Start Early. Start well.

May 25, 2016

Conference Examines Strategies for Building Strong Family Partnerships

Omaha, Neb. — Families were front and center for a daylong professional development institute hosted May 13 by the Buffett Early Childhood Institute.

Parents involved in the Learning Community Center of South Omaha grabbed the attention of the 160 teachers, caregivers and other early childhood professionals who had gathered at the Scott Conference Center on the UNO campus for the third and final institute in the Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan series for 2015-16.

“When I first heard about the center, I thought, ‘This is incredible, I need to go there,’” said Luz Muñoz, who took English and parenting classes at the center, at 23rd and M Streets. “Some days I felt like not going, but I told myself, you have to. These are good classes.”

Muñoz said the experience was also good for her daughter, Diana.

“She is excited for PreK now,” Muñoz said. “I am grateful for how much my daughter has learned and grown here.”


* Keynote/closing address: Jane Fleming

* Keynote/closing handout

* Breakout session: Mariana Osoria

* Breakout session: Learning Community Center of South Omaha

* Breakout session: Abbey Sualy

Anne O’Hara, program director at the South Omaha center, said the program has five components: Adult literacy for parents, parenting classes and workshops, home visits, interactive parent/child activities, and the education of young children, “the roof that kind of ties the whole program together.”

The parents come two days a week for English class and every other week for a parenting class. While the parents are in class, the children are in an adjacent classroom learning, too.

The Learning Community Center staff said there are three keys to family partnerships:

  • Listen to families
  • Cultivate a culture of belonging
  • Focus on family strengths
Listen to Families

Cruz Cabrera, family learning supervisor, said that providing child care removes one of the major barriers that South Omaha parents said they faced in seeking education. “Families feel safe and secure knowing that their children are also learning and being provided quality care.”

Center staff answered parents’ transportation concerns by locating the facility in the old South Omaha library, which is close to neighborhood schools and is centrally located, Cabrera said. The center also runs a minibus for parents.

The center overcame the language barrier by having bilingual staff, who can converse with parents in their native language. “Families feel more comfortable in our program because they can speak directly to the staff members,” she said.

Cabrera said staffers have been able to bridge cultural differences through building relationships with families and gaining their trust.

Aaron Lockee, program manager, said that when hiring, the center seeks candidates who are invested in the community. Maria Elena Mosqueda graduated from the program and now works in child learning classrooms. “What better person to be able to relate to our families?” he said.

Having staff members who are culturally receptive and easily able to connect with families helps the center when making program decisions. “If there’s ever a doubt, we ask our families,” Lockee said. Families take part in interviewing job candidates, he said, adding that he had to answer several questions from Muñoz before he was hired.

“We’re answering to our families to grow that partnership,” he said.

Cultivate a Culture of Belonging

Margaret Perdue, an ESL instructor, said staffers have learned to take time for “unimportant” conversations. Coming together over small things lays the foundation for the relationships they have with families “so they feel comfortable really talking to us and giving us feedback about the ways we may have made mistakes and ways we need to improve and also what they want or what they need from the program and doing that together.”

The staff strives to create a family atmosphere, learning the names of every family member, sending cards on birthdays and other occasions and holding special celebrations to honor student achievements.

“We also have coffee every day at the center. While it is a small thing, it’s really something that’s inviting,” Perdue said.

Also, “we really try to think about the language that we’re using. It is OUR center, it’s not the center that the families come to and we let them use. It’s a collective, mutual investment that we’re all making.”

She said family members are encouraged to come along with class participants to the center. “We also want our space to really reflect our participants and the work they do,” she said. For example, a mural that parents and children painted together is displayed at the center, “something so we’re all looking at our work together and what we have done and really sharing in that.”

Joey Mollner, an ESL instructor, said they hold reciprocal conferences to promote family engagement and to learn more about parents and their background knowledge. “That can give you guys a better sense of what is a better way to connect with their families,” he said. He said parent-child activities are scheduled at the center and at parks and museums around town. Mollner said parents also are encouraged to volunteer at the center.

Focus on Family Strengths

Josie Dominguez, a South Omaha resident and a mother of five, was one of the very first hires of the Learning Community Center.

“One of the things we do well is focus on our families’ strengths,” she said. “We really, really try to get to know the families and we really try to meet the families where they’re at.

“The only way parents become the partners is when they understand the benefits of it. Yes, we can tell parents to read to their child, yes, we can tell a parent to talk to their child. But unless we understand why it’s meaningful to me, then we’re not as likely to do it.

“It can be scary for parents to hear that you’re the first teacher of your child. It’s also very empowering. If we can find a way to partner with parents to be the first and most influential teacher, then we have a strong foundation for child learning.”

She said the heart of the program to her is the home visits. “This is where we really get to know the families. We get to set shared goals and we get to build those strong relationships.”

Dimas Briceño, a parent who has gone through the program, said the center has helped him and his children. “They are more motivated in school. Their grades are good,” he said.

“We have been learning about helping our kids feel secure and confident. We have good communication as a family. We’re learning the importance of having and spending time together.

“When I talk with my children and I ask them how they feel when we do activities together, they tell me that I am the best dad in the world. They tell me that they love me. And that’s when I feel like I am doing things right. And I am proud of myself.”

Other presenters at the PD for All event were early literacy specialist Jane Fleming, co-founder and director of KIDS LIKE US; Mariana Osoria, vice president of centers for Family Focus Inc. in Chicago; and Abbey Sualy, school psychologist for Westside Community Schools.

Fleming talked about understanding family members’ unique contributions to children’s early literacy. “We want family members talking, singing, reading, and playing,” she said.

  • Talking—Listening and speaking leads to oral retellings and then to relating speech to print.
  • Singing—It’s a good tool to build vocabulary and background knowledge.
  • Reading—Babies love to hear their parents’ voices. In the high-poverty communities she works in, the biggest reason for kids to struggle in reading is lack of practice. The reason they can’t practice enough is because a lot of kids don’t have access to books. Think how we can get books into the hands of children, she said.
  • Playing—Babies learn by interacting with people, and having fun with your baby is a great way to develop connections and brainpower.

Osoria spoke about engaging families as partners in education. At Family Focus, “we think about how we can work alongside families, how we can support them.” Osoria outlined some principles of family support practice:

  • Staff and families work together in relationships based on equality and respect.
  • Families are resources to their own members, to other families, to programs, and to communities.
  • Programs affirm and strengthen families’ cultural, racial, and linguistic identities and enhance their ability to function in a multicultural society.
  • Programs are embedded in their communities and contribute to the community-building process.
  • Practitioners work with families to mobilize formal and informal resources to support family development.
  • Programs are flexible and continually responsive to emerging family and community issues.
  • Principles of family support are modeled in all program activities, including planning, governance, and administration. “How do we bring families into this process?” she asked. “We need to bring parents into the conversation.”

Sualy discussed strategies for developing and supporting strong family partnerships, including:

  • Family/staff surveys, to examine school beliefs, climate, and hidden rules and also ask families what they want for their child and what they need from the school.
  • Staff training.
  • Re-think school events and parent-teacher conferences.
  • Communication strategies—parents should know what their child is learning, whether that learning is on track, and how they can work with the teacher to help their child succeed. She said communication could include good-news phone calls, postcards or emails, electronic newsletters, and social media accounts.
  • Enhance families’ confidence and skills through workshops or classes.
  • Home visits, which gain parents’ trust, build rapport, and provide information.

Sualy said educators should design learning opportunities that require children to talk to someone at home. It’s also import to ensure that your school’s parent group is inclusive and reflects the school population. Encourage parents to be advocates, she said, and never ignore parents’ disengagement.

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