Robert Crosby, III is the Managing Director of DC Partnerships at the Flamboyan Foundation. Robert spoke to Emily Freitag about the importance of equity-centered family engagement for supporting student learning.

Watch or read the abridged Q&A below.

EF: I’d love to start in a personal place and tell us a story from your own journey as a learner and how that has shaped your lens on learning.

RC: I really appreciate that question on so many levels, because one of the things we know is so many of our ideals, our beliefs, and our assumptions are grounded in our stories of our own upbringing and journeys of learning. Without that critical reflection of how past experiences have impacted how I show up as an educator, you really can’t really be critical of your own practice.

When reflecting on my own experiences as a learner, I come back to a single defining moment of growing up. In fourth grade, my parents really excitedly moved us out of the city of Detroit, Michigan into one of the great suburban school districts, one of the best of the time in Oakland County. My family was so excited about this opportunity because they really saw education as an equalizer. They didn’t graduate from college, but they knew that if they got my sister and me into good schools, we would be able to get to college and graduate from college and that would make our lives better than theirs. When I got to this fourth-grade school, I was so excited. But I quickly realized that I was ill-prepared to actually catch up on learning in fourth grade by that time and that my teachers saw me as an ill-prepared student. They saw me as someone that was coming from the outside and had all these assumptions I couldn’t recognize at the time. When I look back, I remember wanting to do Student Council and they were telling me, “you’re not smart enough” and essentially “your grades aren’t enough for you to even take on any outside curricular activities.” It really all came to a head when at the end of that first year in the school, I saw one of the school staff members talking to my mom about a $20 latchkey payment that was late. It was incredibly disrespectful. I remember feeling embarrassed, embarrassed for myself, embarrassed for my mom, as this woman talked down to her about being late for a $20 payment. It was near the end of the school year and I saw that teacher after she spoke to my mom that morning and I said, “I don’t appreciate the way you spoke to my mom this morning.” I might have been a little mouthy at the time, but I felt like I needed to defend my mother and my family. My teacher said, “I can’t believe your mother’s acting that way.” This was in front of my entire class. I made a really bad decision to stick my middle finger up. I went to the principal’s office, my mom was called, I told my mom this story, and we have this three-way conversation with the principal. When I look back on that, though, the role of belonging and feeling like your family belongs, and you belong in the environment is so critical and intersectional to student learning. One of the pieces of research that I really appreciate out of the University of Chicago, the Consortium on School Research is around those non-cognitive factors that impact student learning. There are four academic mindsets that we see in that research that impacts student learning. One of the very first ones is students’ belonging. They feel a sense of belonging in the school community and environment. They believe they can succeed. They believe that their efforts will pay off and their work truly has value. We can’t expect students to feel a sense of belonging in a community that their parents don’t belong to, or when there are small comments or small actions that show that there is not a true value in who they are, their funds of knowledge, and everything that they bring. That experience for me was deeply personal. I remember it vividly to this day and it impacted my ability to be successful at that school.

We can’t expect students to feel a sense of belonging in a community that their parents don’t belong to, or when there are small comments or small actions that show that there is not a true value in who they are, their funds of knowledge and everything that they bring.

EF: Can I ask what your family chose to do?

RC: My mom at the time was grateful. My parents literally saved everything to be in this school district. My mom researched school districts, she went to the library, and literally wrote to the state of Michigan to get a test score report because that’s what the librarian told her to do to figure out which schools were the best schools. She knew that we were in a good school, she felt like we had won a lottery ticket, they searched for a house that they could afford in this area just to go to the school. I was getting kicked out of the school, they didn’t want me to come back. My mother had to beg for me to be able to stay. To finish that one last year of fifth grade. She treated it as an opportunity to say, “Your educators may not always be right.” But this is a system in which she recognized it was important for me to succeed based upon my skin color and based on her background. That’s what she taught me, it’s not always about what’s right and what’s wrong for you, which is unfortunate. I think there are many intersections that we can talk about how that’s showing up and how that’s coming out right now. In education and in what we call the double pandemic, with everything going on.

EF: At Flamboyan, you all have done some incredible work to help schools really fully rethink the relationship they’re setting up with parents. Tell us a little bit about that work and what you all have learned that works.

