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How Four Education Leaders Are Building A Sense of Belonging for Families in Utah

“…’belonging’ is about being part of something, but it’s also about owning something.”


Salt Lake City, like many cities across the country, has a part of town clearly defined by a geographical barrier where outcomes for children don’t seem as bright as in the rest of the city and where the residents are treated as outsiders. In Salt Lake, that barrier marking the class divide is the I-15 interstate highway.

Dr. Paul Kuttner of the University of Utah shared, “That’s our line. The east side is higher up in the foothills-that’s where the University is, that’s where a lot of wealth is, and it’s very white. The west side has historically been… ‘the other side of the tracks.’ It’s closer to the factories, it’s closer to the mining operations, and it has historically been [settled by] immigrants – originally Eastern European, but right now it’s where a high concentration of people who came here as immigrants or refugees from Latin America, Africa, the Pacific, and other regions live.”

In the Wasatch Front of Utah, there is a level of diversity that many outsiders may find surprising. Wasatch Front is where approximately 80% of the state’s residents live. Within this region sits two school districts – Salt Lake and Granite – where about half of students (nearly 50,000) are people of color. These students and their families include many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, including Black Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Latinx immigrants, as well as many Muslims from Africa and the Middle East, and members of other faith communities.

The Utah fellowship team is made up of four education professionals who happened to be wondering the same thing at the same time: What do educators and families need to bridge the trust divide, and how could they help meet those needs in the communities where they work? When two of the team members heard about Flamboyan’s National Family Engagement Fellowship, they decided it was a sign that now was the time and they were the crew.

Paul is an educator, scholar, and community worker from Boston currently serving as the Associate Director of University Neighborhood Partners at the University of Utah, where he builds university-community partnerships that promote educational equity, access, and justice for students. He works closely with Jenny Mayer-Glenn, a Utah native who, until recently, was serving as the Director of Family-School Collaboration for Salt Lake City School District, where she worked to create authentic partnerships between families and their children’s schools – she’s since joined Paul at the University of Utah as director of University Neighborhood Partners and special assistant to the president for campus-community partnerships.

It was Jenny’s connection with Sheryl Ellsworth that sparked the idea to apply to have a Utah team in our current cohort of Fellows. Sheryl is the Family/Community Engagement Specialist at the Utah State Board of Education, where she manages statewide family engagement efforts. No stranger to Flamboyan and a long-time family engagement champion, she had previously taught at a Flamboyan partner school in Washington, DC and had been featured by renowned family engagement researcher Karen Mapp in the family-school partnerships study that Paul co-authored. The intersections run deep in this team! Jadee Talbot-who, like Jenny, is a local who has been an educator for almost 20 years-rounds out the Utah fellowship team. He is the Associate Director of Community Centers for the Granite School District, where he oversees 30 community centers focused on engaging families and the community, as well as the district’s after-school programming. He knew Sheryl from his is time as a principal at a local high school. Together, these four are akin to a family engagement dream team.

For nearly two years, this team has been engaged with Flamboyan through our National Fellowship. They’ve completed a community needs assessment, piloted a test strategy and now are at the end stages of building out a strategic plan that aims to build a culture of family engagement across their state. Through their landscape assessment, the team determined they should prioritize families feeling welcomed at schools, educators and families learning from each other and families experiencing the positive impact of their engagement as three crucial needs to be addressed.

Their pilot initiative explored helping schools create more welcoming environments for families. The main barrier they observed in effectively engaging families was mindsets – problematic assumptions about how families did or didn’t engage and how that tied with the level of effort educators made to increase touchpoints with less engaged families. The dynamic came as a surprise to Jadee who reflected, “I guess I was surprised at how definitively…teachers were saying ‘we want parents’, and parents are saying ‘we want to be involved’, and yet it’s not happening.”

The pilot also explored how to engage parents who were not predisposed to partner with teachers, and vice versa. While the team recommended that school leaders should require all teaching and frontline staff be part of any family engagement trainings, figuring out what to put in the hands of parents and community members is still evolving. They are still wrestling with unanswered questions around how to create mindset shifts to attract families to the table and build more capacity for teachers to practice family engagement.

One thing the team was clearly aligned on after the pilot was that each school needed something adaptable to their own context. But schools, they also learned, wanted packaged solutions. Sheryl summed it up this way, “They wanted more…a clear answer. And when I tell them that family engagement work is so individualized from community to community, and by that I mean school to school, it is hard for them [to hear]. They want a model. They want A to Z. Versus, ‘Let’s get to know your school. Let’s get to know your context and then we will make something for you.’ That is why, for this work to continue, it needs… it needs real backing.”

Now the team is bringing their learnings from the landscape and pilot to bear as they flesh out their strategic plan. The theme of their plan is belonging. There’s even a slogan – Utah schools belong to you. You belong in Utah schools. Their vision is that all families in Utah will experience schools as a place of belonging where they are welcomed and valued, can build relationships and learn alongside educators and see that their engagement has a positive impact on the school. While discussing the idea of belonging, Paul shared, “We were struggling with the idea that ‘welcoming’ wasn’t capturing the real questions of valuing families. We looked at the definition of belonging, and it’s just the only one word we found that captures the multiple things we’re talking about, because ‘belonging’ is about being part of something, but it’s also about owning something.”

As the team is laying the groundwork to implement their plan, they are focused on leveraging state-level relationships to inform a state-wide family engagement vision, defining standards for family engagement, and building a network of family engagement champions across the state.  At the district level, high-quality training and coaching would be offered to school leaders, and a data and evaluation system would document impact and enable them to share stories and continuously refine the work.

They are also being realistic about the challenges ahead. To sustain the work, ongoing funding and a commitment from the State are needed. They also know that convincing schools to open up the power structure to see families as partners in their children’s education is hard enough…convincing families to trust educators and schools when they haven’t always felt welcome or valued is even harder.

In these two districts in the Wasatch Front of Utah, this team of four educators is facing down some serious shifting cultural dynamics. They knew that when they applied to do this work, yet they have a shared conviction that together they are capable of moving the needle for kids in their districts and making an impact that will be felt across the entire state. They have the depth of experience, connections and empathy to make this a worthwhile endeavor. Now the question is, will educators and school leaders open their hearts and minds to meet them the rest of the way? And, will stakeholders see share the team’s vision of improved outcomes for kids in underserved, ethnically diverse public schools and help mobilize the resources to make it all happen?

The team is idealistic about what lies ahead. They are leading with the right balance of pragmatism and hope. That hope is in part connected to the sense of community they’ve found during the National Fellowship as they took on this work alongside four other teams from Memphis, Milwaukee, Atlanta and Dallas. Jenny explained, “I think the strategizing, the really deep thinking… it’s a lot better to have a cohort that brings multiple perspectives and multiple skills.”

“The biggest value add to me has been better understanding of implicit and explicit bias and race in relation to the work and how that needs to be a pillar.” Sheryl shared. “And that in our local context specifically, teachers need bias training…in order to connect with families…of whatever race or socio-economic status.”

Paul added, “I think we get a lot done when we’re connecting [with other educators across the national cohort]. I think it’s a catalyst. It makes us feel like we’re part of something, that we’re not just alone, struggling. It makes us see what’s unique about the local stuff, and what’s not.”

All things considered, team Utah has laid an incredibly strong foundation to do what they want to most of all: build a sense of belonging for families in Utah.


Kendall Mattos Silverstein is the Director of Communications in our Washington, D.C. office. Learn more about her at