Communications, Research, Transparency, Trust

Interview: How Leaders in the Nation’s Capital Make Parent Engagement Possible

Interview: How Leaders in the Nation’s Capital Make Parent Engagement Possible

Washington, D.C. is working to be transparent and build trust by proactively and continuously engaging families in the creation of its new school report card. The Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), in partnership with trusted community-based organizations, has engaged with over 4,000 community voices throughout the city, over 70 percent of which were parents. We interviewed Chloe Woodward-Magrane, deputy director of Communications at OSSE, to learn more about how this work emerged and the lessons learned for other states looking to improve stakeholder engagement.

Why did OSSE leaders prioritize such robust stakeholder engagement?

Ultimately, the DC school report card is a tool for families to explore and engage more deeply with all public schools in the District of Columbia. We were clear from the beginning that we would only be successful if we built a website that was truly useful for parents and families in DC. Given that goal, robust, authentic stakeholder engagement was non-negotiable. Instead of asking communities in DC for feedback at only one point during website development, we included multiple rounds of feedback throughout the process of developing the website, asking families for feedback about report card content, layout, and word choice and terminology. We wanted to hear as many voices as possible and made an intentional effort to reach out to diverse communities who have historically had less input in education decision-making, including families of students with disabilities and English-learner families. We are grateful to the thousands of families and community members who took the time to share their opinions and questions over a year of engagement.

How did the engagement this time differ from past engagement efforts?

As the state education agency for the District of Columbia, OSSE has often approached engagement through our primary stakeholders at DC Public Schools, charter organizations, the DC Public Charter School Board, early childhood providers, and other government organizations – not with parents and families directly. We faced a challenge when first developing the report card because we did not have a broad network of families and communities in place, or a way of reaching them directly. Our approach to this problem was to partner with local community-based organizations that either focus their work on family engagement, or have strong family networks in the communities we were aiming to reach. We also had an incredible partner in DC’s State Board of Education and their ESSA Taskforce, a group of 20 community advocates and parents from across the city. Through these partnerships, we were able to reach community members that would not have heard from us if we had stuck to our previous approach.

This level of engagement takes significant resources (e.g. time, money, political will). Why should other states invest in this work? What’s the value?

State education agencies should be at the forefront of helping families to understand how schools are doing, and the report cards all states are developing under ESSA are an important part of that work. While just launched in early December 2018, we believe that the engagement we did with families builds a foundation for helping them to use the information included to learn more about schools in DC and to engage more deeply with their child’s current school. First, the interests and needs of families themselves informed how it was built and have led to a more user-friendly tool. Second, families are also more likely to have heard about the new site through the opportunities for engagement and therefore more likely to use it. Engaging with families about the creation of DC’s school report card is just the beginning – the work that comes next is working alongside families to help them understand how their child’s school is doing and to better equip them to advocate on behalf of their children and their community.

If you had one piece of advice for other states thinking about stakeholder engagement strategies, what would it be? 

Figure out how to meet families where they are. For example, in DC we knew that one of our major strategies for stakeholder engagement in previous efforts – a nighttime community meeting – was valuable for some, but missed a large group of families who didn’t have the time or resources to make it in person, or who did not speak English. We included multiple ways of providing feedback across our engagement efforts, including in person and online in multiple languages, but also quick opportunities such as on-the-ground canvassing that allowed us to reach people who were not already tuned into this type of effort. We broadened our engagement by building soup-to-nuts toolkit for each phase of engagement and empowered school leaders and community advocates to run engagement sessions on their own. For in-person sessions, we provided printing, food, and child care for attendees. In short, we did everything we could to make it easy to give feedback.

To learn more about other states leading the way in data use and how your state can do the same, check out Time to Act 2018.