Parents as Allies project working to build connections between schools and families

When schools shut down worldwide last spring, millions of parents had questions. In Pittsburgh, a telephone hotline for families lit up with calls – many from parents who had little communication with their children’s teachers and needed to know what was happening next.

That hotline was a valuable solution to an immediate problem. But it pointed to a larger issue that’s been bubbling for decades.

In many communities, there has never been a clear way for parents and teachers to connect. A generation of mothers and fathers have helped in many ways to support children as they learn, but not necessarily in close partnership with teachers. Likewise, teachers were given no roadmap for inviting parents to be their collaborative partners.

Beyond a brief hello on back-to-school night and an email if a problem arose, months could pass without a word.

Then the COVID pandemic hit. Overnight, parents found themselves helping to teach. Communication was so necessary that families and schools plunged in even though they weren’t sure what a perfect partnership might look like.

A new beginning: Parents as Allies

Nearly a year later in small villages and big cities all over the world, parents and teachers are growing new relationships. Research done in 2020 by the Center for Universal Education (CUE) at the Brookings Institution found that teachers in Botswana and India have begun texting regularly with parents—and building meaningful connections along the way. That hotline in Pittsburgh is just one piece of progress that is more fully connecting families to their local schools.

How do these new partnerships function and how can the innovations popping up in one part of the world be adapted and replicated to support students in another?  

A new collaboration between four organizations – the CUE at Brookings, the Teachers Guild x School Retool team at the groundbreaking design firm IDEO, the Finland-based education innovation nonprofit HundrED, and Kidsburgh – will explore these questions throughout 2021. 

Through global research and convenings, the Parents as Allies research project, supported by The Grable Foundation, will ask parents and teachers about their needs and concerns. The project aims to find promising new strategies cropping up around the globe, and then synthesize and share this knowledge to help build stronger school-family and teacher-parent partnerships worldwide. 

Leveraging timing and skill sets

This project brings together the strengths of all four organizations. And while they’re seizing the momentum that the Covid school disruption has inspired, this work is designed to benefit families long after the pandemic is over.

CUE has developed an 11-country parent engagement network, including participants from Pittsburgh and two other U.S. cities, as well as participants from Argentina, India, South Africa and points in between. In these locations, decision-makers are working with researchers to document parents’ and teachers’ beliefs,  behaviors and priorities.

While parent engagement has always been critical in a child’s learning, the recent pivot to remote learning has created a rare window for parents to truly see how their child is learning and how hard it is for kids to learn.

The network will explore how schools can better understand parents’ beliefs about what makes a good quality education for their child, the feedback loops they find most helpful, and what gets in the way of developing trusting relationships between families and schools.

“We know strong family-school partnerships are an essential piece to providing young people with meaningful teaching and learning experiences that will help them develop the skills they need to thrive,” says Rebecca Winthrop, co-director of the CUE. “And we are thrilled our research will be the framework underpinning this collaboration.”

At the same time, IDEO will work with school community teams—administrators, teachers, parents, and caregivers—to create family-focused learning solutions. These parent-led design teams in the U.K., Canada and several U.S. regions will grapple with issues around parental engagement and come up with innovative strategies.

“We have an opportunity to reimagine how families and schools work together to support students,” says Larry Corio, program director for The Teachers Guild x School Retool, a K-12 professional learning program incubated in IDEO’s Design for Learning Studio. “The key is to get families and educators in rooms together to build trust by designing toward a common vision for students.”

From this guided crowdsourcing, IDEO will create a solutions bank that people anywhere can use to adapt and test family engagement ideas in their own communities.

Meanwhile, HundrED will search the world for innovations that are already tackling the issues surfaced by the CUE and IDEO research. What, they’ll ask, is being done today to tackle these issues in one part of the world that could be replicated or adapted elsewhere? Danny Gilliland, the Head of Growth at HundrED and a new parent himself says that he hopes the initiative will, “Allow parents to seamlessly contribute to their child’s education by giving them both the tools and the information they need to support their child’s learning journey.”

Kidsburgh will coordinate the project and host a series of events and webinars, including community gatherings in the Pittsburgh region this fall.

“We’re at a unique moment,” says Lyn Krynski, Kidsburgh director. “The pandemic has sparked new levels of engagement between parents and schools, and we can’t let this moment pass without identifying and sharing the best strategies for growing this connection. Through rigorous research and impactful conversations with families and educators around the world, we can make the most of this historic time.”