How the “Hi Neighbor!” event brought one community together — and could change lives elsewhere, too.
Last month, dozens of families and teachers gathered for a holiday celebration at the Avonworth Primary Center. It was a chilly Wednesday night in December, a time when these families might otherwise have been busy with holiday shopping.
The Christmas season was in full swing. But these kids and grownups hadn’t gathered to sing carols or eat candy canes.
They’d come together to learn about three very different holidays – big cultural celebrations that are close to the hearts of some members of Avonworth’s school community and yet are totally unfamiliar to others.
One family came to share stories and knowledge about the Day of the Dead, the fall holiday when beloved relatives are honored in Mexico and other parts of Latin America. Another family shared about the celebration of Ramadan, the spring holiday when fasting becomes an act of worship throughout the Muslim world. And a third family shared about Lunar New Year, a sacred winter holiday celebrated in slightly different ways from South Korea to Singapore and many points in between.
Amid craft projects and stories and laughter and learning, this varied group of teachers, parents and students got to know one another – and know the wider world – just a little bit better.
PARENT/SCHOOL ENGAGEMENT, AND WHY IT MATTERS
The name of this hybrid holiday event was “Hi Neighbor!” and the title captured its goal beautifully: To help all the members of the Avonworth school community get to know one another in a meaningful way.
The idea for “Hi Neighbor!” grew out of Avonworth’s participation in the Parents as Allies research project, a multi-year effort to help communities around the world build stronger, more impactful connections between schools and families. During a design sprint held last spring, a team of parents and educators from the district had dreamed up this and several other attainable “hacks” for building real connections between local families and schools.
It’s something researchers from the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution have found to be incredibly valuable, though this connection is often absent in communities around the world. Data reported in Brookings’ Playbook for Family-School Engagement, released last fall, found that schools with strong family engagement are 10 times more likely to improve student learning outcomes.
The team at CUE continues to explore the subject of family/school engagement and they are a central partner in the ongoing Parents as Allies project, sharing data directly with Avonworth and many other participating school communities globally.
SMALL STEPS WITH BIG IMPACT
The event at Avonworth didn’t require a big budget. It was held in a school building with minimal expense for refreshments and decoration. It also wasn’t a huge time commitment for families or teachers: It was held on a weeknight from 6:30-7:45 p.m.
It simply required a commitment to creating authentic engagement. Parents and teachers had to show up and share about their cultures and traditions, and listen to one another. The event was planned relatively quickly, with a focus on making it happen rather than making it perfect.
What mattered was using the evening well: Families rotated between the three celebrations, getting a chance to learn about each. Each station was thoughtfully curated by a parent or several parents, and included storytelling, a display about the holiday, and a hands-on activity to immerse the kids and adults in a new experience.
And yet as uncomplicated as this plan was, those who were involved say this simple gathering was truly powerful.
“It was an amazing experience to share our holiday with our community,” says Avonworth parent Soha Hindawy, who shared her knowledge of Ramadan with the group.
Having their family’s tradition embraced and respected at school was really meaningful for Hindawy’s kids: “My own children felt a sense of belonging that they longed for,” she says. “They were so excited for their friends and teachers to learn.”
For Hindawy, it was especially important that the teachers were learning alongside the families: “I felt honored by all the teachers that attended, as we’re not only sharing with the families that attended, but importantly with the teachers that learned all about the holidays to teach their students and have inclusivity in their classrooms for generations to come.”
Cristina Del Campo, who set up a Day of the Dead altar and shared about her family’s history, had a similar experience.
“The ‘Hi Neighbor!’ event at the Avonworth Primary Center was very important for me and my family. We got to share a tradition that is very close to our hearts,” Del Campo says. “I got to show the ‘altar’ I put up in our house every year to remember my mother, who passed away 12 years ago. It is a way to pass on our tradition to our daughters that were born in this country and most importantly, it’s a way to remember their grandmother who they didn’t have the chance to meet.”
Del Campo sees the seeds of more inclusion and respect for diversity in the connections made during this hour of neighborliness. Like Hindawy, she had made the effort to share her family’s story. And she had found in return that others had come to eagerly listen.
On Wednesday evening in an otherwise empty school building, “families and kids were able to learn new things and showed genuine appreciation for other people’s culture,” Del Campo says. At the same time, “the school staff involved in the organization was respectful of the traditions and worked very hard to make this a very special event.”
That’s the kind of experience that can build bridges. It’s how true family/school engagement can begin, and how it can grow strong enough to help a generation of children learn and thrive like never before.
In the coming months, Kidsburgh will share more stories of events and ideas that emerge from the work of Parents as Allies. Sign up here for the Kidsburgh newsletter to make sure you catch them all. And don’t miss the upcoming Parents as Allies webinars.