Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Listening and Learning – Building School Connectedness

International Festival at Meadow Wood Elementary
“No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.”
- James Comer

This idea is at the heart of transformative work at the campus and district level in Spring Branch ISD as part of the school system’s five-year plan, The Learner’s Journey.

Creating powerful, relevant student learning experiences shapes an educator’s daily life, and parents and students alike want to share in a learning environment that fosters positive results for kids.

SBISD educators, parents and community leaders are collectively exploring the topic of school connectedness and how it impacts learning and student achievement.

ASCD, a professional learning community of educators, defines school connectedness as an academic environment in which students believe that adults in the school care about their learning and about them as individuals.

Like many of her peers and colleagues, Meadow Wood Elementary Principal Pamela Redd is exploring the topic – and the data – as she works to create meaningful connectedness for both new and long-term residents.

Her student body represents more than 30 countries and 18 languages with about 37 percent of students on free and reduced lunch. Redd’s challenge is to create connectedness in the face of this diversity. She doesn’t want students or families to simply feel like they fit in – she wants them to feel like they belong and are part of the ongoing, evolving narrative of her school community.

Redd’s strategy is just as simple. Focus on being more purposeful and make sure she knows all she can about her new families, and that they know more about her and her campus community. This knowing starts with asking and listening.

“I’ve learned that families who are coming into our system have experiences that are different,” Redd said. “They are coming from systems that have ideas and ways of looking at things differently. They are willing to share these ideas, if only we ask.”

This act of asking can often be pushed aside in the fast-paced, solutions-driven modern world. Leaders across SBISD recognize the need to stop and listen to their community and families and the diversity of need.

To facilitate this listening, and foundational to the work of The Learner’s Journey, the district formed a special work committee, known as E3 (Education, Engagement, and Empowerment).

E3’s mission is to invest time and to actively dialogue with families about the resources and services needed to best support student achievement. The collaboration is helping the district listen, develop a deep understanding of needs, and learn.

Comprising a cross section of employees, partners, and parents, the committee has been hard at work this school year researching and exploring ways to strength school connectedness and student engagement.

The goal is to create a framework upon which to provide a deeper level of comprehensive, customized supports to families and students. A framework is slated to launch next school year, pending board approval, in selected pilot locations.

Additionally, a marketplace of resources and tools will be accessible to participating campuses to support enriched outreach, and supportive professional development will be provided for educators.

A central challenge? The range of need. Being able to provide custom or personal solutions while meeting families where they are is a big task. That’s why listening and developing a clear understanding of what those families require is critical.

Principal Redd’s experience at her campus mirrors that of the E3 Committee’s district-level work.

“It’s hard – but mostly because it’s different,” said Redd. “As principals, we are in situations every day where we are forced to make quick decisions. People want and need answers right away. We are ALL pressed for time, but it’s worth it to slow down and go through a deep process of understanding to solve problems and address concerns. It’s not about being reactive; it’s about being proactive and connecting the dots.”

To do this Redd has adopted the process of Design Thinking. It’s a method of thinking based on developing deep empathy and understanding in finding solutions that fit individual needs.

Design Thinking has also shaped the work of the E3 Committee and the earlier development of the school system’s strategic plan. It’s not so much about solving problems as finding solutions based on empathy and shared understanding.

From Redd’s perspective, this increased focus is empowering when looking at ways to provide the most effective service and support. Solutions are not about what she thinks, but what she learns from parents, students, and educators. It’s about listening. For Redd, the acts of asking and listening are the foundation of school connectedness.

“We already have so much to build on,” she said. “Our PTA is amazing and does a remarkable job supporting our school programs. We have an opportunity to inform and help our new families feel at home here, and in turn, they offer us a wealth of information that we can learn from. This process of dialogue and understanding helps deepen the connection.”

In the crush of demands parents and educators face, the time required to invest in the work can seem out of reach, a luxury almost. For Redd, it’s worth it to change gears and make the investment. Now that she’s gone through the process, Redd’s sense of credibility and transparency as a leader have been buoyed.

“In the design challenge process,” she said,  “the playing field is leveled between parents, students, teachers, and administrators.  All ideas are listened to, valued, and everyone can contribute. The culture of the campus can change to truly be one where collaboration is not just valued but is a real thing.”

This collaboration and engagement are just as important to the every member of the E3 Committee.

“I think it’s empowering for families to know that we’re listening and working to directly support need,” said Victoria Graham, SBISD family E3 specialist. “As a learning organization, success is knowing that every SBISD campus has a robust and collaborative partnership with the families they serve.

“Real, measurable student success is what we’re working toward,” she said. “Every family deserves a school system that supports education, engagement, and empowerment.”

Like Graham, Principal Redd sees value in the power of the parent campus partnership. Does she feel like she has all the answers or is done with the work? No. She recognizes it’s an on-going, never-ending cycle of improvement. A cycle of success, failure, collaboration, and change.

“As long as it is good for children, it will be OK, said Redd. “Our district leaders are not charged with having all of the answers. Through this process, all of us can design solutions. It’s a journey, one we are on together.”

“As long as it is good for children, it will be ok. Our district leaders are not charged with having all of the answers. Through this process, all of us can design solutions. It’s a journey, one we are on together.“

Looking for ways you can engage and become more connected to your campus community? Here’s a list of suggestions.
  • Encourage your child to talk to you, teachers, counselors, and other school staff about his/her ideas, needs and concerns.
  • Visit your school and explore what the expectations are and how you will review communication and information from your school and teacher.
  • Join the Campus Parent Teacher Association.
  • Sign up for campus news and alerts.
  • Be a volunteer and encourage your child to follow your lead.
  • Read the school newsletter, attend parent conferences, and visit your campus website.
  • Attend class or campus events.
  • Ask if your campus offers transportation or child care for events if needed.
  • Ask for materials about the school you can share with others.
  • Learn about community organizations that support your campus. (dental and health screening organizations, child care, health programming)
  • Join the campus improvement team and help plan policy and activities.
  • Talk to your teacher and school staff about simple changes that can make positive impacts on the school environment.
  • Manage your contact information and view student grades, homework and absences with Family Access.
  • Make time to get involved!
For more information about the work of The Learner’s Journey, SBISD’s Strategic Plan, click here.


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