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Notes from the October 12, 2011 Networking Meeting

Dec 02, 2011  Suzanne Marten, Facilitator, Center for Educational Options

Framing the Discussion

Building community with the participants of programs is an essential part of being a quality OST program. Family involvement is an extension of that community building, and just as we work to build relationships with children and youth, we must also work to build relationships with families. While we recognize that families are busy−they have work, academic, and family responsibilities to juggle - OST programs want families to be involved in the life of the program to better serve them. The Networking meeting began from the premise that relationships are not static, but dynamic and require us to engage in a process that evolves over time. This Networking meeting focused on what strategies we can use to nourish and cultivate our relationships with families.

The structure for this meeting was laid out in stages: thinking about how participants currently engage families, articulating the values and program strengths that lend themselves to further family involvement, and developing actions participants would like to take in the coming year to further cultivate the on-going dialogue with families.

Many Avenues to Family Involvement

In order to develop a picture of what participants' programs already do to involve families, participants were asked to read the following Menu of Family Involvement. (See attachment Menu for Family Involvement) They circled the menu items that they currently engage in, and rated those items as successful or not so successful. They then shared and discussed their practices and ratings with the small group at their table.

Menu of Family Involvement

  • Potlucks, picnics, family nights—opportunities for families to get together and socialize, spend time with their children and other families and afterschool staff.
  • Art shows—opportunities for families to see their children's art work or performances. This might include talent shows.
  • Sports events or games—opportunities for families to see their children play or compete. This could include field day events where others get to participate as well.
  • Workshops—opportunities for families to learn about a topic of interest. This could be about their children's work in the afterschool program, such as learning and doing an art activity. But it could also be about a topic that families have asked to learn more about such as homework or child development and health.
  • Conversations—opportunities for staff and families to talk, for example at pick up, about activities or particular accomplishments, interests, happenings, and ideas.
  • Interviews and surveys—opportunities to learn more about families, what they value and do together, what knowledge and experience they have, what concerns they have.
  • Parent councils or advisory groups—opportunities for families to participate in program decision making, to have a voice in the program or organization.
  • Advocacy work—opportunities for families to organize around policy issues of importance to their community and the afterschool program.
  • Family volunteers—opportunities for families to lend a helping hand to support the afterschool program, including trip chaperones, support staff, administrative tasks, etc.
  • Social Services—services to support families beyond afterschool programming such as art therapy, counseling, healing circles, ESL classes, computer labs, etc.
  • Newsletters and flyers—opportunities to inform families of activities and upcoming events in the afterschool program, to make them aware of issues of importance in afterschool, education, health, and community.
  • Parent libraries—spaces and collections of materials that are useful and responsive to families' needs and interests.

Additional items added to the menu were: email blasts, alumni networks, and staff showcases. Of note were the layers of involvement—getting information out to families, showing children's and the program's work, and families doing something with or to serve and support the program.

A Case Study: Laura Paris and Coalition for Hispanic Family Services' Arts and Literacy Afterschool Program

Laura Paris, director of the Arts and Literacy afterschool program, presented the history and evolution of family involvement in her program as a way for participants to consider how they engage families and how they might improve family involvement at their programs.

Laura explained that some years ago they realized that what parents expected and wanted and what Arts and Literacy saw as their mission was at odds. Families wanted homework to be completed and the program offered some time for homework help, but their focus is developing literacy through the arts. Their belief is that academics would be supported through the arts. The program told families what they provided, but they did not have a forum other than informal discussion to articulate how they supported academics through the arts. Families naturally wanted their kids to succeed at school. In addition, families were under pressure from school to get homework done and done correctly.

From that experience, Arts and Literacy developed the idea to "train" the families in how to look at homework, how to evaluate what was good homework, and how the families could help at home. While the topic seemed appropriate only about 20 families attended these sessions. Staff knew they needed to reach more families if they were to understand Arts and Literacy's mission.

Next, they conducted a survey to learn families' interests. Questions included were: What topics for workshops would they be interested in? What did they want to learn more about? This garnered some more information, but still did not reach the level of engagement they were hoping for.

Then, Laura described an epiphany that they had - they are an arts program, they should have art shows! This idea evolved to include introductions to the art shows that explained HOW the children are engaging in reading, writing and math throughout the art projects. These were tremendously successful; most families attended and the children were very excited. They built on this by adding a workshop after the art show. These workshops engaged families in an art activity with their children so that they could experience what the children were learning and that they could also do these activities at home. ( See attached Coalition's Favorite Arts and Literacy Workshops and the example of Coalition's Family Art Night Program).

Now Arts and Literacy hosts Family Art Night every six weeks. Families really get what the program's focus is. In addition, Arts and Literacy staff have learned much more about what families are interested in and what they need.

Two major languages of CHFS families are Spanish and Chinese. Translating materials for families into Spanish and Chinese, in addition to English has been crucial to negotiating language barriers. She emphasized that getting the translation perfect was much less important that just making the effort to communicate.

In addition to these Family Art Nights, Arts and Literacy does a number of other things to involve families. Among them is a one-hour intake interview to better understand a family's needs, history, and to be able to provide social services as appropriate. The staff has been able to assess group needs through looking at the data and information gathered from intake interviews. This has led to parent groups around issues such as immigration and negotiation with teachers about appropriate homework. Laura noted that Arts and Literacy moved from a lecture approach to families to an engaging presentation and workshop format which has proven to be very successful.

