Welcome advocates to another episode of the Leading Equity Podcast, a podcast that focuses on supporting educators with the tools and resources necessary to ensure equity at their schools. Today, I'm doing a very special episode. This is a live recording with a really good friend of mine, I am so excited to bring her on. We're fellow cancers, we just had our birthdays not too long ago to represent the cancer. If you're into astrology that's your thing or not, but it is what it is. I want to bring on a very special guest, Dr. Rosa Isaiah Perez is here with us today. So without further ado, Rosa, thank you so much for joining us.
You are welcome. And I just want you to know that we're both cancers, but I'm probably about 10 to 15 years ahead of you, more older. So happy belated birthday.
Thank you. Thank you. Same to you as well. Now we're going to get into our topic, which is parent engagement. Again, we're going to try to provide some specific strategies, but for those who do not know who you are, I would love for you to share a little bit about yourself and what you currently do?
Sure. I'm beginning my 28th year as an educator. And I'm recording from work so if you hear some sounds out there, you know what that's about. This is my 28th year and I've held a number of positions. I love education. I came to this country as a child, four years old. I'm an English learner. Grew up in poverty, had some challenges. And am a first-generation college graduate. And once I started, I couldn't stop. It took me a long time to get my bachelor's degree almost seven years. But once I did, I knew that I would eventually work on my doctorate. So I have a doctorate in educational leadership for social justice.
And I am here because of people like you, because of people that made a difference for me and for my families. So this is an important topic. I am an author, I am a consultant in addition to being director of 17 elementary schools, equity and access in California. So I live the work, I read the work, I write the work and I'm learning every day. So I'm delighted to be here with you.
And you're also podcaster as well, do you want to share your podcast?
Yes, I also, I mean, not like you friend, but I do have a podcast, it's WeleadED. And let me share a little bit about that podcast. So about 10 years ago, I jumped into social media and I thought... Okay I had heard from friends educators who said this is a great place to communicate with other people, learn from others it truly has been. Being a connected educator and leader has changed my life. So when I started, I was jumping on chats, and if you participate in chats, usually there's a hashtag that you follow, people connect every other week, once a month on a topic.
And no one was talking about social justice through that lens or leadership through the lens of equity and social justice. And people talked about what it felt like to me was a romanticized version of what teaching and leading was. And I decided like many other things in my life I'm just going to create my own, I'm going to do my own. And so I started hashtag WeleadED, which led to connecting with other people and starting my podcast. So I've had the pleasure of talking to a number of people around what our roles and responsibilities are when it comes to leadership and equity. So love it. And I can share that link with you all before we wrap up today.
Most definitely, and I'll put it in the show notes as well for the episodes. And I've had the pleasure of being on the show as well. So I appreciate you just again for the collegiality and being able to just talk and see how things are going in your neck of the woods and same, and it's always a pleasure. So I wanted to bring you on for today's topic, because I knew you were the one to talk to about this subject about parent engagement. And we're going to talk from a district level first, all right? We want to start thinking about if I am a school district and let's just say I've had a history of trying to get more of our families of color involved in the school district and maybe even at the local level at the schools, but it's just been a challenge, what would be maybe a place to start in order to try to get more engagement from our parents?
I have to say parent engagement is one of those things that we are consistently and constantly working on and trying to figure out how to best not only involve our families, but engage our families. And it can look very different at the district level than it does at the site level. At the district level, as a matter of fact, that is one of the things that I support is parent engagement. And parent engagement through a pandemic interestingly enough has been better. And by that, I mean, this whole idea of Zoom and connecting has made life easier and participation easier for many of our families who were not able to do that in the past.
The most challenging pieces were the technical pieces like translations. The focus that we took through the pandemic was a focus of learning of closing that gap because parents had to figure out what Zoom was especially in the community that I work predominantly community of color with a high number of parents who are English learners. And so we had to try to bridge that gap, high numbers of students in poverty. And while it made it easier for our families to connect, we had to figure out that piece translation.
So for us, our top languages are Korean and Spanish. But once we manage that piece and we're able to ensure that we had translation available at our meetings, parents were very thankful that they had those options. And if they were unable to participate, that we were able to record and post on our websites or post on our school websites and share information in that way. It was harder definitely to feel that connection because you're behind a screen and sometimes unable to see the other person, but our participation numbers greatly increased.
And it was all around how to support your student with mental health, with wellness, how to support your students with logging in and participating in class, general parenting classes, but also empowering our parents and helping them through a year full of loss, whether it was personal loss deaths in the family, or just feeling the impacts of change during the pandemic? So from a district level that's the perspective over the last year and a half to two years is being able to do that. We were unable to meet with our families in person just because of our guidelines in California and our county office and all of those pieces.
