Susan Stevenson is the Executive Director of Flamboyan Foundation’s Washington, D.C. office.
Year founded: 2008 in Washington, D.C. (2006 in Puerto Rico)
You’re one of the planners of the recent Deep Dive public education events focused on family engagement. Why is family engagement an important part of school reform?
A large body of research shows that family engagement leads to increased student achievement, reduced drop-out rates, and a host of other positive outcomes for kids. Recent research on school improvement has shown that schools are much more likely to be successful when they have the trust of families.
Our city is facing an educational crisis. On average, only 14% of 8th graders in the district perform on grade level in reading i and more than 90% of D.C. Public School students drop out of high school, never enter college, or fail to get a college degree ii. Given how much catch up our students have to do, and the limited amount of time children are actually in school, it is crucial for educators and families to work together to improve students’ academic success.
What is family engagement?
While most people agree family engagement is important, there is still a lack of common understanding around what effective family engagement looks like. Family engagement can mean very different things to different people – from volunteering, to chaperoning field trips, fundraising, organizing class parties, parent-teacher conferences, etc. These activities have varying levels of impact on children’s success. Flamboyan Foundation defines family engagement as the collaboration between families and schools that drives student learning and achievement. This collaboration enables families to play the roles that research shows matter most to accelerate their child’s learning:
Success is hard to measure in philanthropy. Can you tell us about a time when you’ve felt that your foundation has had a real win?
We measure our success by the changes in beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors of key stakeholders in the education community—students, families, and educators. During the 2010-2011 school year, Flamboyan Foundation partnered with Teach for America* D. C. Region to pilot a monthly professional learning community for interested teachers on family engagement strategies. Through this PLC, teachers had a chance to learn about, implement, and share best practices. Teachers learned to build relationships with families and engage families in supporting student learning through co-constructing goals, sharing data and providing home learning support strategies.
The outcomes from this partnership on parents and students were tremendous. One preschool teacher reported that because of the PLC, “I noticed a huge increase in my student achievement data in just one quarter. On average, my students moved from 59% to 77% mastery in literacy and from 50% to 92% mastery in math! Our big goal is 80% in both subject areas and I know that we have achieved these goals since I last took this round of data over a month ago. From a qualitative standpoint, my students have taken more ownership over their work and my parents are more comfortable asking me about the progress their child is making. Parents know what to expect from me and how to support their child's progress.”
Parents with children in these teachers’ classrooms also found the partnership valuable—not only for their students, but also for them. One parent said, “I feel much more able to take charge when it comes to teaching my child.” Another parent reported, “I am seeing how SMART my child truly is and his passion and desire to learn. He has come such a long way since the beginning of the school year and I would like to thank his teacher for her hard work.”
Wikipedia says that a Flamboyan is a tree with “vivid red/vermilion/orange/yellow flowers and bright green foliage” found, among other places, in Puerto Rico, where your foundation has an office. What is the foundation’s connection between Puerto Rico and our region?
Flamboyan Foundation was founded in Puerto Rico in 2006, two years before our Washington, D.C. office opened its doors. Puerto Rico is the third largest school district in the country, with over 550,000 children and 1,500 schools. It lags far behind in terms of student achievement. However, most U.S.-based foundations pay very little attention to the education system in Puerto Rico. Comparatively, Washington, D.C. is much smaller and receives an enormous amount of attention. However, schools in the district consistently underperform in regards to student achievement, and there are enormous challenges in reversing that trend.
Therefore, our founders, Kristin Ehrgood and Vadim Nikitine, decided to go deeply into the education systems of these two communities, understand what areas were being overlooked, and find ways to create lasting change. As a foundation, we believe that providing every child with a great education best prepares them for success in life. While our specific areas of focus are different in each region, in both offices we work from the belief that involved and sustained focus to tackle challenging problems is the best guarantee of social change. Both offices share the same approach to philanthropy: playing a catalytic role that leverages the foundation’s expertise and influence beyond solely funding to effect lasting and meaningful change in public education so that all children can achieve at high levels.
[i] Center for Education Statistics. NAEP Grade Reading Results. http://nationsreportcard.gov/reading_2009/state_g8.asp
[ii] Kernan-Schloss, A., & Potapchuk, B. (2006). “Double the Numbers for College Success: A Call to Action for the District of Columbia.” Washington, D.C.: DC College Access Program, et al.