By Roy Chan (Seattle Housing Authority), Anita Koyier-Mwamba, and Kathlyn Paananen (Seattle Public Schools)
More than three years ago, Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) and Seattle Public Schools (SPS) formally partnered to improve attendance among the 5,000+ students we jointly serve. After agreeing to focus on attendance, we set out to action—implementing pilots, launching messaging campaigns, and planning with schools. Initially, we held listening sessions with students and families, attempting to better understand their perspectives and thoughts around attendance. Throughout the last year, our family engagement practices grew into working alongside families to generate solutions. Only by communicating with families, working with them, and creating alongside them could we achieve our shared goals of raising attendance and improving educational outcomes of our students.
In our efforts to more deeply engage with families, we discovered longstanding complex root causes of absenteeism, and the myriad ways families support and wish to be supported in their children’s education. Below are examples of some of our collaborations; we hope these will spark additional ways that public schools and public housing authorities can collaborate to strengthen relationships with families and to support their leadership.
Communicating with Families – Increasing Educators’ Presence in Communities
Too often, families tell us that, “the school only contacts me when something is wrong.” Our partnership set out to change this dynamic in several ways. School leaders and educators started attending community events at SHA communities to meet families, answering questions and sharing a friendly face in the neighborhood. Last spring, over 40 educators and SHA staff participated in a two-day Equity-based Family Visits training, aimed at visiting with families solely for the sake of strengthening relationships with them. Training topics ranged from understanding our own biases, the compounded impacts of institutional and systemic racism, and steps towards building authentic relationships with families. Building off our commitment to improving relationships, this school year, SHA staff will participate in a series of trainings on trauma-informed care; these trainings will be similar to professional development that over 60 SPS schools have received.
Working with Families – Family Co-Design
When families are valued as equal partners at the decision-making table, we generate solutions that are more responsive and relevant to the needs of families. From winter to summer 2018, approximately two dozen SHA families met with SPS and SHA staff to identify educational issues in the community and co-designed a solution, funded by a small community grant. Through these meetings, families decided to dedicate funds to supplement a community-based mentoring program, including a family engagement component. Families not only attended these meetings; they also took turns creating agendas, facilitating meetings, determining next steps. As the mentoring program kicks off this year, families will have opportunities and funding to support their engagement and ideas.
Creating with Families – Culturally Responsive Learning Materials
For many families of color, supporting their children’s educational success necessitates navigating differences in race and culture. In better meeting this challenge, families expressed a desire for more culturally relevant teaching materials in schools and in libraries. Through the support of key partners, such as the Somali Family Safety Taskforce and Seattle Public Library, we collaborated with Somali families to create children’s books, envisioned and designed by families. Today, these Somali families and are now authors and artists of two children’s board books
teaching children the alphabet and numbers in Somali. These books are now available in SHA community spaces, every Seattle public library, and elementary school library.
Without families, none of the work described above would be possible. We are thankful for their time, their expertise, and their insights. And our work, and the reason we engage with families in this work, is appropriately best summed up by a parent, who told us, “The school cannot teach a child alone and the parent cannot teach a child alone. We need each other.” In order to achieve this vision, we—those working in schools and communities—must continue to seek ways to strengthen our partnerships with parents as well as to one another.
To learn more about the Seattle Housing Authority and Seattle Public School partnership, please contact Kathlyn Paananen
, SPS Housing and Education Manager, Anita Koyier-Mwamba
, Manager of Family Partnerships, and/or Roy Chan
, SHA Strategic Advisor for Education. Please visit www.seattleschools.org/housingpartnerships and www.seattlehousing.org/education-partnerships for further information.