All right. I like where this conversation is headed. Okay. Here's the other thing I want to pitch out to you Rosa, because I heard you say involve, I heard you say engage. And I think one of the things that we do need to kind of discuss is what does that mean? Well, because sometimes people interchange both of those words. But my understanding and from the research that I've gotten and conversations I've had, they're not the same, involvement and engagement are two different things. What is your perspective on it?
Absolutely. I was a principal for seven years and assistant principal for two years. And as someone who grew up in poverty with parents who could not participate, I felt it was my responsibility to try to figure out ways to get more parents to participate. Let me share a story. When I became a teacher 28 years ago, we had an amazing small group of consistent parent volunteers. And most of those parents did not speak English. And I remember we had a principal who welcomed them, of course. Their primary responsibility or support was sweeping and wiping tables after lunch. And some parents were very happy to do that, some parents believe that that is all they could contribute, I disagree with that.
But I remember one day there was definitely a leader in that group, and she came in and said we're not coming anymore. And I could translate, my principal didn't speak Spanish. So I had a conversation and I said, you know why? We love having you. And she said because we can do more than sweep, we can do more than wipe tables. In my principal's mind, that was involvement. She gave parents an opportunity to be on campus and even for many of us and for some of the parents to feel what do I have to offer? And that was heartbreaking, it really was heartbreaking, and it gave me that perspective and understanding about the difference between involvement and engagement.
Now that's a pretty obvious example, but engagement is more about partnering with your families, that they truly are partners in the learning that's happening in the community. We've talked a lot about the whole child and supporting looms and Maslow needs of our students, especially now. But I really believe that the key to the lost opportunities over the past year and a half is this concept of community schools and whole community. And so that requires us to think out-of-the box that we're inviting our families and for more than award ceremonies and more than making copies that it really is about supporting their needs whether it is learning or social emotional. Because we know that when we do that, that when we truly engage families, our students thrive, they're benefiting from that investment in the learning of our families.
So for me, that's the biggest difference involving parents, yes. We love when parents show up to celebrations and award ceremonies and all of those great things. We also want our parents to come in and learn with us and learn what our students are learning and providing strategies to build their own capacity as parents and leaders in our community.
Okay. You're on fire right now, Rosa. So here's the next question that I have, right? Because I love the example that you said, you know what? We can do more than just wipe tables. We have a skill set that if you would just tap into it you would just discover the amazing things that a lot of our parents could do. And I think that's very important. However, we do have a lot of leadership that they're doing the best they can and even teachers, I would say where it's all I want you to do is just come in here and read the kids a story, and that's it you're involved in, or you're engaged.
So I want to ask you this question, as far as the partnership piece that you mentioned because I think that's very important. Let's just say if I have, historically, when I say historically, I mean, not generationally, but maybe just I've gone to school a few times and I didn't feel welcomed. I've gone just to ask help for my child who might've been in our special ed program had an IEP, and I couldn't seem to get the results that I was seeking, or I didn't understand the meeting that I was attending. And they were using words that I just didn't understand or the jargon it just wasn't at my level.
And I've had instance after instance, after instance where I felt I was mistreated, maybe I felt as if there was a level of transparency that wasn't provided and stuff would just I had no clue that the curriculum was going to change or just whatever situation. Or maybe I was a student at the school and I didn't have a good experience as a student, and now here I am as an adult, I'm still in the same district, what are some ways that we can reengage those families, those parents, those community members who have left for whatever reason they have left the school district, or did not quote-unquote engage anymore, what are some ways that we can try to re-engage them back into our communities?
I'm going to come back to that because I wanted to clear something up. Coming in and having parents read is phenomenal. So I don't want anybody to walk away thinking that that's not okay, or that parents who want to come in and make copies and help in the primary grades and cut out stem cells, that's a step, right? And that's okay. And the work behind that is empowering our families to understand that they can do more and creating opportunities so that they can read and they can come and learn together. So I wanted to clear that up.
But how do we re-engage... Oh, my gosh, where do I begin with this? I'll begin with a story. As a third grader, I remember sitting in class and I was that kid who would translate for my parents. And I hated missing school, but sometimes I had to because my mom had a doctor's appointment or they had some official business and I was the third-grade translator, that's just how it worked. But I remember overhearing my teacher say she's really smart, but her parents don't care. They're here, they never come to any meetings, they don't participate in anything.
And I remember feeling embarrassed and angry and feeling powerless because I wanted to say to them you don't know my parents, and if they miss work they're going to be replaced. My family is undocumented, my parents don't get vacation days or sick days, it's just not the way it works. And there's a lot of us at home that needs shelter and food. So that stayed with me as a teacher. And more than anything, what it taught me is I needed to know who my community was? I needed to know who my parents were as a teacher, as an administrator? And I needed to understand their stories and their struggles because it directly impacted the student in the seat in my classroom.
