By Jhoselin Beltran Contreras, Policy Fellow
On October 28, the D.C. State Board of Education held its inaugural Well-Rounded Education webinar series “Meeting the Needs of the Whole Child During Hybrid Learning.” This webinar series focuses on meeting the needs of the whole child, including providing social and emotional learning (SEL), mental health, technology support and engagement, and a well-rounded education during distance learning.
This first webinar focused on creating and supporting strong school-family relationships during the pandemic. Panelists included Jessica Morales (Principal, Bancroft Elementary School, Ward 1), Maisha Riddlesprigger (Principal, Ketcham ES, Ward 8), Markita Bryant (Parent, Thomson Elementary, Ward 2), and Cassandra Gentry (Grandparent, Inspired Teaching Public Charter School, Ward 5). For most schools, reaching out to parents, engaging with them, and meeting their expectations can prove to be challenging. Keeping them regularly updated is an additional challenge that schools have to deal with. Families and schools are fighting to maintain strong relationships throughout the pandemic with creativity and technology.
Prior to the pandemic, many schools throughout D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) were engaging with their families through home visits, monthly coffee meetups with principals, and in-person events. Below you will find highlights from Episode 1 of our series “Meeting the Needs of the Whole Child During Hybrid Learning.” You can also watch the webinar on the State Board of Education’s YouTube Channel in English and in Spanish.
Strategies and Challenges Panelists Overcame
Both Principal Maisha Riddlesprigger and Principal Morales discussed the challenge of ensuring that all their families had the devices, the WiFi, and the tech support they needed to ensure that all students could participate in learning. But they also discussed the importance that tech has played in maintaining strong families connections –that, and having earned families’ trust before the pandemic hit last spring.
“We are very proud of the relationships we established in 2019,” said Principal Riddlesprigger (Ketcham received the Together with Families award at the DC Standing Ovation ceremony last year). Ketcham has been a Flamboyan partner-school for several years and making home visits was part of the annual tradition. “Before, we could visit households, hold fresh fruit markets at the school, and have regular family nights. Because of COVID-19, we had to stop previous strategies in family engagement and get creative,” Principal Riddlesprigger explained.
Similarly, Principal Morales talked about the work her team had done at Bancroft to build family engagement, especially among the school’s Spanish-speaking families whose children make up approximately 65% of the student population. “I have to ensure that all voices are heard and not just those that are most present or the loudest. We need to help families who might not otherwise feel comfortable know that their voices are valuable,” Principal Morales shared. Bancroft started a group called Café con Padres (Coffee with Parents) for Spanish-speaking families to come together each week and to work together with the PTO to support the whole school community.
Once the pandemic began, both principals also spoke about the need to adapt family engagement strategies to fit a virtual platform. As Principal Riddlesprigger explained, “We used to do annual in-person home visits. In order to participate online with families, we replaced home visits and converted them into virtual visits where we ask parents and family to join our community. We have frequent Town House meetings for specific or general issues so that families can raise concerns or watch our virtual school in action. Virtual interactions can be challenging. We try to give a guide for parents about online platforms and communicating through there.”
Principal Morales shared a similar approach, “In every video, every source of communication, we try to ensure parents that we are always available to talk. We also had a parent’s coffee where they received information and resources. Now in a virtual setting, we have town halls. There we’ve talked about racism, COVID-19, and general world topics. It’s important to give families a platform to use their voice and to share their opinion. We have also aligned ourselves with Kindred. We are in the middle of Mt. Pleasant, and I have to ensure that all voices are heard and that they know they are valuable. Our PTO supported many of our parents who were undocumented, lost their jobs, deported, etc. All of us came together during this time. I’m very proud to the extent my school has gone to ensure our families support from the start to now.”
Both Ms. Bryant and Ms. Gentry, DCPS parent and public charter school grandparent, agreed that communication with the principals at their children’s schools improved after virtual learning began. Ms. Bryant stated that the teachers had one-on-one support with parents on math using Eureka, making it easier. She also shared that teachers communicating with parents lessons a week ahead of time was a boon to online learning.
The biggest challenge Ms. Bryant mentioned was trying to figure out how to help her child turn in assignments when schools first closed in spring. She said that in the fall, the school made improvements in communicating with parents how to upload assignments using Class Dojo, and when assignments were due. Her main takeaways were to be prepared, make it fun, and make it competitive in an enjoyable way for parents. Ms. Bryant added that her school offered Spanish and Chinese translations for virtual parent events.
Ms. Gentry shared her experience launching the Plaza West Grandfamilies program. When she found out how many grandfamilies there were in DC, it prompted her to start this organization. The program is currently at 50 units of grandfamilies, with two to three- bedroom units. In regards to housing, she is still learning the needs of the community, such as access and use of technology. Grandparents are now communicating more with their schools.
Unity is needed
This pandemic has been difficult for everyone—families, teachers, community members. Many families must make significant changes to the daily patterns, arrangements, and rhythms of their individual and family lives. Ms. Gentry talked about schools offering more support to vulnerable families.
All of the principals agreed on a need for unity in decision making, training and support in a range of areas, and transparency. Principal Morales even mentioned wanting “less politics” involved in decision making.
Principal Riddlesprigger immediately addressed the digital divide between affluent and less affluent families. Devices for students have been a heavily discussed issue throughout DCPS. However, Principal Riddlesprigger discovered the silver lining of this situation that many of her students, that previously weren’t technologically adapted, now are able to access these devices thoroughly. She mentioned technology education is just as important, and that it should not be an if/and situation where schools miss out on other opportunities because of this new technology education. Principal Morales recommended allocating funds to improve family engagement with teachers and educational support staff.
One word moving forward: Hope
When asked for a one-word summary of how they felt, each panelist expressed sentiments of hope. While this pandemic has been challenging for many school communities, all of the panelists still felt connected with their schools. We look forward to sharing on that hope through our future webinars.
Next Webinar: ReOpening Right: Putting School Community at the Center
Join the D.C. State Board for a webinar focused on reopening for hybrid learning that puts students and their school communities at the center. Panelists representing DCPS and public charter schools from across the city will discuss how they assessed which students to invite back for small group, in-person learning and how they tailored safe, hybrid learning to meet the needs of their students and families, teaching and support staff during this challenging time.
The webinar will take place on December 10, from 3:30- 5:00pm. Click here to register, and please share this event with friends, families, and educators. Please reach out to the State Board if you prefer live Spanish translations by emailing email@example.com, or calling (202) 741-0888.
 Ketcham uses Class Dojo, an online school platform to perform these virtual visits.