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Mel Gravely

Setting the Standard for Parent Engagement

In a blog titled “What School Systems Can Learn from Head Start about Family Engagement,” Director of the Office Head Start, Dr. Deborah Bergeron, says that Head Start takes the traditional public school model “school serves child” and flips it to ”families collaborate with schools.” It’s this model of collaboration, she argues, that builds strong, thriving families that lasts long after the students leave the school system. 

We think that school systems can learn a lot from the Head Start model. For decades, Head Start has been inviting families into the educational process, truly embracing the idea that parents are a child’s first and most important teacher. Head Start has fully established parent roles and responsibilities for participation in the program’s governance. It also involves parents as classroom volunteers and leaders in supporting parent-sponsored activities and conducts home visits to support school and home learning connections. 

In an article for School Administrator magazine, Dr. Bergeron says she believes that a parent’s involvement in his or her child’s education will make or break a student’s success and is key to making sure every young learner graduates. As a former school administrator, she’s seen both the public school system and the Head Start system..

“As I reflect on the work from that period,” she writes, “I recognize parents, not just educators, were always part of the solution.” 

For example, she thinks back on the students who decided to drop out of school but then went on to earn their diploma years later, and the role that their families played in that path.

“I think of Mario, a non-English-speaking newcomer at age 17,” she reflects, “who finally graduated high school at almost 22. His mom was with him every step of the way.” 

Head Start staff are trained from day one to be more comfortable with parents and to see parent collaboration as a way of supporting the children they serve. They understand that prioritizing families can make teaching easier. For example, addressing issues such as family wellness will result in students showing up more eager to learn. 

Data from the Head Start Impact Study shows that increased parent interaction leads to things such as parents reading to their children more often and increased likelihood to set additional rules regarding TV watching. Further, they showed that these factors endured long after the child left the program.

The secret is that prioritizing families will result in a wonderfully broad coalition of parents who trust and support the work of the school, become advocates and collaborate with teachers to ensure their children are successful. This results in children being more likely to graduate from high school, earn advanced degrees and gain employment.

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