Build Authentic Relationships Between Students, Families, Educators, and Community Partners
Building Trusting Relationships
Trusting relationships are foundational to all school transformational change. That is why California recognizes in its Community Schools Framework that supportive environments that foster strong relationships and community building are necessary for student learning and development and essential to a strong community school. 1 A teacher who participated in the Southern California Regional Community Schools Forum in 2021 said his “...school needed two years for relationship building before beginning community schools implementation. Because we waited, we feel like we have a much stronger foundation with families and students. You have to create space for a lot of people to shape the school the whole way through so that they stay invested.”
However, building relationships requires resources, time and capacity-building. To build trust with all members of the school community — students, families, educators and community partners — school communities must create and support a culture grounded in cultural humility, mutual respect and a commitment to engage everyone as informed and equal partners.
“Informal relationships are what build really strong formal systems.” - Eleanor Alderman, International Community School Principal, Oakland Unified School District
Schools must start the process by valuing and leveraging the expertise of their school communities through listening and meaningful engagement at all grade levels and with all members of the community. This lets members of the school community (especially students, families and community ) feel their leadership and partnership is needed, as opposed to tokenized.
The California Partnership for the Future of Learning hosted this learning session about the crucial role that building trusting relationships among students, families, school/district staff, and community partners plays in advancing school transformation, and how to establish the mindsets, systems, structures, and practices that support trust building.
Parent Teacher Home Visits (PTHV): A Proven Family Engagement Strategy that Improves Teaching & Learning
The premise of Parent Teacher Home Visits (PTHV) is simple yet powerful: When the most important people in a child’s life — their families and their teachers — engage with one another as equally-valued co-educators, children do better in school.
For complex reasons, deeply held mistrust and a corrosive cycle of blame often prevent such meaningful home-school partnership. This was the experience of PTHV’s founding parents, two public school moms who were desperately seeking — and not getting — academic support for their children. Using community organizing principles of empowerment, they joined forces with educators and community organizers to pilot a relational home visit model in eight low-income, racially diverse Sacramento City Unified Schools in 1998. The project evolved into a nonprofit organization and word of the program’s success spread. PTHV’s founding parents and teachers answered hundreds of requests to train in school communities like theirs, from Alaska to Florida, in rural, suburban and urban districts across the United States.
As the model was adapted and adopted by widely diverse communities, five non-negotiable core practices emerged that, when followed, maintain the integrity and impact of PTHV’s relational, capacity-building approach that is well-known today.
Five Core Principles of PTHV
Because several years of conversations and focus groups with families and educators informed the development of the 2-visit PTHV model, the five non-negotiable core practices that make up the model meet the needs of educators and families remarkably well.
In the intervening years, PTHV has emerged as a foremost leader in relationship-building home visits. With a national network of implementing schools and districts that spans more than 700 communities across 28 states and the District of Columbia, countless stories have emerged from the field describing the transformative power of PTHV. A trio of national studies by RTI International and Johns Hopkins University validate what families and home visit educators have shared through the years – home visits that focus on building authentic relationships and mutual trust significantly strengthen school-family relationships, shift mindsets, improve teaching, and bolster student outcomes including attendance and academic achievement.
Given the shared commitment to transforming education systems through the power of trusting relationships, PTHV is a strong foundational practice for successful, racially just community schools. PTHV creates a bank of trust, goodwill, and mutual understanding that can be drawn on as school communities engage in transformative change. Not only do PTHV visits help create community schools’ hallmark culture of inclusivity and care, but this practice supports the implementation of all four, interconnected pillars of community schools:
Transformational change in a school community is disruptive and creates discomfort. Change and transition can come from outside forces, as in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, or can come from needed and necessary improvements such as adopting a community schools approach. No matter the origin, a transformational change requires the people affected to trust each other. PTHV practice has been shown to build trust between families and educators and between educator colleagues. Research shows that when adults trust one another, they don’t feel as much fear of change, learn from each other, engage in collaborative decision making, and feel called to make things better. Trust is the currency of change.
Elk Grove Unified School District’s PTHV Practice Drives Change
Elk Grove Unified School District, Elk Grove, CA
History and Background
Located in southern Sacramento County, Elk Grove Unified School District (EGUSD) is the fifth-largest school district in California, serving nearly 64,000 students across 68 school sites. Proudly celebrating the diversity of its students and their families, EGUSD aims to provide a learning community that challenges ALL students to realize their greatest potential. At the center of this vision is a re-imagining of students’ educational experiences through relationships and culturally responsive practices. Driving this vision forward is the belief that “people are our priority,” which permeates the district’s decision making, culture, and practices.
