HS Series: 5 Barriers to Family Engagement in High School

Flamboyan has been on a journey to understand what family engagement looks like in high school. This six-part series explores what we’ve learned along the way.

In this series, we have been on a mission to explore what we learned about family engagement in high school. So far, we’ve written about how relationships between students, their families and educators are still essential to success; that families still have five key roles to play to support that success; and that families and educators move into coach roles as students become the drivers of their own education. In this week’s post, we take a look at some common barriers to effective family engagement that persist at the high school level.


Educator Mindsets.

In our utopia, high school teachers always assume the best of their students’ families. In today’s reality, that’s not always the case. As with any other kind of relationship, biases and preconceived notions can prevent authentic connection. For example, some of the teachers we spoke to expressed concern that parents who didn’t attend parent-teacher conferences didn’t value their child’s education.

One DC parent I spoke with noted, “I have to keep calling [the school], leaving messages, saying, ‘are you sending this email to this teacher, because I tried to send it last week, two months ago, and they haven’t returned my phone call or anything’. There’s not much communication on their end, and that’s why I keep stalking, and keep calling the office, and telling them how urgent it is for me to talk to this teacher.”

Parents want to be engaged by their children’s educators to understand how they can support the students academically and socially. When educators approach these relationships with an open mind and ask questions instead of making assumptions, it opens lines of communication between two key partners in a student’s education and sets the stage for success.


Unwelcoming Environments.

Think about the last time you visited any business with a front desk-a hotel, doctor’s office, etc. Upon moving to DC, I would often vet physicians based on YELP reviews, and the front desk experience was the determinant between a one star review and a five star review. Your recall of these experiences as positive or negative probably had a lot to do with that first interaction. It’s no different for a parent or guardian visiting their child’s school. The more positive experiences they have, the more encouraged they become that they are welcome and should continue to visit and communicate with the educators who work there.

Unfortunately, parents are sometimes seen as adversaries, instead of the valued experts of their children who attend the school. At a partner school that serves a half Black, half Latino population, we found that the staff manning the front desk expected the Black parents to be more combative, and treated them accordingly, which left the families feeling disrespected.

The mother of a local high school freshman recalled a recent visit to her daughter’s school, saying, “I always feel unwanted. I always get the feeling of ‘oh, what are you doing here?’ by some of the teachers… the principal, everybody, I just kind of feel like, they can’t wait for me to go home.”

Parents should always be treated to a warm welcome when visiting their children’s high school. It is worth the resources and energy to train frontline staff at schools to be welcoming and helpful to students’ families. It is an important first step in sending a clear message from the school to the families that they are welcome at the school and seen as valued partners in their children’s education.


Common Definition of Family Engagement.

Every parent probably has a clear idea of how their children’s teachers should communicate with them, and every teacher probably has a clear idea of how their students’ families should communicate with them. The trouble is, those expectations are rarely aligned, and as is typical in primary and secondary school, it is up to educators to signal the tone that sets this relationship up for success. This is because they execute the curriculum, hand out the grades and have the ability to open up or shut down parents’ access to information about their children’s progress. The parents’ only other option is to ask their child directly, and well, have you ever tried to get comprehensive information about school out of a high school student?

When educators reach out to their students’ families proactively and learn how best to engage them and find out what their hopes, dreams and worries are about their student, it opens up an ongoing dialogue that drives student success. It puts everyone on the same page.


Complex Structures.

One may think that by the time their children get to high school, families are pros at navigating school structure, but it’s no secret that it’s not always the case. High school is complex. Even if a parent has mastered how to navigate communicating with the one teacher guiding their child’s education in elementary school, or the 1-3 teachers in middle school, it is daunting to suddenly need to keep track of their student’s progress across seven subjects taught by seven different educators. Not to mention, each educator may have their own mindsets about families and how they engage them. Add in the high stakes of student success at this level as they contemplate their post-secondary options, and it’s enough to make any parent feel like a newbie!

When schools make it easy for parents to know who to partner with-and how-around their child’s education, everyone wins.


Educator Capacity.

Teaching is one of the hardest jobs on the planet, with a full schedule beginning before the first school bell rings and extending long into the evening with endless lesson planning and grading to complete. I know because I was a teacher. Asking teachers to “do parent engagement” can feel like piling on to an already overwhelming list of to-dos.

The role of the teacher has not been designed to effectively share the responsibility of working with parents to develop students academically and socially, while also being able to serve multiple cohorts of students, monitor progress, build 1:1 relationships, and guide students in increasing their autonomy and agency. The intent to make a positive phone call home can get lost in the priorities and duties of planning for instruction and managing other district mandates. Imagine a role in which family engagement is integrated into the regular responsibilities of teachers, so they had a dedicated partner in the daily duty of developing young minds poised for adulthood.

Secondary schools can support family engagement at the secondary level by building out systems and structures that allow educators to maximize their limited time to reach families. These structures could look like cohorts, technology, or good old-fashioned personalized outreach.


Stay tuned for our next and final post in this series, where we will speak to how structures can support effective family engagement and respond to some of the barriers listed here.

Julianne Boulware is the Director, School Partnerships Coach in our Washington, DC office. Learn more about her at https://flamboyanfoundation.org/team_members/julianne-boulware .