Families learned how to support their students at home and in school during a family symposium at the John Stanford Center. Photo by Susie Fitzhugh

Families learned how to support their students at home and in school during a family symposium at the John Stanford Center. Photo by Susie Fitzhugh

More than 40 years of research has shown that when families are engaged inside and outside of the classroom, students are more likely to get better grades, graduate on time and head to college, regardless of their income level, according to the Washington State PTA.

In Magnolia, parents, volunteers and teachers are working hard to see that their families are engaged in their children’s education. Catharine Blaine K-8 School (2550 34th Ave. W) is taking initiative to implement the Family Engagement Action Team (FEAT), a mandated program aimed at building a collaborative environment for parents to ensure their student’s academic success.


Unique to individual schools

There are currently 41 public schools with an established FEAT. The teams consist of family members, students, principals or administrators, community members and teachers. Each team creates and follows a School Family Partnership One-Year Plan, which is designed to meet the specific needs of their school. FEATs meet on a monthly basis to discuss progress and ideas and to plan for upcoming events. 

Margo Siegenthaler, the School Family Partnerships Outreach and Training Specialist for Seattle Public Schools (SPS), said, “One of the issues that FEATs usually address is how to make the school more welcoming to all families.”

Of the current 41 FEATs, each one is unique to the school it belongs to. According to Siegenthaler, each team “should represent the families of the students in the school. Each school has its own culture; FEATs in elementary, middle and high school look different. Strategies are different. Early on, families are learning how to navigate the school system. Later, they need to help their children prepare for college and career.”

Each FEAT works alongside a Family Connector. Family Connectors are trained volunteers who act as liaisons between families and SPS. Parents or community members interested in fulfilling this role are required to take a 10-week training program at Seattle University. Volunteers not only learn how to effectively communicate and collaborate with families, but they also are trained to understand and interpret student, school and district data.

Lisa Reibin Evans and PTA legislative chairperson Kara Beckman are the Family Connectors for Blaine. According to Evans, “Blaine is one of the first schools in our cluster to implement FEAT primarily because Kara and I had taken the Connector/facilitator piece and were eager to see the implementation of this mandated program at our school.”


An evolving program

The concept of FEAT took off when the Seattle School Board established the Family Engagement Policy 4129 and Procedures 4129 in 2004. The Family Engagement Procedure defined “family engagement” as “the collaborative interaction between educators and families in activities that promote student learning and positive child and youth development at home, in school and in the community.”

The School Family Partnerships Plan was also adopted in 2004. It is a researched-based model that is revised yearly. It includes the Family Engagement ideals and objectives that are based on the framework of Joyce L. Epstein’s “Six Types of Involvement,” which includes student learning, families support of their students, communication at school and home, a welcoming environment at school, school decision-making and advocacy, and community collaboration. It also includes the implementation of Family Engagement Action Teams. 

Evans has seen the success of other schools involved in family engagement, such as Mercer Middle School on Beacon Hill. “Schools such as Mercer Middle School…,who were one of the first to pilot this program (before it was recognized as FEAT), went from a once-struggling and often considered failing school with a community that felt unsupported and abandoned…[to] a school whose test scores now regularly outperform other city schools with equal ethnic and socioeconomic diversity.” 

While Blaine’s FEAT is still getting put together, Evans encourages parents, staff and the community to use this time to attend FEAT meetings. At FEAT meetings, parents and community members listen to guest speakers discuss topics like education, legislation and family engagement.


Success, but more to be done

As for upcoming meetings, Evans said SPS Research, Evaluation and Assessment manager Eric Anderson will return to discuss student-specific assessments, such as MAP, as well as School Board representative Michael DeBell. Also, a representative from the state’s Ombudsman’s Office has been asked to speak about the legislative process as it relates to education.”

Backers of the FEAT program believe family and community engagement in education will increase students’ chances for a better life and future. “Schools and communities can only benefit when successful dialogue and partnership between parents, staff, community and students are fostered and are collaborative,” Evans said. 

Blaine’s FEAT is a major step forward for family and community engagement in the Magnolia neighborhood. “We have seen a lot of success,” Siegenthaler said. “Whereas many schools had small interest and attendance at family events previously, many of our schools have a lot of family participation. Family Math, Family Literacy and many other events are great learning celebrations at many schools. Our district still has a lot of children who are struggling as students, and we have still have a long way to go.”