RC: The two things are really connected around cultivating academic mindsets in our students and viewing families as partners. That intersection is so critical and we’ve learned that at Flamboyan. What we saw about 11 years ago when we entered DC was that there was deep distrust between educators and families and it was impacting students. The bottom line is that kids were not getting all that they should be getting because of that deep distrust. There were a lot of assumptions on both ends. One of the things we first saw was making sure that we fully understood what the research was telling us. Family Engagement is important, right? What families do matters. The difference is they absolve themselves from any responsibility and what it means for families to be engaged. What we found in the research was actually more about what families do for students that impact and accelerate student learning.

When we scoured the research in our lit review, there were five roles that we saw and pieced together that actually make a difference for students’ success: When families communicate high expectations, when they support learning at home, when they monitor their child’s performance, when they guide their child’s education, and when they advocate. We learned that in order for families to play those roles, they need a partnership with educators. There is no way specifically in the age of Common Core that a family can monitor their child’s performance on fourth-grade math with no understanding of how math has shifted from the time that they experienced school. What we really talked about and learned is that educators play a necessary and vital role in order for family engagement to happen. We champion four key actions that we think are important and we’ve seen have success and work. One of those things at the core is relationships. It’s educators’ responsibility first and foremost to form trusting, authentic relationships built on consistent communication and shared power with families and students.

It’s educators’ responsibility first and foremost to form trusting, authentic relationships built on consistent communication and shared power with families and students.

The “with students” part is critical because it connects to that belonging piece, that matters not just with families, but with students. We also believe that family engagement cannot be done without thinking about racial equity. Educators have to have experiences where they’re challenging their own biases and really thinking about where assumptions and deep-held beliefs of their students and their families are coming from by looking within to then be able to do the work to think and be able to actually form really strong relationships across lines of difference. We know that’s critically important when we’re looking at urban education centers, which are full of Black and Brown students and many white educators that have many differences, not only racial, but socio-economic. Without that critical reflection, we know the negative influences of assumptions and biases that will have on Black and Brown students.

The third piece is academic partnerships. We sometimes see that what will happen is: “Because I value your family, I know you don’t have the skill to support this academic partnership, so I’m not going to share academic information. I’m only going to call you and share behavior information”  That’s problematic on so many levels because those academic partnerships are not just built around academics—social-emotional development is just as important. And that’s where we see and know that families have funds and knowledge that educators simply do not have. They are the experts on their children. So, we must treat them as such and form partnerships in which they are equal. The final thing is that the leadership in schools has to cultivate the conditions that allow for meaningful engagement. Way too often, we see transactional parental involvement. Engagement and partnership cannot be transactional. When we look to our most cherished partnerships and relationships that we have as adults, we know that it’s not transactional. It’s deep, it’s meaningful, and it requires time, energy, and prioritization. The reality is, educators don’t always learn how to form relationships and then how to form relationships across lines of difference. It’s not a skill that’s taught in many education programs or many of the alternative certification programs, and that’s a critical role.

Engagement and partnership cannot be transactional. When we look to our most cherished partnerships and relationships that we have as adults, we know that it’s not transactional. It’s deep, it’s meaningful, and it requires time, energy, and prioritization.

EF: That maps as so true both with my own teaching and leadership experience. I want to dig in more into this notion of authentic, respectful relationships across lines of difference. What you have learned about how to form relationships across lines of difference that are respectful, even if you’re coming into it with biases? Just the story of your mother’s interaction is still ringing in my ears.

RC: A couple of things. One is I keep coming back to critical awareness, to your point around how we all are coming in with biases. We don’t always all recognize that. What has been elevated more clearly in our current political climate and the protests is that the fear of being thought of as racist is one that stops critical reflection. I can’t say enough that self-awareness and actually being able to allow yourself to recognize that you could be contributing to systematic racism is one of the most critical steps. A lot of our training will take educators through that, and I think that’s the first critical step. The second one when we think about that research around even intimate relationships, that 5 to 1 ratio of positive versus negative interactions. So, “How critically are you thinking about what you’re putting into the relationship?” is something that we have educators reflect on. The other thing that we champion as one strategy for relationship building is home visits. That’s one way, but there are so many ways to start to build authentic connections. One of the things that we’ve heard from families is that when they first experience home visits where the agenda was theirs and it was just about getting to know them and their child, it wasn’t to tell them what they needed to do, it wasn’t about telling them all the rules and all the regulations. It was about asking: What are your child’s hopes and dreams? What do you want for your children? What are you concerned about? What expectations do you have for me? The belief that this is a true partner is so critical to how we often talk about: It’s not what you do, it’s how you show up to do what you’re doing. Those core beliefs around critical reflection, how you show up, and having a genuine interest because you believe that this person has knowledge and value, are the fundamentals in any relationship that we have. That is the same with families and with students.

