For the past three years, I’ve worked at Denver Public Schools in the Office of Family and Community Engagement. It has been an incredible experience and as I’ve transitioned to my new role as Senior Partner, Advocacy and Alliances at A+ Colorado, I’ve wanted to reflect a bit more on my time and work.
I’ve come to see the work of family engagement to be a critical l force in the building of partnership and relationships between schools, districts and those they serve. However, I’ve come to see it as something much bigger - the cracking open of closed systems into the sustaining and development of an open system. As I’ve had the gift of working with other organizations, it has become clearer to me that we are witnessing a fundamental shift in our public education system. This transformation is bigger than family engagement: it is about public systems that are open vs. closed.
Open System theory goes way back and articulates that healthy organizations depend upon constant interactions with their environment. Theorists argue that by building open systems, organizations can be more dynamic and resist states of decline and entropy.
What are some examples, at all levels, of open and closed systems in education?
Open: When a teacher goes on a home visit, they are opening up their classroom to include parents’ perspectives.
Closed: When a teacher creates a 10 minute window over the course of the year on one day to speak to a parent.
Open: When a school creates an opportunity for parents to explore the academic standards all students must meet, they are opening up the learning environment for parent involvement.
Closed: When a school hosts a “back to school night” in English-only materials and presentation, when more than half of parents speak another language.
Open: When a school undergoes a community-driven turnaround process, the school and district have opened up design and creation to parents and families.
Closed: A school that loses enrollment, experiences academic decline and refuses to take feedback from families about why.
Open: When a district creates opportunities for meaningful feedback loops and even decision-making, they are opening up their resources and power for true co-creation.
Closed: When a district makes a major decision without any input from families, communities or other stakeholders.
These examples are the beginning of what it means to build the open system in our education system.
Why We Must Move Beyond “Family Engagement”
In my experience, utilizing the term family engagement brought with it too much baggage and too much schema. Teachers would think of potlucks, social events, “muffins with moms” and other ideas. Did these build the type of partnership that our schools and systems needed? In some ways, yes. These are the necessary, but not sufficient moments.
To get beyond it, we often used the term “partnership” or “empowerment” to get to the point of what we were thinking and discussing. With teachers and principals, this helped us get to the point much quicker and also helped build way more understanding of our vision.
However, we found the term partnership sometimes lacking as well because sadly too often people and organizations have shallow definitions of partnerships. Think about all the times you’ve been in uneven, uneventful partnerships. Or, worse, partnerships that just reaffirmed existing power relationships already in place.
In our efforts, we began to observe and seek something different. What we saw went beyond partnership. What we saw in the tears of a parent discussing hopes and dreams for a student or in the tough dialogue between a school leader and the school community about performance results went beyond partnership or engagement.
The Emergence of Openness Across the System.
As DPS went from just over 6,000 home visits in 2015 to nearly 12,000 in 2017, our department and team saw incredible moments between teachers, students, and families when educators met families on their own turf. They defied traditional notions of partnership and engagement and moved toward openness between human beings, creating and sustaining deeper relationships and building trust.
When schools underwent community-driven school design, we watched school leaders open up conversations about school design that went beyond “engagement” or “partnership.” At turnaround schools, leaders hosted regular meetings with families and asked them what they wanted their school to be, how they wanted to be involved and worked with them to design a plan. This is co-creation, open system work. This process created open dialogues and pathways that allowed school leaders and community leaders to build green shoots of trust where the ground was previously fallow. The transparency and creation created new reservoirs of partnership that allowed leaders and communities to have even bolder conversations.
At the district level, we brought community organizations and families in to redesign policies that didn’t work for them. They helped us navigate our blind spots, challenged us to move beyond what we traditionally considered engagement or partnership. Too often, these were unwieldy and challenging conversations where we were faced with difficult choices, but we were committed to the process of opening the conversation and space with others.
Why Build the Open System?
“Does it increase test scores?” “Does it increase attendance?”
These are some of the questions that I encountered from skeptical audiences about why they should do family engagement.
First off, Anne Henderson and Karen Mapp spell it out clearly:
“reviews of...studies find that intentional, well-designed practices to inform and support family engagement have a positive and long-term effect on student outcomes, including grades, test scores, behavior, passing rates, enrollment in higher-level programs, high school graduation, and college attendance.”
But more fundamentally, I’d challenge us all to ask ourselves: why wouldn’t we involve parents and families in the education of their children, the vision for their schools and the direction of the district? Why wouldn’t we involve other civic leaders in the building of the next vision for our system?