In 2016, Superintendent Christopher Hoffman and the Elk Grove School Board hired Program Administrator Lisa Levasseur to create EGUSD’s Family and Community Engagement Office. Lisa began listening to families and staff about their successes, their hopes and dreams, along with their challenges and barriers. From this listening emerged a collective desire to deepen the home-school connection; there was clear consensus that building positive relationships with students and engaging all families should be the focus. As a result, EGUSD leaders and its educational partners, including teachers’ union Elk Grove Education Association, collaborated with PTHV to launch a relational home visit practice that same year.
The response was overwhelmingly positive. EGUSD experienced a groundswell of support during those first few years of implementation with both certificated and classified staff participating. PTHV trainings were well attended and the volume of home visits quickly grew. To keep up with the increasing demand, EGUSD hired a district home visit coordinator to oversee the practice in 2017 and then partnered with PTHV to develop an in-house training team in 2018.
Undergirding this growth were a few key strategies that supported widespread engagement of both staff and families. First, EGUSD opened up the training and home visit practice to all certificated and classified staff at Title I schools, including but not limited to teachers, students services staff, administrators, paraeducators, office staff, and custodians. A key group of educators that receive annual home visit training are Bilingual Teachers Associates and Bilingual Family Liaisons as EGUSD serves a multilingual, multicultural community. By ensuring that these educators understand the purpose of these relational home visits and preparing them to engage as members of the home visit team — as opposed to solely acting as interpreters — families receive a more authentic and culturally-sustaining visit.
PTHV as a District-Wide Recovery Strategy
By the time COVID-19 shuttered the world in March 2020, EGUSD had built a thriving home visit practice supported by stable funding and a robust infrastructure that included school-level coordinators. Teachers and families alike marveled that the relationships built through PTHV prior to the pandemic buffered some of the initial shock and disconnect that seemed to be so profoundly impacting school communities across the country. These feelings quickly gave way to a yearning to resume home visits. Listening to their teachers’ and families’ wants and needs once again, EGUSD collaborated with PTHV to update the home visit model and training to fit this new virtual space.
EGUSD experienced unexpected growth in their home visit practice as a result of this shift to virtual “bridge” visits; families and teachers who may have initially been hesitant to participate in in-person home visits welcomed this new opportunity to connect and partner.
This interest was fueled by strategic leadership moves as schools returned to in-person instruction. Having been the first California district to transition to remote learning, EGUSD leaders boldly prioritized authentic family engagement as a key recovery strategy. While many districts used their federal COVID-19 relief funds to simply offer “more of the same” remedial strategies used pre-pandemic, EGUSD heavily invested in PTHV to ensure that all 68 sites could engage in this proven practice. In turn, educators answered the call to great impact; for example, in the summer months leading up to the 2021-2022 school year, over 5,000 students received a relationship-building home visit.
The Transformative Impact of Parent Teacher Home Visits
As a 26-year veteran educator who has always served in Title I schools, Christine Fletcher has long embraced informal, relational home visits as a way to connect with her students and families. After transferring to Monterey Trail High School (MTHS) nearly a decade ago, Christine experienced a bit of school culture shock given her past experiences; she distinctly remembers a fellow teacher telling her that the school is great “because parents never bother you.”
So when EGUSD launched its PTHV practice at MTHS and other Title I schools, Christine was excited for the opportunity to share her passion for home visiting with others. Building interest proved difficult at first, given long-held practices and beliefs that devalued family engagement. In time, with concerted effort towards creating shared understanding with students and their families, the collective feelings about home visiting changed.
Now, PTHV is a foundational practice embedded into the way “school is done” at MTHS. With Christine serving as the school’s PTHV coordinator and over 70 educators trained, the school has an annual goal to visit — either in-person or virtually — all incoming freshmen and their families; they aim to ease the transition to high school, build positive connections early, and establish ongoing communication with families. This focus on authentic family engagement has had positive effects school-wide, but also on a deeply personal level for Christine and her students, particularly during and emerging from the pandemic.
When shifting to remote instruction, MTHS students who had received a home visit prior to the pandemic “showed up” on zoom daily while attendance for others was a challenge. Teachers were amazed that students whom they had never “seen” on camera during remote instruction before virtual home visits were engaged and visible after. Increased empathy and an “ultra connection" defined how many at MTHS felt despite COVID-19 often being characterized by overwhelm and isolation.
For this, Christine is grateful. And she commends the district for deepening their commitment and investment in relational home visits over the last several years given the impact it has had on her. She describes transformative changes to her teaching practice as a result of PTHV. Classroom management is far easier because it is rooted in positive relationships; families — who call her by first name — trust her and partner with her to resolve challenges while students know that she cares. Home visits also provide Christine the opportunity to learn directly from students and their families about their cultural backgrounds, which is, in turn, used to create lessons that are far more engaging, relevant, and personal to her students.
