Start Early. Start well.

April 24, 2024

Connecting at Birth: Millard Schools Are Working Toward Deeper Engagement With Families

Music teacher singing to kidsMillard Public Schools has found that home visits, plus socialization groups at school, for small children and their parents help build connections with families. Here, music teacher Emma Shaner sings with kids at Cody Elementary.
By Erin Duffy 

The COVID-19 pandemic shifted so much about our daily lives and routines—including how schools and parents interacted. Many schools switched to online instruction or limited visitors to slow the spread of the virus.  

Four years later, family engagement still hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels, Millard Public Schools educators said.  

“During COVID, for a portion, we pushed families away,” said Jason Farwell, principal of Cody Elementary. “For those young families that maybe had preschoolers or Kindergartners or first graders, it may be, ‘Well I don’t know how to engage with the school.’ (Families) want to be able to come in. They want to feel connected to their school.” 

That’s why one of Millard’s current efforts is solidifying family engagement, a critical component of the School as Hub model under the Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan.  

Cody and Sandoz Elementary are two of the 10 “School as Hub” schools. The Superintendents’ Plan is a collaborative effort of the 11 school districts that make up the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties to develop early childhood programs, especially for children living in poverty. At Cody and Sandoz, nearly 50% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. 

The School as Hub concept is a key piece of the Superintendents’ Plan. It envisions schools as connection points where families and children can access early childhood education from birth to Grade 3, including home visiting, quality preschool, aligned instruction in the early grades, and family and community engagement activities. In Millard, that mindset extends beyond just Cody and Sandoz, the two buildings officially designated as School as Hub schools. 

School officials are now working on a district-wide engagement framework.  

“Sometimes you need to get comfortable with not being the expert,” said Amanda Hunt, Millard’s coordinator of early childhood. “I don’t know your child better than you. We need to be open to learning from parents and taking their lead.” 

Principals like Farwell and Katie Holt, who leads Sandoz Elementary, are trying to tease out the differences between family involvement and deeper family engagement.  

“We love involvement—donuts with dads, trunk or treat, carnival,” Farwell said. “They’re all great events. But what do we do to engage families and bring them into school and have them learn more about what their child is doing inside the classroom?”  

That could look like teaching parents how to help with math problems or reminding them to practice reading at home. Last fall, Cody sent a new survey home asking parents to tell school staff more about their children. Before parent-teacher conferences this spring, families will be asked what they want to discuss beyond grades and standardized test scores.  

“When you see parents being engaged in their child’s learning, then I think you’re going to see kids more engaged in it, too,” Farwell said. 

In Millard, connections with families are forged years before a child enters preschool or Kindergarten.  

The district enrolls more than 23,000 students in southwest Omaha. It started with two home visitors at Cody and Sandoz about eight years ago. During these visits, school-based staff help parents build strong bonds with their young children, understand different stages of child development, and connect them with needed resources, from diapers to early intervention services.  

The benefits were so clear that the district has since expanded its home visiting program to all its seven Title 1 elementary schools, which serve a larger population of students from lower-income families and receive federal funding.  

“One of the things that I like about this model is change can happen in multiple ways,” said Andy DeFreece, Millard’s director of elementary and early childhood education. “We see things that have happened at our School as Hub schools and then we have reflected as an organization, and we’ve tried to scale up those efforts. Home visitors started off in two buildings. We liked what we saw, and we got more.” 

At Cody, teachers and office staff urge expecting parents to connect early with “Ms. Julie”—home visitor Julie Breese.  

Michaella Sheperd, whose two sons have attended socialization groups at Cody, said Breese has taught her so much about child development and social cues.  

“It’s crucial, parents being invited in,” Sheperd said. “She’s been such a mentor to me as a mom.”  

At Sandoz, the mother of a fourth grader who received home visiting services years ago is now a PTA volunteer.  

“We connect with the families at birth,” Holt said. “When they walk in the door of a preschool or Kindergarten, we’re already connected to them. We’re already able to support them. They feel safe.” 

Staff from the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, which helps facilitate the Superintendents’ Plan, coach teachers and principals on effective leadership, early childhood strategies, and family engagement practices.     
“Family and community is the bridge to academic success,” said Monica Wells, the Buffett Institute’s family and community program administrator. “Those practices (Millard) is putting in place are trickling down and spreading throughout the district, which is huge.”  

Roughly 950 children receive early childhood services in Millard through a variety of programs— the Superintendents’ Plan is just one.  

DeFreece and Holt said true family engagement is a two-way street—it’s not just about telling parents what to do or sending home forms to sign. School staff need to tap into parents’ expertise and invite them to be partners—especially when tough conversations arise about student behavior or academics.  

“It makes it easier for teachers, too, if they have to call home, for good or bad,” Holt said. “The more positive interactions we can have, it just makes it easier any other time you need to talk.” 

Millard staff said the partnership with the Buffett Institute has kept them focused and aligned on early childhood best practices and the family engagement piece.  

“Sometimes we need a cheerleader. Sometimes you need a thought partner,” DeFreece said. “Sometimes you need a helping hand. Our collaboration with the Buffett Institute provides all of those.” 


Erin Duffy is the managing editor at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and writes about early childhood issues that affect children, families, educators, and communities. Previously, she spent more than a decade covering education stories and more for daily newspapers.       
Have a comment, a question, or a story idea? Reach Erin at

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