Families in Lawrence are highly invested in their children’s success, as Superintendent Riley learned upon assuming the role of receiver. He discovered that the reputation of Lawrence families as uncaring or neglectful was completely unfounded – and that most families wanted very much to engage with their child’s school. Whatever problems existed, Riley said, were the fault of building leaders, who didn’t welcome families into the life of the school. Since the turnaround, the district considers families a vital stakeholder and consistently invites them to the decision-making table.
Similarly, when it comes to the Academies, families are considered a vital partner and most families in Lawrence have come to embrace the program, even after some initial reluctance.
At the elementary and middle schools, immediately after the students are selected to receive the Golden Ticket, families receive a letter – in English and/or Spanish – from the school, notifying them of their child’s acceptance into the Academy and describing the program in some detail. All of the principals we interviewed told us that they’ve taken great care to explain to families the rationale for the Academies, why it’s so essential for their children to participate, and why it’s a unique opportunity – and not a consequence or something that is punitive in nature. Needing extra time, they say, can easily be perceived as a problem, so the invitation is framed as a reward for hard work and good behavior. If a family does not respond to the initial letter, the principal follows up with telephone calls and may even pay some home visits to determine why there might be resistance to the program.
In the earliest years of the Academies in Lawrence, it was challenging to get parents fully on board because they were unfamiliar with the intervention, thought it was odd to hold school during vacation, or feared that the invitation was a negative reflection on their child. Sarah McLaughlin, Principal of Frost Elementary School, told us: “I have directly asked, ‘what would keep you from sending your child?’ and if the answer is ‘I don’t want my child to feel bad about their progress…’ [Assistant Principal] Maura and I have directly said head-on, this isn’t about us being worried about your child being behind, this is an opportunity for your child to go further and go ahead that other kids aren’t getting.” Principals told us that, typically, the families buy into the program after the first day, when they see the joy on their children’s faces. One parent told us that changing the school schedule, bringing in new teachers and mixing together students from different classes was a welcome change.
At the High School Learning Center, one of the district’s alternative programs, family engagement is more complicated. Though contacting families is always the school’s first line of defense, many of the students are over 18, so the school defers to students about whether to reach out to their families. If families are willing to participate and students grant them permission to do so, the school is eager to be in partnership because, as Principal Bob Cayer, said, “The more supports a student has, the more they will experience success.”