Laura also discussed providing different ways to get feedback from stakeholders—the families themselves and from staff. In addition to meetings and ongoing conversations, Arts and Literacy uses a survey at the conclusion of their events. (See attached evaluation) Families are asked to complete them. While noting that they could be improved upon, they do provide valuable information to the program to make decisions about other needs of the families.

Laura invited everyone who is interested to visit a Family Art Night at Arts and Literacy.

Taking Stock of our own Programs

Using Laura's case study of the Arts and Literacy afterschool program as an example, participants were asked to respond in writing to the following questions ( See attached notes for thinking about family involvement):

  • List the core values of your program.
  • List the main program elements or components (literacy, arts, sports, social justice work...).
  • Using your lists above, what the components or values that naturally lend themselves to inviting family involvement?
  • Who are the main stakeholders in your program (staff, families, youth, children...)?
  • How will you get feedback from those stakeholders?
  • What is your vision of a new series of events to involve families
  • What parts of your vision are flexible and can be adjusted as you go?
  • What obstacles or challenges do you foresee?

In triads, participants discussed what they had written. These triads stayed together for the remaining discussions and activities. Each member noted their triad partners and their contact information so that they would be able to follow up with each other over the coming months as their plans unfold.

Many important points surfaced in these discussions. Participants began to articulate values that were tied to the main program components. For example, a sports OST program values teamwork, cooperation, discipline, respect and self-control. An arts OST program values creativity initiative, diversity and community. A community-based OST program values social/emotional development, academic support, health and community so they offer a range of programming from tutoring and college preparation to peer counseling and training as health educators to their young people.

Participants spoke about:

  • The need to be thoughtful in the use of language about and around families as family composition is often complex.
  • The importance of being alert to families' needs for assistance.
  • And families need to receive a unified message from all staff. This requires that programs be clear with staff about their mission and vision and practice.

Some questions surfaced as well. How do you get families to attend programs or events that are for them? Several ideas were posed in response. Arts and Literacy mandates that families attend. Laura explained that this is enforced verbally. Staff tells families that their children are counting on them and they emphasize that it does not have to be the mother or father. Staff will work with the family to have someone from the family attend. They also follow up with emails and phone calls. Maria Santana of New Settlement offered their model; they require families to attend 4 out of 7 family events held every year. This way families are required to attend, but also have some flexibility in when they attend.

Another question arose around the involvement of families with middle school and high school children. As kids get older they are responsible for getting themselves to and from program. It can be rare to see any family members, so how do we get them involved? It can also be sensitive for teens who want the program to be theirs and not to involve their families too much. This question remained a challenge for participants serving this population.

Many participants who work with younger children noted the incredible value of the informal conversations that happen regularly between staff and family members when children are picked up. Leonor Colon from Henry Street Settlement described how they keep track of these conversations on a log sheet. This allows her to, at a glance, see who has spoken to whom, any issues that are coming up, and which families might not be in such close contact.

Strategic Planning and Small Group Discussions

Next participants engaged in some strategic planning toward deeper and more meaningful family involvement. Participants were asked to use the Menu of Family Involvement, the notes they had developed in response to the questions about values, program elements, and stakeholders, and ideas from Laura's case study presentation to map out a series of events, activities or projects they would like to take. They were asked to imagine where they would like to be in one year and what activities, events and products would build on the strengths and values of their program to build a bridge to families in support of dialogue and involvement.

Participants were directed to the Strategic Planning Sheet with a time line, boxes for three events or activities, and guide questions about planning each event or activity, the logistics of each, and a process for getting feedback (see attached Strategic Planning sheet). Participants worked individually and then in their triads to develop a wide range of activities and events for the coming year.

At the close of the meeting, participants shared what excited about the work done during the session:

  • Interviewing families during intake;
  • Never give up on families;
  • The OST field has accomplished much in the last 20 years;
  • Developing a format for how to plan and initiate parent events;
  • Having families stop by to observe programming;
  • Involving families by serving them, for example workshops on better business writing;
  • Involving parents before there are problems, or for good things;
  • Using family contact logs for tracking conversations;
  • Helping families understand the values and programming, for example art vs. homework;
  • Combining big events like art shows with information workshops;
  • Developing a coaches vs. families basketball game and debriefing afterwards on the challenges that youth face;
  • Looking for organic moments of contact with families;
  • Setting high expectations for families to be involved;
  • Reaching out to families and forming relationships with them;
  • Using the Menu of Family Involvement to grade or evaluate what they are doing;
  • Supporting families relationships with each other;
  • Discussing family involvement with other programs;
  • Exploring art therapy for kids and families—this idea had come from families at program;

We look forward to gathering again in March to hear back from participants on what they have tried and how it is going. Many wonderful and creative ideas arose for the collaborative discussions and planning.

Next Meeting

The next Robert Bowne Foundation Networking meeting will be Jan. 27, 2012. Look for an announcement from Anne.

Contact your triad partners to check in and update them about your progress and challenges.

Contact Laura to visit a Family Arts Night.