But perhaps the most profound impact of PTHV is personal. In a time when educators are fleeing the field, Christine continues to find joy and fulfillment in education. She likes to share the story of a meaningful home visit that she did with her colleague, Bao Tran, a MTHS math teacher who is fluent in Vietnamese. The student, a shy girl who could only communicate with her parents about basic needs given their language differences, did not know what to expect and was nervous the week leading up to the visit. Upon hearing — through Bao’s interpretation — her parents express their hopes and dreams for her for the first time, the student shared, “This is exactly what I needed!” They laughed together and they cried together, and the student, parents, and teachers forged a deep sense of connection through the power of PTHV.
Check out this video celebrating EGUSD educators who prioritize building relationships of trust with their students and families through Parent Teacher Home Visits.
TOOLS AND RESOURCES (these are some to consider)
Strengthening School Teams Through Deep Relationships
International Community School, Elementary School, Oakland, CA
By Amber Hu
During the COVID-19 pandemic, schools had to make drastic shifts both to provide virtual learning and to support their communities, and many schools struggled with the transition. Schools that were able to pivot most successfully, like International Community School, were those that already had a strong relational culture in place before the pandemic, with deep connections among members of the school community.
International Community School (ICS) is a dual-language K-5 immersion school that develops students’ bilingualism and biliteracy in English and Spanish by integrating language learning with academic content. ICS is committed to building partnerships with families and students so all students can thrive socially, emotionally, and academically, especially in the current context of a global pandemic and deepening racial and socio-economic inequities. The school was able to support students and families during COVID through the powerful combination of integrated student supports and the strong foundation of trusting relationships staff have built with students and families over the years.
To be places where students learn and thrive, schools must be built on strong and trusting relationships between all members of the school community. A key relationship-building practice used at ICS are relational parent-teacher home visits. Each school year, teachers and school staff meet their students’ families in their own homes or other places where they are comfortable. During the visits, educators get to know the family and learn more about the student's interests, strengths, and hopes and dreams. These are not typical parent-teacher conferences—the focus is less on academics, and more on getting to know the student and their family as people. This establishes trust between the parent and educator and provides a starting point from which to have conversations about academics or challenges a student may be experiencing. The home visits help to weave a relational fabric among the student, family, and teacher that continues throughout the school year and beyond.
As a parent of two graduates of ICS, Judith Mendez is someone who is both very familiar with and instrumental to the relational culture at the school. After years of volunteering as a parent leader, she explained, "All this involvement helped me grow on a personal level—I began to develop relationships through spending time with teachers and staff, and I got more confident. I became like a parent coordinator at ICS, and was also able to get involved at the district level through the family engagement committee to visit other schools to share concerns and ideas with families in other school communities." She became such a key part of the school community that, rather than losing her when her son graduated, school leaders worked through bureaucratic hurdles and red tape to secure her a paid role at the school as a yard supervisor.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, the school leaned on the relationships and skills of people like Judith to respond to emerging needs of students, families, and educators, many of whom were struggling with reduced income, food and health insecurity, job loss, and distance learning. Because campus-based staff couldn’t do their typical jobs during this time, they pivoted to new roles that relied on the deep trust and understanding they have within the school community. For example, Judith partnered with ICS’s full-time Social Worker Diosa Diaz to reach out to Spanish-speaking families as part of a wellness team that formed to check in with the families of students who were not attending classes during distance learning. Because the families knew and trusted Judith, they were honest and vulnerable about their needs, and an ICS team was able to connect families with help. This included food and technology distribution, training and support on platforms for distance learning, and organizing stimulus check donations and redistributing money directly to families in need of financial support.
Throughout this pandemic school year, ICS has kept up other practices to maintain and deepen bonds within the school community. The principal hosts a weekly coffee chat with parents, where they can ask questions, hear about what's happening at school, and share their thoughts and ideas. They transitioned the school's weekly assemblies to happen virtually, and the entire school gathers to connect and give shoutouts to each other. Workshops for families have continued virtually and have had better turnout than usual, especially among newcomer families and non English-speaking families, thanks to live interpretation in Arabic and Mam (an indigenous language from Guatemala). During the pandemic and beyond, the people at ICS will continue to support each other through culture, community, and relationships.
- Relational fabric strengthens the entire school community by creating trust and connection between all members
- Essential relationship-building practices include parent teacher home visits, one-to-one wellness checks with families by trusted individuals, weekly coffees with the principal, regular family workshops, and community celebrations.