EF: What do we know doesn’t work?

RC: One thing we know is that not having a common definition of what it means to engage families is critically damaging. We found when we were talking to more than 300 different stakeholders across DC, everyone was saying “family engagement,” but meant something specifically different, from fundraising, to families coming to potlucks, to making sure homework is done. Having a true common definition around what family engagement is, which at Flamboyan we define as the partnership between families and educators that supports student learning. We put learning at the center and the student at the center of what the engagement is for. It’s not for fundraising, right? That could be important for a school, but that is not the critical definition of what we see as a family’s role.

We also know that thinking about family engagement as not connected to academics doesn’t work. We have to see the interconnection of family engagement as an academic strategy. It’s not a feel-good strategy. It’s not a nice-to-have strategy. At the University Chicago, there was a study on the turnaround efforts across the schools in Chicago. When they were looking for what factors made a difference, family engagement was among, leadership was among being able to have a strong curriculum,  it was among safety. So, we have to see the interconnected nature of family engagement and not think about it as a one-off isolated incident.

Not thinking about education through an anti-racist lens doesn’t work. We’ve seen it. We know it. I think and I hope that you know, we can be more critical of ourselves as we approach reopening. Because inequities have been shined on—the light is clear. The question is, How will you respond? It’s much easier to recreate systems of oppression. We have to know and recognize that it’s not working for the same kids and the same families and we have to do something different. Without that lens, we know that we will recreate systems that disadvantage Black and Brown students.

EF: I do think there’s a consciousness about parents’ role in supporting student learning that’s amplified right now in a lot of good ways. It does feel like the tactics and strategies towards that might be different in the current context. What should school leaders be thinking about if they’re not able to do a home visit but still want to achieve that same aspiration?

RC:, I think that’s when we go back to the fundamentals of relationship building. As we’ve been talking to a lot of families and really ensuring the District of Columbia makes sure that their reopening plan is informed by family and student perspective, we’re learning that families are not a monolith. They all have their own individual thoughts and experiences. Some families love daily communication during distance learning. Other families felt like it was a sign of distrust, that they didn’t believe that they could do the job. Communication is going to be key regardless and making sure we understand, How do families want to be communicated with? What’s their preferred method? What frequency? So, letting families be able to make the decisions and then providing and being able to differentiate your support is critical. Listening is not a skill that we do well as humans. Listening openly to families about their students and about their experiences is going to be critical. We actually have educators practice empathic listening as a skill in our professional development, practicing listening, and not saying “I” and not bringing it back to yourself. That’s so much of our default. When we do this with educators, they’re like, “That’s weird. I don’t like it. I want to make connections.” That’s fine and there’s a place for that, but there’s a place for actually, How do I listen and only consider and think about the experiences of those that I’m listening to, and not conflate my own experiences? I think that that’s going to be really important. During times of stress we know we are pushed further into our negatively held beliefs sometimes, and we’re pushed deeper into our biases. So, we need that level of listening openly and critically being aware of, What am I assuming? There’s a lot of assumptions that we try to make sense and to create order within the pandemic. Being conscientious of our listening ability, of how we’re making meaning from what we’re hearing, and then asking ourselves, What are we assuming? are going to be really important factors no matter what strategy. You can certainly replace a home visit with a video call, and I can show you my home right now and do a tour and have a conversation that’s all about us as humans. Again, how am I showing up to the conversation? How do I reflect beforehand? How do I reflect after? And how do I listen well?

EF: That’s so profound. I’m making huge connections to the comment you made about how stress brings us more into negative beliefs. Something about that comment is explaining the world right now. Robert, thank you so much. Any final thoughts?

RC: One, recognizing what we’re trying to accomplish has not been done. The system has not been created to equitably serve all students since its inception. We have to be okay with one, recognizing that, being conscientious of reproducing it and talking to families and students, and really get grounded with our colleagues that have expertise in being anti-racist. We have to see that as a fundamental part of education. I think that this dialogue is great. I hope that we leverage this moment in history because everyone is watching for how do we respond in education. We have a great opportunity and I do believe that there are great enough people that will allow us to rise up if we’re willing.

EF: I appreciate that so much. Thank you, Robert Crosby of the Flamboyan Foundation for the conversation about parent engagement.