Families must be deeply engaged to ensure students’ success
When Errika Moore uses the term “family,” she’s not just referring to parents or even just people who are blood-related to a child. Instead, Moore, a leader of the Atlanta STEAM Ecosystem, knows that the term ‘family’ has to be loosely interpreted if students are going to be well-served.
“The family structure has evolved to include the many different types of people who all work to support a student,” she said. “Whatever the family structure is for that student, we invite them in and ask them to be a part of the process or opportunity that we’re bringing to bear.”
The Atlanta STEAM Ecosystem is guided by a strong understanding of the powerful role that family engagement plays in students’ learning experiences – especially with underserved or underrepresented students.
Moore has an entire library of examples that illustrate why family engagement is critical.
Changing the trajectory of an entire family
Consider the story of a young man who was an academic superstar. He excelled at everything and was given a full-ride to Stanford University. The problem? His family didn’t want him to leave the Atlanta area for college.
“He was valedictorian of his class at an all black, male high school. He received a full scholarship from Stanford, as well as the Gates Millennium Scholarship. So, basically, he was paid on top of paid. But because he was from a community that had always kept their children close, his parents were unwilling to let him go to Stanford in California.”
The challenge, Moore said, was convincing his family that attending Stanford would not only change his life but his entire family’s trajectory as well.
“The reality was if they didn’t change their minds, even if he went, particularly if he went against their will, it was going to prevent him from being successful at Stanford – Not because he didn’t have the academic capacity or prowess…but because of his concern regarding his family. Making a decision that countered to their support would play out in his head daily,” she said.
A nonprofit organization worked with the family, trying to help them understand his new potential; a type of opportunity that had the prospect of helping everyone. “In essence, the challenge was that he was the first to ‘leave the nest’. And despite the increased financial gain resulting from this educational experience…this was an uncomfortable paradigm shift,” she said.
Ultimately, the young man did go to Stanford and was doing well, the last that Moore heard.
The stories that don’t end at Stanford
And then there are other stories that don’t have Stanford endings.
In fact, it’s the sheer volume of students and families who don’t understand the transformational capacity and promise of STEM that drives Moore and the Atlanta ecosystem to expand access and awareness.
“These are different learning and career pathways that we’re talking about and many families are unfamiliar with opportunities that exist. As a result, it may be difficult for family members to support this other route. How do you support something so foreign to you or something that you just don’t understand?” Moore said.
This philosophy guides the Atlanta ecosystem in striving to include families in the design of all programs.
Avoid being seen as ‘Big Brother’
Moore realizes that it’s important to strike a balance with families and not come off as “big brother” for the students. She said it is critical to give them the space and opportunity to be their “authentic selves.”
“In some instances, it may include just providing touch points to family members. For the most part, we want students to own their experiences. But through orientations, social media updates and/or weekly checkpoints, we update family members around the curriculum, the content and the experience as well,” she said.
She said it’s critical to strike the right balance between engaging families without having them become too dominant. “We don’t want the students to feel, ‘like we’re big brother,’ (i.e., reporting out to their families a ‘play-by-play’ of their daily behaviors and/or activities. We don’t want them to feel encroached upon,” she said.
Social media as a method of engagement
Moore said she and her team post frequently to social media so that families can have a virtual perspective and feel connected.
For students, the best channels are Instagram, Snapchat and/or possibly Twitter. For families, it’s Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn she explained.
Understanding systematic distrust and challenges
“Disparities in 2019 are not unfortunate but highly impactful”
Despite their success and hard work, Moore said she realizes that the families that engage with their students through the Atlanta STEAM Ecosystem initiatives are not always those most in need.
“There are families who also don’t have the capacity and/or the access to engage their students in STEM opportunities,” she said. Moore explains the barriers that exist for hard to reach families such as time, availability, transportation or even an understanding of the opportunity.
She said they work hard to eliminate barriers, including cost and transportation as much as possible. But they also understand that one of the most prevalent inhibitors can be a lack of trust in the system.
“Many underserved and underrepresented students come from communities that have engaged in systemic challenges for years. The disparities that still exist in our educational systems in 2019 are not unfortunate but highly impactful. So we can understand the ‘question mark’ that some families may have regarding goodwill and/or intent,” she said.
She explained that changing the minds of families who don’t have an interest in working with STEM is a significant struggle. “If they’ve experienced systemic disparity, distrust the system or if they don’t understand the full scope of opportunity in pursuing STEM…that’s not a mindset that will change overnight,” she said. “And I can’t say that we’ve successfully figured out how to manage these.”
Leveraging trusted organizations to build connection
Moore explained that the Atlanta Ecosystem has seen some success with partnerships with family-based organizations like Links, Jack and Jill and/or black Greek organizations.
“The trust and rapport with families already exists with these organizations so ensuring they have the resources they need to reach families is the goal of the ecosystem. Otherwise, the mindset of the family will filter down to the students,” she said.
She said this has been a prevalent and consistent conversation in several work groups in the Atlanta STEAM Ecosystem as the ecosystem works to build strategies that create trust and engagement within families.
The funding community and family engagement
When asked if funders are pleased with their family engagement efforts, Moore responded that unfortunately, not all funders understand the power of and/or the need for family engagement because it’s not a part of their personal experience or narrative.
Using the Opiod epidemic as an example, Moore explained the issue didn’t gain significant attention until it hit close to home for a variety of people.“It became an epidemic once it became personal and more real. So similarly until the power of family engagement becomes ‘real,’ it won’t be identified as ‘fundamental’ for some investors,” she said.
“And, unfortunately, if family engagement isn’t identified as a necessary element to a student’s progress, then it isn’t on the radar right now for many funders. So unless they spend a great deal of time in this space and recognize that it’s a critical success factor it simply isn’t a part of the conversation.”
It Takes A Village
TAG Education Collaborative within the Atlanta STEAM Ecosystem learned from failure what can happen when families aren’t part of the planning and implementation of a program. TAG implemented a technology and professional skills enhancement program targeting high school juniors; however, most of the juniors in the program opted out their senior year.
“When the students matriculated from their junior year to their senior year, it was critical for the family to endorse the program with their child, ensuring the student knew the program’s value. The transition period between junior and senior year represents a significant increase in competing activities. But family engagement would be a decisive factor to secure the program on a student’s list of priorities,” she said.
Moore said that was truly a lesson learned. “We’ve never made that mistake again. The reality is if we don’t have families as a part of the solution, including the planning and delivery of services…then we miss a major opportunity or even fail,” she said.