Is it fear? Is it based on power? Are we scared?
Some would argue that parents and families will “take over” the system, “create problems” or slow down progress.
I’d argue that too many have a closed orientation from decades of experience. And too often, these closed systems mask a racist, classist institutional stance that says “keep out!”
This is a perspective that says we need to build a fortress (to use Anne Henderson's term) - a closed system to keep others out while educators and technocrats are secure. Open systems can be messy, challenging and require strong public leadership and broad coalitions. These are sadly in short supply in too many places.
When I’ve seen educators change from a deficit frame to an asset frame, the results speak for themselves. We found many educators and parents that help us even go farther than we anticipated - that pushed our perspective of what openness is. I’ve seen first hand the potential for the open system to transform parents, teachers and staff alike, as they build deeper and more powerful relationships and generate trust.
There are other, critical reasons to create an open system. Families and community members are taxpayers and deserve reasonable entry into and partnership with the system. I firmly believe (and heard many parents articulate) that our public education system is built on the right to know how their student is doing, how their school is serving them and how the district is supporting their needs. Only an open system, honestly engaging in dialogue can offer that.
Closed systems push people away and say “Trust us.”
Open systems say “Here is what we know and don’t know” and “What can we do together to make it better?”
Why is it Hard to Build the Open System?
Families that walk into a school and face resistance from front office staff are usually the first to discover that the system isn’t open to all. The community member who wants to join a committee but never gets an e-mail or call back is another person to discover the closed system. The staff member who has to argue stridently to ensure families should participate in a process confronts skepticism about open systems..
Too many district and school systems have been closed looped circuits for generations. Other new systems are particular about to whom they are open and to whom they are closed. Some are perfectly open to parents of current students an prospective students but not to community members.
Affinity and bias can play major roles in the choosing of openness.
White, rich parents? Open. Spanish dominant parents? Closed. In some schools, I’ve seen the reverse happen. Openness can be weaponized to suit a particular group or idea. This serves the opposite purpose and leads a school community in a wrong direction.
Some education systems want to be open but struggle to determine the extent of transparency.. Do they make every process open to everyone? Every committee? How do they create teacher buy-in? Can they manage the turbulence of conflicting opinions and perspectives on every single item or agenda? This analysis paralysis leaves systems to go back to business as usual, overwhelmed with the number of decisions.
Building the Capacity of an Open System
While at Denver Public Schools, my team and I built our overall level theory for partnership - home, school, district. We tailored our individual approaches and programs to meet the needs of the partnership at the right level of the system.
We conducted initial survey research that helped us understand that building the partnership and agency of families to engage the system moved in a linear direction - first, at home, in support of their student’s success. Second, families were able to engage at the school, to ensure “our school’s” success. Lastly, if they reported high levels of partnership at home and school, the families were able to influence the course of district action.
This helped us understand that districts and schools can take one step at a time and that is was possible to gradually build the capacity (and openness) of the system.
Many have come to see this as a cycle of open system work. Teachers need to be our front lines in building relationships with families and their community. This is the approach of the Flamboyan Foundation - that teacher-facing family engagement development is the best bet for building the capacity of the system to do the work.
Our teachers can then help our schools open up broadly so that parents and families become involved in co-creation for school success. Then, the district can create opportunities for parent and community feedback in designing new schools, new boundaries, new opportunities. This cycle builds upon itself and when done effectively, generates more and more energy, building a system-wide circuit of openness. To some, this can seem like a lot of “new” work. But I’ve seen so many educators, leaders and others take it on as the true work of public leadership within a community. Eventually, it becomes as natural as opening their doors in the morning for students, yet instead they’ve opened the door to the whole community.
This isn’t easy and can’t happen in a day - but the possibilities are real.
Will it be easy to build an open system? No.
Are there guardrails? Yes. Are there challenges? Yes.
Is it worth it? Yes.
Moving forward, I will be exploring emergent and developed open classrooms, schools and districts across Colorado and the nation. I’ll be delving into this topic in my blog The Open System. I’ll be writing, alongside others, about how we can make this work, what the challenges are and how we can all work together to make this possible. I’ll be linking to new research on how this changes systems, best practices and ideas from others on how it can be done and always remaining in that learning stance.
I’d love to hear from you about your experiences, challenges and barriers in building the open classrooms, schools and systems in your community. E-mail your insights to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.