Examining Beliefs to Build Relationships in Kansas City

By Justin Stephens

We’re living in a moment of transformation. Fueled by a global pandemic, racial reckoning, and cries for economic justice, change is upon us. For some, change means saying goodbye to a loved one, or loved ones, far too soon. For others, change means looking in the mirror and confronting biases and notions of white supremacy, maybe for the first time. Uncertainty is part of change, and we’re all experiencing some degree of anxiety about health, jobs, and the future. It’s quite likely many of us will come out on the other side of the pandemic as people transformed by the events of the past year.

At Flamboyan, we’ve always operated with the belief that REAL Family Engagement is a critical lever in creating equitable school systems that realize the inherent value of every student and family. This time of uncertainty and change has strengthened our belief in the transformational power of trusting relationships between teachers and families. Effective academic partnership between educators and families rests on a foundation of trusting relationships. However, decades of research show that students of color and their families are frequently treated in ways that negatively impact their school experience and erode trust. This is often the result of educator bias and deficit – or negative – beliefs about students and families of color.

This fall, I had the opportunity to work with a cohort of 40+ educators and school leaders in Kansas City, Missouri through what we call a Family Engagement Collaborative (FEC). Over the course of four months, this cohort examined the role of educator bias in family engagement and learned practices that support relationship building, academic partnering, and ongoing communication with families.

Prior to the first FEC meeting, cohort members took Harvard’s online Implicit Association Test (IAT), which “measures the strength of associations between concepts (e.g., black people, gay people) and evaluations (e.g., good, bad) or stereotypes (e.g., athletic, clumsy). The main idea is that making a response is easier when closely related items share the same response key.” Through the IAT, cohort members were able to examine unconscious associations that our brains make. The IAT helped to contextualize bias through a family engagement lens and lay the groundwork for challenging negative assumptions about families, particularly across lines of difference like race and socioeconomic status.

After a deep examination of beliefs about families in the first meeting, cohort members reflected on their individual relationships with families. They considered questions like:

  • I know what this student’s family’s hopes and dreams are for their child;
  • I’ve shared positive information about the student with this family (academic, socio-emotional, behaviorally etc.); and
  • I know this family’s communication preferences, including how often they want to hear from me.

Using their reflections as a springboard, cohort members learned and practiced making relationship-building phone calls to families with the sole purpose of building trust through listening and understanding families’ hopes, dreams, and expectations.

The arc of learning throughout the fall brought cohort members through an exploration of how parent-teacher conferences (or family conferences) can serve as an opportunity for educators to share power with families simply by sharing data in advance of the conference, asking families to co-construct the conference agenda, and sharing learning activities that families can use at home with their child. Educators examined their own communication with families and made revisions to ensure that their communication is positive, proactive, and designed to support families to play the 5 roles that accelerate student learning. During the final meeting, the cohort grappled with the unique challenges that come with family engagement during a pandemic and tapped one another’s expertise by sharing ideas and solutions to these challenges.

Like educators across the nation, the Kansas City cohort faces new challenges in their practice every day. And every day, they rise to meet the challenge. Whether they’re interrupting bias, building relationships, or strategically sharing power, their efforts to engage families is one more step toward confronting the inequities entrenched in our institutions. In this moment of transformation, they are in the arena championing change for the better.

Justin Stephens is former Senior Director, Leadership Development and Capacity Building at Flamboyan Foundation.