To raise children, it often takes a village. Family, friends, neighbors and schools all have to rally around young people as they catapult toward adulthood.
No one knows this better than Jeremy Wall, family engagement specialist for Newport News Public Schools (NNPS). Wall is the man who connects all the dots in the so-called village of support upon which children and families rely so heavily. He sees firsthand every day just how important it is for a community to work together to help a student succeed in school and then go on to achieve great things.
Wall’s office creates the programs and support systems that have proven to make an enormous difference in children’s lives and in their chances of success. The family engagement specialists focus on the school system’s Title 1 schools, which have high numbers of low-income families.
“We create a road map, looking at what our families need and what they will go through on their journey. We try to pinpoint the key moments to ensure the student’s success,” Wall says. Some of the key stops along the map are being kindergarten ready, reading by third grade, meeting or exceeding state standards and graduating career and college ready. The family and community engagement specialists work to achieve these goals by building support in the home, schools and community.
Bringing families into the fold, opening communication with them and making them part of the educational process are imperative to a child’s academic progress, Wall says. He calls it forging a “purposeful partnership in the community.”
“When communities and schools work together, our students tend to do better,” he says. “There are moments of connection that deepen the ties to one another. It’s a bond through a shared purpose.”
Wall says holding events such as family festivals, forums and resource fairs are great ways to bring the community and families together. At the first family festival this year, more than 2,000 people participated. And at family and resource fairs, 901 people attended.
“We try to have events where people come out, learn about the community and see how important their role is in students’ success,” he says. “It’s a way for us to connect our curriculum, teachers, families and community partners.
“Families have the greatest influence on the child. We are always looking for ways to harness that influence.”
At family forums, Wall says they ask families to tell them something about their community, three wishes for Newport News Public Schools and the best learning experience their child has had in NNPS so far.
“We gather feedback,” Wall says. “It’s important to us to know what they think. We listen to our families and take action.”
Research on family engagement shows that it reduces dropout rates and creates higher graduation rates, leading to better student-teacher relationships that result in increased student achievement. It can reduce absenteeism and result in fewer behavioral problems. “It’s clear,” Wall says, “that the partnership is key. It works in such a different way. It’s influence without authority. But it shows through our purpose our love for our children and that we want what’s best for them.”
The family and community specialists reach out to families and have access to resources that can make their educational journey smoother inside and outside of the classroom. Families should not feel like they are in it alone, he says.
“It’s a collaborative effort,” he says. “We want families to know that they matter, that we want them to be a part of this. We don’t just set learning targets and goals. We need to think about the whole child.”
There is a lot of momentum behind family engagement right now, Wall says, because schools are seeing the benefits of these relationships. “It builds trust,” he says. “It really has a profound impact. It creates ownership. It’s transformative in how our families view school.”
He is constantly working to find new ways to forge these bonds. Sometimes that means going to a student’s home to show the student and the family that they matter and that there are resources to help foster academic success.
Wall is proud of the way the family engagement movement is picking up speed. He knows that the effort is working, as he sees and hears the success stories every day. In feedback to the family engagement office, one teacher wrote “the payoff is for our students who see their parents and teachers working together for them. We are a much stronger community now.”
That just drives the point home, Wall says, that families need and want to be involved in their students’ education. Families and schools are seen as equal partners in decisions that affect the students, Wall says.
“We want them to know that they matter,” Wall says “We want them to be part of this process.”
TO THE POINT:
Family and Community Engagement Specialists
Newport News Public Schools
Address: 746 Adams Dr., Newport News, VA 23601
Contact: Jeremy Wall, family engagement specialist