And so understanding who your community is, and understanding systemic inequities and systemic racism and understanding what certain marginalized groups have gone through, people in poverty, students of color, language learners gives you those initial understandings that you need to build those relationships. My husband is a perfect example, he had a horrible experience as a student at hate school. Going in to an appointment or a meeting for one of our kids, still rock some a little bit. And so understanding that about historically marginalized communities that may be the relationship has not been healthy or transparent and that actions are really what speak volumes.
And it takes time, it takes authenticity, it takes vulnerability and it takes time. And it takes some self-awareness. And by that, I mean, what are your beliefs about your community? What is your bias about certain groups? Because we all have them. We all have misconceptions, stereotypes, biases about someone's ability or willingness to engage, not knowing the story. And I'm sorry if you're an educator or a leader, it is your responsibility to know the story, that's part of the work. If you truly want to create changes, you can't get around that. It can't be well kind of "Oh, I taught it, they didn't learn it. I sent home an invitation, they don't respond." It is one of those things that is our responsibility and that we have to keep working on.
But that mirror check as I like to call it and being able to begin with self and develop some awareness around, do I truly want these parents here in my room? And if the answer is no then figuring out why? For me as a principal, the hardest thing for my teachers was communicating with parents. There was this fear that I could not understand. And I had to make peace with that because for me, it came very naturally. And maybe it was my lived experiences that made it easier for me to be able to connect in that way. And I'm not saying it was all butterflies and unicorns, there were a couple of parents that I dealt with differently than I dealt with others, but not before I made attempts and provided supports.
But I think really that work on self is really when you look at repairing relationships. I like to think of our schools as the heart of the community. And my goal was to create that space, a place where students felt safe, but so did our families. And that meant investing in that kind of community. So mental health specialists, full-time social worker at my site, partnerships with communities. We have 10 counselors per semester offered classes to parents because that was taboo. Like I'm not going to send my kids to school and he's not telling our business, that is our business. We had to change mindsets.
And I was a principal for seven years, and that is how long it took before we got to that place where parents felt safe, where they would come in and say, I need help. And even if we didn't have the answers they knew that we would connect them to community that could provide answers. But we had those conversations about our beliefs, about our community and some real honest conversations. I had a colleague who said I don't call Black moms because all they do is protect their sons and they're never willing to hear me. Now she said some other things that I don't agree with. But I thought to myself, "Wow, you don't reach out to your Black moms because you think you've already determined that every Black parent in your community all they do is make excuses and protect their sons?"
And so clearly she needed to do some work and understanding and repairing that relationship. But her community didn't feel comfortable coming here because those beliefs translated into behaviors. And so that self work is so important, that whole community work is so important. And if you want to begin to re-engage, then you have to conduct a clear audit of what those issues are. And that has to begin not how to fix the student or the parent, that has to begin with yourself and actions, your programs, what you're investing in? What supports you have for families? When and how you communicate with families?
And it will take time, but it can happen, it really can happen. If parents feel you are real and genuine, even when you don't have the answers, they will support you and they will understand. And we got to a place where I had key parents come in and say, this is happening in the community, or this is what we're hearing, or Dr. Isaiah this program is being offered, but this is how some of us feel. You want to get to that level of authenticity and trust. And I had other parents that didn't love me, those parents had my back. I was in some really tough situations, face-to-face situations where literally parents came, tapped me on the shoulder and said we're right here. That kind of authenticity.
I wasn't perfect, our teachers were not perfect, we made mistakes, but when we made the mistakes, we acknowledged them and we apologized and we worked to do better. We are serving our community and serving our students. So there is no magic bullet, it is be real, be genuine, know your community, apologize when you make mistakes. All of the things that we do to sustain healthy relationships, that's what we have to do with our families. Relationships matter, they make the world of difference.
The overarching theme that I'm hearing, especially when we're talking about re-engaging, our families, but I think it applies in general when we're thinking about the engagement piece in general is trust. Your community, your families, your parents, your students, right? We want them to trust us. How do we help them gain that trust in us? Well, authenticity, right? Those are the things that you're saying. And it sounds very simple, right? That's if we were checkbox people and we just said, "Okay, here's the top three things that you need to do, develop a relationship, build some trust and you're good to go." If it was that simple, you know what I'm saying?
But unfortunately we want results to happen overnight, we expect these things to show up, "Oh, last year or last semester, you know what? There's a lot of stuff that's happened over years." It didn't just happen overnight for them to feel the way that they feel, maybe it did take a few years for them to stop trusting the district or stop trusting the school. So do we really think it's fair or reasonable that that will turn around within a short period of time? Or does it make more sense that, you know what? We need to be patient and we need to consider what it's going to take some time for us to get that trust back.