- Schools and districts can reduce bureaucratic barriers to hire staff with deep connections and experience in a school community
Build Relationships Through Joy: The Role of Arts, Music & Culture in Transforming Schools
Narrative change, storytelling, arts, music and culture are vital strategies to transform public education systems and create racially just, relationship-centered schools. Art enables us to dream up the kinds of schools we are working towards and deserve. Telling our stories builds power. It helps us shape and shift the popular imagination. As one organizer shared at the 2nd Annual California Partnership for the Future of Learning's (CA PFL) Arts and Culture Celebration in 2022, “Art is not just the cherry on top of our organizing work, it’s an organizing tool and a necessity.”
Arts, music, and culture have immense power to deepen and fortify connections across school communities. Oftentimes, the practices that bring us great joy are what builds a sense of belonging because they are deeply humanizing. They allow members of a school community to share personal, family, and community stories, joyful and vulnerable parts of themselves, and what they truly care about. Many of us have experienced this through cultural events, expositions of student learning, murals, and project-based learning artifacts posted in the hallways and around school campuses, or in gardens that are maintained by students, families, educators, and community members.
Fortunately, arts, music and culture already exist and thrive inside and outside of our school communities. However, in order to tap into the power of joy for building relationships, school teams should reflect on the following:
- How do we acknowledge that existing practices of joy (arts, music, and culture) are important to building relationships throughout our school community?
- How do we become more intentional about weaving practices of joy throughout our school day?
- What more is possible when we — as a school community — center joy in building strong relationships?
The Alliance for California Traditional Arts (ACTA) has been a leading arts and cultural organization working in some of California’s most underserved communities in Southern California since 1997.
With the support of The California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities initiative, and in collaboration with local artists and community-based organizations, like Promesa Boyle Heights and InnerCity Struggle, ACTA has developed deep relationships with community leaders, including education and healthcare partners to cultivate community-led campaigns that center participatory traditional arts practices.
ACTA promotes and supports ways for cultural traditions to thrive now and into the future. Local and ancestral knowledge is honored as a source of strength, resilience, and creativity to counter systemic harm and lack of access to trauma-informed healing and access to equitable education in communities of color.
Learn how ACTA helps seed restorative justice practices in the community of Boyle Heights, Los Angeles through the transformative work of Building Healthy Communities Artist Fellow and quilter, Juana Mena.
In the example of the Women’s Tejidos Purépecha Group of North Shore, the Alliance for California Traditional Arts (ACTA) organized a regular meeting of women from the community around the practice of embroidery from the indigenous Purépecha people of Michoacán, Mexico, who have settled in the farm worker communities of Mecca and North Shore. In the process of gathering together to learn the new and culturally relevant skill of embroidery at the home of master artist Natividad González Morales, these women had the opportunity to meet one another, break bread, and discuss the problems they face in their daily lives. Advocates from the Building Healthy Communities’ Schools Action Team of Eastern Coachella Valley and the cultural empowerment organization Raices Cultura joined the meetings to learn about local priorities and provide resources for action. Through learning the indigenous art of embroidery, this community of women have stitched together enduring relationships with one another and key community partners, which in turn has led to stronger partnerships with local schools.
Additional ACTA Resources
This briefing studies the potential to promote health through engagement in community-centered traditional arts and presents an overview of the field of arts-for-health as evidenced by evaluations of two of ACTA’s signature programs: the Living Cultures Grants Program and the Apprenticeship Program. The study was conducted by UC Davis Center for Reducing Health Disparities, led by Dr. Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, and showed that ACTA’s traditional arts programs impacted participants’ mental health through measurable improvements in their self esteem, emotional connection to culture, and sense of personal achievement and collective energy.
- Building Healthy Communities: Approaching Community Health Through Heritage and Culture in Boyle Heights (2017).
Written by Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson andCitlalli Chávez, this report is intended for anyone interested in better understanding how heritage-based arts practices can contribute to community empowerment, comprehensive neighborhood revitalization and better health outcomes. ACTA’s 32-page case study examines the Engaging Cultural Assets Pilot Project from 2011 through the fall of 2015 in Boyle Heights, a vibrant neighborhood in Los Angeles, full of challenges, assets and opportunities.
Co-authored by Dr. George Lipsitz of UC Santa Barbara and ACTA, this bilingual publication explores what can happen when traditional artists engage cultural practices to address social determinants of health like structural racism, poverty, and other conditions that impact our ability to lead healthy lives where we live, work, and play.
Another engagement and social change methodology contributed by local traditional artists, including Quetzal Flores and Martha Gonzalez, is collective songwriting. A communal practice with strong roots in Chicano activism, collective songwriting workshops bring community members together to openly discuss local issues that affect their lives and channel their voices into music with meaning.
- “The Four Key Conditions of Learning,” CA Community Schools Framework (September 2022), pp 3-4.