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Cortez school District Accountability Committee hosts a family engagement dinner

Over 30 parents, teachers, district employees and members of the community gathered to hear from CDE’s family engagement director Darcy Hutchins on May 4. (Bailey Duran/Special to the Journal)
Director of Colorado Family, School and Community Partnerships speaks to participants

On May 4, more than 30 parents, teachers, school board members and individuals from the community gathered at the Chamber of Commerce on Main Street to discuss how to increase family engagement in the Montezuma-Cortez district’s schools.

The get-together was organized by the district accountability committee and was led by Darcy Hutchins, the Colorado Department of Education’s Family, School and Community director.

While attendees ate food catered to the event, Hutchins started by asking what kind of headline parents would like to see about family engagement in The Journal a year from now.

Many parents mentioned improved family engagement and communication between parents and the district as a whole.

Using the headline activity as a segue, Hutchins spoke about family engagement and its importance for influencing schools and the lives of students, saying family involvement needed to go beyond random acts to the intentional engagement and incorporation of parents in schools.

Specifically, moving from reactive engagement to proactive engagement that worked to bring parents, students, teachers and the district together.

“Family engagement should be integrated and elevated to be priority,” Hutchins said.

Hutchins told how when she was a teacher, colleagues might tip her off about troublesome students. But parents were another issue.

“At least you won’t have to deal with the parents because they’re never around, and they don’t care,” Hutchins said.

Hutchins said the advice struck her as a sad thing, and that it piqued her interest in family engagement in schools.

She said family school partnerships should be customized, comprehensive, improved, welcoming, communicating, supporting, speaking up, sharing power and collaborative.

They should also share leadership, have action plans and evaluate what can be improved.

Hutchins intertwined discussions and activities throughout the hour. First, she asked parents to discuss what they thought the district was doing well.

Two parents named Gabby and Ivan said the schools did a good job at providing information and having active communication with parents, but it was just a little harder to get info back to the district. Hutchins agreed, saying parental feedback was a problem in every school and district she visits.

One parent named Nikki said she was grateful that her kids go to school in a small district where teachers know the kids as individuals.

“Their teachers know them and care for them,” she said.

Learning the names of not only the students but parents as well is vital for strong family engagement, Hutchins said.

Hutchins also noted that family engagement doesn’t just mean working on the school board, being part of PTO or being in the school building as much as possible.

Asking students what they’re learning in school and helping with homework can be the most impactful form of family and parent engagement.

“Have high standards for your kids,” she said.

Five roles that families play in accelerating their student’s learning, according to research, are communicating high expectations, monitoring the child’s performance, supporting learning at home, guiding the child’s education and advocating for the child.

She also emphasized that schools should allow parents to speak up for their kids, because they are the ones who know them best.

While there isn’t a cut-and-dry method on how to best implement a functional model of parent engagement, it is important for every school to have.

“It will look different in every district,” Hutchins said.

One way to get the ball rolling is to have a team write a family engagement plan and implement those standards, which include sharing power, making sure all demographics of students are represented and collaborating with the community and alumni.

Some other things that might seem small but are proven to bolster a child’s education are goal-setting tasks, personalized communication, home phone calls, data sharing and more.

Hutchins asked parents in attendance if they had ever received a positive phone call from a teacher about their student, and asked how that made them feel.

The responses all showed that a seemingly small act like a positive phone call home had a very big impact.

“I was very excited and proud,” one parent said.

“It helped build my relationship with the teacher,” another said.

“It was personable. They weren’t just a number, they are individuals with names,” another parent responded.

Hutchins emphasized the importance of teachers and schools building trust with parents and students in this way.

“People know when teachers are being authentic,” she said. “It builds a level of trust, and that trust cannot be overstated.”

Attendees made a circle to light an energy stick as a visual for successful family engagement and parent/district partnership. (Bailey Duran/Special to the Journal)

At the end of the hour, Hutchins showed a visual of what successful family and district partnership could look like. She asked school board members, teachers, parents, community members and students in attendance to stand in a circle holding hands.

Two of the children held an energy stick between them, and when all the hands in the circle were joined, the stick lit up and made noise. Without all of the hands being joined in the circle, the energy stick would not have worked.

“We need everyone to work together to light the energy stick in Cortez, Colorado,” Hutchins said. “We need everyone to come together for success.”

After Hutchins finished speaking, Monica Plewe, co-chair of the district accountability committee, thanked everyone for coming and gave the results of the survey that was sent out a few weeks ago.

They received 312 responses on their survey, and said they would provide the survey results after it has been sorted and recorded.