When families are involved in a student’s learning, attendance, grades and behavior improve.
“This creates a stronger community,” said Velvet Coleman, student and family engagement facilitator for Charlottesville City Schools.
Coleman, who started the city school division’s family engagement department three years ago, has worked for years to put resources, tools and strategies in the hands of families, so parents can help their children be more successful in school and continue learning at home.
“Parents are the first and most important teachers of our children,” Coleman said at this past week’s School Board meeting during a presentation on the department.
The department staff doubled this school year when the division hired Bianca Johnson to help Coleman connect with more students and families, and Coleman’s hoping the office will continue to grow. Focusing on preschool and elementary school students, team members have stopped by bus stops and school nights in an effort to build relationships with families, hand out resources and provide information.
“It’s a chance for students to have a level playing field by giving them resources and tools to succeed like everyone else,” said Johnson, who previously supervised the afterschool program at Venable Elementary.
All in all, the team has hosted three Parent Universities, held 26 Bus Stop Meet ‘n Greets and made 287 phone calls, among other activities, according to its School Board presentation.
“I so appreciate the work that you do,” board Chairwoman Jennifer McKeever said at the meeting. “I’m so glad that we were able to double you. It sounds like we are getting much more than double the amount of engagement.”
The School Board allocated nearly $100,000 this fiscal year to expand the department.
Board member Juandiego Wade said Coleman and Johnson are bridging the gap between schools and communities and creating trust that some families felt like they didn’t have before.
“That’s the type of trust that we want to create, and you are doing that by just being out there, doing what you say you are going to do and following up,” he said.
The family engagement team is a constant for students who move among the elementary schools. No matter where they move in the city, Coleman and Johnson will be there.
“We try to attend almost all school events,” Coleman said. “Morning or evening, whether it’s an iSTEM night, math night, literacy night, Donuts for Dad or Muffins with Moms.”
Johnson said family engagement is a chance to reach out to communities that might not always feel comfortable in the schools. In fact, after hearing from families who weren’t comfortable attending parent-teacher organization meetings, she’s discussed bringing those meetings into the community.
This job is personal for Johnson, who described herself as a product of community engagement.
“When I was a child, I grew up in a rural area and there weren’t a lot of opportunities for camps and things like that,” she said.
To provide more opportunities, a group of mothers worked to create an affordable camp at a community center near Johnson’s home and provided games, trips and food.
“These women got paid zero dollars for it,” she said. “But it was just really helpful. The fact that these people came together to help these kids — and now I’m doing the same thing.”
One of the biggest programs for the family engagement team is the Bus Stop Meet ‘n Greets. Coleman said she got the idea while at Friendship Court for an unrelated assignment.
“It was like a light bulb went off,” she said. “… Just like, ‘wow, this is where I can meet families.’”
Other community groups have joined since to provide books at the bus stops, and other division staff members have participated. Coleman said she’s hoping to get more staff members to participate.
“I think it’s us just being a familiar face in the community and knowing that we’re here to help,” Johnson said.
At events, Coleman and Johnson hand out math charts, games, school supplies, sheets on how to write sentences and pamphlets on which skills students should have by grade level.
Coleman had to create many resources from scratch, leaning on her time as a classroom teacher at Greenbrier, research and talking with colleagues across the state.
One sheet gives parents eight ways to support their children in school, from helping them arrive on time to reading daily. All resources are available on the division’s website, charlottesvilleschools.org, and are shared on social media.
Before winter break, the team put out a calendar of activities for students to do each day they were out of school.
“Some were reading stories, some were doing activities, but there was something for every day while the children are home and it was all linked to learning in some way,” Johnson said.
Johnson and Coleman said that while they spearhead engagement efforts, everyone in the division needs to be involved in building relationships with students and families.
“It cannot just be the two of us,” she said. “We are a team, but it cannot be our job for all of our families. It’s important for all of us to build relationships and form those strong partnerships. We all want students to succeed.”
Moving forward, they want to expand the training for staff on family engagement because not everyone knows how to build those connections.
“That’s where we come in,” Johnson said. “Based on our book studies and things like that, we have an idea of what really good family engagement looks like.”
That include families having resources readily available to them, teachers regularly talking to families and that school events are linked to learning and have something for every child.
Future plans include having a specialist for at least every elementary school; however, Coleman noted that engagement is important at the middle and high school levels, as well.