Absolutely. The other piece that I wanted to highlight also is this concept of funds of knowledge and tapping into that. And by that, I mean, everyone has something to offer. Our communities have traditions, celebrations, experiences. Those are funds of knowledge that can contribute that you can use as you connect to leverage your connections with families. But again, that takes trust and relationships if it means starting with one, and it if means starting with two. And parents talk, of course, they talk and they'll blast you on Facebook in a quick minute, but they will also celebrate you on Facebook in a quick minute.
And once you start building on that and people can see it, they want to see proof, they want to see evidence, evidence that it's not lip service, evidence that they're part of the conversation. And that they're invited to the table that you're not just asking for volunteers when you need a few parent reps for your school site council, or your title one plan that you genuinely want to bring them to the table. And that could be an example I can think of is interviews. In California, depending on what district you are, those may look differently, but in many, many districts, in many, many schools, parents are part of that team.
So who are you bringing to the table? Who are you hiring? Do parents really feel like their voice matters, or are we just checking off a box for compliance or are we truly taking their conversations and their feedback into account? You have to treat parent engagement and the work of parent engagement as seriously as you do the development of language arts rubrics, you have to monitor, you have to have systems in place. You have to collect data. You cannot argue with that data piece and constantly monitoring and getting information from parents.
It doesn't have to be long and complicated, it could be consistency in climate, culture, needs. What do your children need? What are you seeing your child has the most trouble with? What can we do around blah, blah, blah, to support you? For me, it was math. My parents hated the new math. In California we teach the standards, the California State standards, and it does not look like anything that some of our parents did. I had a grandparent remember that, grandparents who were raising their kids, their kids' kids. And we called him grumpy grandpa because he came in complaining about math all the time.
So what did we do? We partnered with UCLA Math Project. We invested in providing math standard classes for parents, and he was right there. Grumpy grandpa was there every Thursday for those eight weeks when we offered insight, and how can you support your child and what our standards and why do we have them? And what do we expect from children? And when he saw that math is all around you, and when you go to the market or when you're doing laundry at home and doing all these things, you're doing that, you're critically thinking grumpy grandpa was not so grumpy all the time. So that was one parent, one grandparent that we were able to win over to partner with, to educate and celebrate and empower. And he felt empowered in the lives of his grandkids and their education.
And that's just one example I could imagine you have you could rattle off even more if we had the time. And I think just those little moments, and like you said, folks talk, right? So maybe grumpy grandpa is no longer grumpy and whatever the opposite of grumpy is glad grandpa, I don't know whatever it is. And so now he's telling his colleagues, he's telling his friends the rest of the community, he's sharing his experience, think about how that can spread over time. And again, when we're thinking about, you know what? We are in a situation where we want to re-engage our families. Yeah, it's going to take some time, but those little ripple moments can cause such a huge splash if we're just patient with it?
And Sheldon, I was just thinking about this, you're bringing back memories and now I want to go and be a principal again. But ultimately our goal is the same as our parent's goal. And that is that we want our students to learn and we want them to be successful and prepared for life. And what I started to see is the enrollment at our school site for African-American families was double and triple than it was in other schools. And my superintendent is like, "Ooh, what's happening here?" Our achievement levels on an annual test are as back reflected the growth for specific student groups. And that was the growth for English learners and the growth for African American students, which is not the pattern in California and probably across the nation. But parents were telling each other about just feeling they could be part of that school community. And that wasn't me, that was our entire staff. So we worked on that culture.
There were certain things that as a leader I said we don't tolerate that, we don't do that, this is what we do for kids. So people who worked in our community knew this is what we're about, all means all. And so slowly chipping away at that and protecting that culture, our parents realized that they could achieve and our enrollment increased at our school. And the big question was why? Why? Well, because we invested in our families and we authentically connected with our families. And even though we felt giving up and we were sad when we got 10 parents at that one NAF parent night, we kept at it, we kept pushing and we kept at it and we were honest and real. And just try to create as many opportunities for them to connect with us and for us to connect with them.
Rosa, it's always a pleasure to talk with you, and I definitely consider you have providing a voice and leading the equity. What is one final word of advice that you can share with our listeners?
Gosh, one final word is maybe two. There is no magic bullet, be real and be open to looking in the mirror and seeing what you can do, what changes needed with yourself or your school community that you can work on together to really engage more families?
If we have some folks that want to connect with you, what's the best way to reach out online?
Email, social media. I'm typing my Twitter handle here and my email address, I would be happy to share anything I can share with you. But don't give up, that's all I can say. Families know, communities know, they know where they're welcome and wanted, and they know who is just all talk. And if you want to get from knowing, learning to actually doing you just got to do it, you just got to do the work.
You just got to do the work and be patient.
Yeah, be patient.
All right. Well, Rosa, thank you again for your time, it's always a pleasure.
My pleasure, friend.
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