When my district, Charles City Public Schools (CCPS), created our strategic plan, we established “Community Investment in Public Schools” as one of our five core goals. As a small, rural school system with a staff of about 145 serving 719 students in two schools, we feel that strong relationships with our students’ families is essential to our students’ success.

Data Poor with Little Internet Access

Before we could set out to improve our community’s engagement with our schools, we needed to know families’ perceptions about the school division and their attitudes about engaging with their children’s schools. We realized that we needed baseline data collected through a family survey that is aligned with our strategic plan. At the same time, we also gathered feedback from students and teachers and staff using surveys designed to surface and understand their perspectives about school.

This was the first time our division had taken on family perception research of this magnitude, so we started out “data poor” when it came to stakeholder feedback. Our families have always been willing to communicate, but the challenge was to capture that information when only 40–50 percent of our community has internet access. Pushing something out over email alone was not going to reach the number and mix of households we wanted, so in early 2016 we sent out paper copies of a family survey that we had developed with Panorama Education.

Identifying Next Steps with ‘Glows’ and ‘Grows’

Last summer, with our first round of feedback data from students, parents, and teachers in hand, our next step was to find a way to evaluate that data.

I wanted to make sure staff were engaged and energized by learning from the community’s feedback, rather than seeing it as “another thing” on their plates. First, we made sure all of our teachers and staff could access the data through Panorama. Then, we asked teachers and staff to bring their tablets to an all-staff session where we all logged into the platform. Teachers and staff broke out into groups, and each group was tasked with looking at a different aspect of the feedback.

To focus our efforts to understand what the data are telling us and how to define next steps, I asked everyone to identify one “glow” and one “grow” within the data. The idea of “glows and grows” is to boil a great deal of information down to a relatable level.

A “glow” is a bright spot we should call out as a strength and continue to nurture. A “grow” is an area where if we focus on improving, we stand to make important gains. I didn’t want to anchor our thinking around challenges, but rather places where we can make great gains by growing and improving.

The beauty of “glows and grows” is that it’s so accessible. After that first session, our teachers and staff came away with lots of tangible things they could tease out of the data. One example of this was in the area of family engagement, taking us right back to the goals in our strategic plan.

(Next page: How the district boosted parental engagement)

Increasing Family Engagement

In our first survey, parents gave feedback that they felt very connected to the school division and to their students’ learning. In fact, 85 percent of CCPS parents said they talked about school with their children each day. We found that parents were doing a lot at home to support their kids’ education. We had had a hunch that this would be the case, but we were surprised by the high numbers. We definitely considered this a “glow.”

In CCPS (as in any school district), though, there are always barriers to family engagement to overcome. The first “grow” that we pulled out of the survey data was that parents didn’t feel they had a lot of time to be engaged at school—but other data points told us that they wanted to be engaged with their children’s schools.

One simple solution was to look at different times to schedule events to make them easier for parents to attend. For example, Friday night is typically seen as off-limits for school events, but this year we had a movie night with popcorn, and it was a big success in terms of family turnout. We have also held events where we provide dinner, since that’s a time when families are already together. We have seen a clear uptick in parents attending meetings based on these scheduling changes.

Fall Festival CCES 2017.

Another successful event was Superhero Reading and Math Night. To get into the spirit, teachers dressed as superheroes all week, and we had an event later in the week where students chose a superpower (reading or math), wore masks, and showed their parents what they could do.

We are constantly providing parents tools to help them understand what their children are learning, so they can be more effective at home.

Looking forward to our next round of data-gathering later this year, we are shooting for an even higher response rate and even more representative data from our community. It helps that we’ve already done one survey, so parents will be expecting the next one. The partnership is there, and our stakeholders have seen that we respond to what they tell us.

In Charles City Public Schools, our work is never finished. We are on a journey of establishing a strong culture of continuous improvement, and our biggest “grow” is to take the sort of improvement we’ve seen in family engagement and make it the norm.

About the Author:

David W. Gaston has served as a classroom teacher, elementary, middle, and high school assistant principal and principal, and central office administrator with the York County School Division, Hampton City Schools, and Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools for the past 24 years before being named the Division Superintendent for Charles City Public Schools in Charles City, VA.