Lee County Prioritizes Family Engagement on Multiple Tracks

By: | 04/26/2021
Categories: Distance Learning, Leadership

Family involvement has always been crucial to student success. This past school year had districts thinking differently about family outreach, whether it was discussing classroom content or personalized instruction goals. Florida's Lee County provides an exemplar of how flexible school communication, student-led conferences, and family engagement can improve student proficiency.

Districtwide and School Based: Lee County Prioritizes Family Engagement on Multiple Tracks

Family engagement is a top priority for southwest Florida’s Lee County School District. Over the course of the pandemic, the district’s exemplary strategies for communicating with families about classroom learning have been on full display. Leading the charge on these efforts is Dr. Bethany Quisenberry, director of elementary curriculum, whose planning and coalition building around engagement efforts have contributed significantly to the district’s success, including their use of i-Ready during the remote-learning period. By pairing a district-level program called Parent University with school-based efforts such as student-led conferences, Lee County has increased family support, student ownership of learning, and overall achievement.

At the District Level: Parent University Improves Communication at Scale

Early in the current academic year, the district’s communications department launched Parent University, a monthly TV newscast-style video program. The hour-long program airs online the first Thursday of the month and is then posted to the website and pushed out via social media channels. Whether communicating COVID-19–related information, instructional updates, or expectations around the i-Ready Diagnostic, Parent University first and foremost aims to give families timely information and insights to play an active role in their student’s academic life.

“We felt that we needed to provide additional communication to our families for how the i-Ready Diagnostic could work effectively,” shared Quisenberry, reflecting on the district’s thoughtful changes during the pandemic.

The district recognizes the importance of providing families with information on what they should be looking for at home and how their child is progressing through i-Ready. This understanding led to a recent Parent University segment discussing how students take their Diagnostic, what the Diagnostic report looks like for families, and how to locate it within the student portal.

“We also went through the students’ goals [in the segment] to show what families should be looking for as far as minutes per week, passing rate, and upcoming lessons,” adds Quisenberry.

Given the novelty of families seeing the i-Ready Diagnostic in action, this was important information to communicate. To make sure teachers receive reliable data on students’ current proficiency level, in turn helping the teacher know what to focus on in instruction, it’s important that students complete the Diagnostic unassisted. This can be understandably difficult when families feel the urge to help, so communicating what to expect and how to be helpful, along with things to avoid, can relieve some of the pressure and uncertainty among families and ensure educators have an accurate understanding of their students.

The Parent University segment covering i-Ready provided families with knowledge of the right questions to ask. The district also set up easy access for families to review their child’s i-Ready dashboard to track progress. All monthly Parent University recordings are also distributed to schools, providing another avenue to make sure they’re accessible and visible to families.

“Some schools post on their website, some post in their Google Classrooms, and others do even additional steps in providing opportunities during their [video] calls and student-led conferences,” says Quisenberry.

At the School Level: Student-Led Conferences Increase Ownership

Quarterly family involvement is key to the district’s Title I requirement. Historically, during a “normal” school year, student-led conferences would occur at the end of the semester, bringing families into the physical school environment. But this year, the district is using a different twist.

“We decided this year to go ahead and attempt a student-led conference at the semester mark using [videoconferencing],” says Jackson Morgan, principal of Lehigh Elementary. “It offered a level of flexibility that we hadn't necessarily experienced in years past.”

Schools provide take-home questions for students based on strengths and goals, guided by i-Ready post-assessment literature and teacher-formed questionnaires. The students are given the responsibility of graphing their baseline and midyear goals, which brings more ownership to the process. Students are then sent home with a second set of questions specifically for families to create a family–child dialogue, with family and child asked to work together to answer, make a plan, and send it back to the school.

The results have been tremendous. “Parents gave great feedback, often talking about how proud they were of their child and how they were able to see the strategies that their child may struggle with or the areas working well,” explains Morgan. “It was quite eye-opening, and to be honest, it might be the new way that we conduct student-led conferences [permanently] because of the flexibility.”

In the last round of conferences, families and students were given a week and a half to record feedback and then share it on a live video call. Throughout this process, the district has noticed students taking more ownership of their learning. Families are now able to ask their child questions to learn more, rather than relying only on the teacher for communication.

Progress and Increased Family Engagement

As with student learning, families increase their engagement and buy-in in correlation with the communication and information they receive. Now in its third year with i-Ready, Lee County is starting to experience the significant positive results of effective engagement.

COVID-19 created many restrictions, but it eventually led to the adoption of new strategies that birthed undeniably positive results. Students who may not have taken the Diagnostic seriously in past years are now involved in meaningful discussion with their families and are exhibiting much more ownership of the process. Increased attention, focus, and accountability have led to enhanced proficiency.

Summarizing how it all fits together, Morgan points to the importance of communication across the board. Often there is a need to address pushback from families and teachers who have become accustomed to other measurement tools that provide inflated scores not commensurate with ability.

According to Morgan, it takes a solid commitment to keep the bar high.

“One of the things about i-Ready overall is the level of rigor it provides students, and that can be a shock to families,” says Morgan. “We're trying to get across where a child starts and where a child ends and look at the growth instead of necessarily looking at the grades. Rigor is okay, and over time, students will get there.”

With the intentional approach they’ve taken, Lee County School District is seeing students “get there” rapidly.

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Shenique Mens-Smith

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