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Listening to Communities to Show Us the Way | Emily VanHouten

By Emily VanHouten

June has always been my favorite month of the year. I have worked in and with schools for my entire career, and have found that June brings joy, respite, and hope. Teachers and students everywhere prepare to say their goodbyes and head off for a few months of well-earned rest and relaxation. It is a time for community building and celebration. It is a time for reflection and intentional planning. The year ahead seems bright and sunny, filled with new opportunities for change and growth. Through Flamboyan’s Family Engagement Partnership work here in Washington DC, June provides a chance to help school leaders, educators, and district staff identify and elevate the impact of a year’s worth of hard work, in pursuit of creating a sustainable approach to REAL Family Engagement focused on improving outcomes for kids. We ask teams to let go of missteps and encourage appreciative inquiry to learn and build on successes with a fresh, new school year on the horizon.

But this June is different. After a seemingly endless spring, our country teeters on the cusp of a radical shift. All the while, school leaders and educators across our city must begin to plan for a quickly approaching fall amidst uncertainty, fear, and a resounding call to action.

How can family engagement actively help dismantle institutionalized and systemically designed oppression?

What does family engagement even mean if students and teachers are not all returning to school full time?

How can we strengthen our connections with ALL students and families in our school community- especially our BIPOC students and families?

This June, these are the family engagement questions our partners at the school- and city-level are grappling with. In my work supporting districts and leaders, I am helping them make meaning of these shifts.

The nature of our work with local school and district partners has quickly evolved during the pandemic caused by COVID-19. Through coaching and consultation, I have pivoted our support to help leaders consider and address the most pressing challenges students and families face. And although each school’s community is unique, one consistent theme has emerged in our conversations: Distance learning has heightened the importance of authentic, trusting relationships between families, students, and educators. While we’re all uncertain of what the future will look like, it’s evident that establishing trusting relationships and robust partnerships with families will continue to be a critical strategy to support the short- and long-term success of students and school communities. As ever, it is a key lever to create sustainable systemic change.

So now what? This summer, our DC program team will lean on our most valuable superpower: listening. Families and educators are the best innovators we know, so we will turn to them to learn about their experiences – what’s working and what’s failing them – and elevate their lived experiences with others. We will adapt our training, professional development, resources, and guidance to ensure our partners have what they need to support relationship-building between educators and families that is grounded in racial equity. Partnering with families during uncertainty will continue to be the strong, foundational rock required for the holistic success of students. And while this June is different from years past, we will still reflect, let go of failures, celebrate wins, and lean into a sense of hope and possibility. Our families and educators will show us the way.

Emily VanHouten is Senior Director, District Support at Flamboyan Foundation.