand the extensive data that schools collect.

“There’s a disconnect between part of our community and the school district,” Murillo said. “We want to create a more connected community and when we get there we will see better outcomes for students. By that I don’t just mean academic achievement, although that’s part of it. It’s about transparency. It’s about trust. It’s also about getting off our pedestals.”

This is the kind of family commitment Colorado education leaders are hoping to spread statewide with the help of a new $4.7 million federal grant. Parental engagement is key to addressing some of students’ most pressing issues, from reading difficulties in the early grades to poor high school performance.

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Colorado was one of eight states to receive funding from the US Department of Education this fall. The National Center for Families Learning will lead work to create a Colorado Statewide Family Engagement Center. Local partners include the Colorado Department of Education, the Colorado Education Initiative, the Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition, and the Black Parent Network.

The five-year grant will support the establishment of a statewide advisory committee, with at least half of the members being parents and half carers. Among other things, the work of this group will examine how school districts engage families and develop meaningful ways for parents to influence policy and school governance. The statewide effort will also strengthen family literacy programs and provide training for parents on how to work productively with school boards.

In addition, the money will support the creation of regional training and information centers and expand work already underway in five school districts that can serve as learning labs for others. These districts are Denver Public Schools, Greeley-Evans District 6, Alamosa School District, Pueblo City Schools, and Mesa County Valley District 51.

“Each of these districts already has a track record of success and investment in family and community partnerships, and this is an opportunity to build on and learn from what they have done to date,” said Samantha Olson, vice president of strategy at the Colorado Education Initiative.

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Schools haven’t always felt like warm and welcoming places for the community, Murillo said. COVID restrictions and school safety measures have erected new barriers in recent years where schools need parents more than ever.

Alamosa’s efforts to engage parents include revamping its website and Facebook page to make them more user-friendly. It’s the first place many parents look for information and sets the tone for other communications, Murillo said. The district is also planning further newsletters and videos. Reaching parents means communicating in English, Spanish and Q’anjob’al Mayan.

With the grant, Alamosa plans to establish a parent liaison at each school and expand a relatively new home visiting program. He wants parents to know that educators have the same dreams for their children as parents.

Joyce Brooks, a retired teacher and longtime education activist in Denver, said parental engagement has too often seemed like “checking a box” — sending out a poll or having a meeting, but not actually listening. That’s especially true when it comes to black parents, she said.

“I’ve heard parents say they were treated like they didn’t mind if they made suggestions, that they didn’t know what they were talking about. The way their school’s front office treats them and doesn’t get all the information they need,” she said.

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Brooks helped found Black Parent Network as a resource for parents to ask questions and learn in an environment where they know they will be respected. The founding members were motivated in part by a desire to fill stubborn academic gaps and in part by a feeling that these statistics paint too bleak a picture of black student abilities, Brooks said.

The group has created parenting toolkits to help with everything from sourcing special education services to incorporating Black history and culture into lesson plans. Members also analyze Denver schools’ Black Excellence plans. The plans are designed to engage educators to improve outcomes and opportunities for black students in Denver schools.

Brooks said the plans are a great idea that she would like to see replicated in other school districts, but the plans themselves fell short. Brooks said bringing parents around the table would create much more meaningful plans.

Participation in the grant will give Black parents a powerful voice in improving family engagement and education statewide, Brooks said, and will also allow the network’s efforts to expand beyond some school districts.

​​Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer oversees education policy and policy and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education reporting. Contact Erika at [email protected].

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