The Learning Accelerator Blog/Leveraging the Urgency of ‘Now:’ Fostering Remote Family Engagement to Identify and Address Student Needs

family engagement virtual & hybrid learning seeking and measuring broader aims

Leveraging the Urgency of ‘Now:’ Fostering Remote Family Engagement to Identify and Address Student Needs

by Keri Randolph on October 7 2021

At Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS), we are committed to ensuring every student is known, cared for, and respected. This ethos became a guiding light for the ways in which we designed our strategies and supports for our school community during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a moment rife with so much uncertainty, we wanted to make sure that one thing was certain: we’d do everything we could to ensure every student got what they needed to stay connected to learning.

From the start of school closures, the big question we had all asked ourselves (and our schools) was how we could help. What types of support did our students and communities need? How could we address those needs efficiently and effectively? To answer these questions, we quickly realized that we needed to create a way to directly ask the people we were supporting – our families and students – and then plan accordingly.

Step 1: Understanding the Needs

In order to identify students' needs authentically, we focused on student and family engagement . The safety constraints of COVID-19 presented a particular challenge in eliminating in-person touchpoints that we had previously relied on; instead, our contact had to be made remotely. Rather than viewing this as an insurmountable challenge, we saw this as an opportunity to obtain data more quickly and more broadly – especially because families could respond to our prompts with a tap of their cell phone, instead of taking time out of their schedules to travel to parent meetings, town halls, or other in-person venues we had created in the past. Some of the ways we engaged our students and families remotely to identify specific needs included:

Weekly "Navigator" Check-Ins With Every Student

This year, MNPS is maintaining and strengthening its Navigator program, focusing on wrap-around systems of support for students. The district launched Navigator in the 2021-22 school year as a system to facilitate intentional and routine check-ins, pairing each student with a caring adult in their school. Check-ins covered concerns around basic needs, social-emotional learning (SEL), mental health needs, and academic challenges and supports.

In 2021-22, MNPS has expanded this work to include weekly SEL check-ins and self-reflections through “Sown to Grow” while also maintaining Navigator support at a cadence of monthly check-ins, at minimum.

Family "Pulse Checks"

These quick, text-based surveys helped us to align and understand specific family and student needs. Families received a biweekly text-based survey through Possip that included a series of simple questions, which they could answer anonymously or opt to submit as identified feedback.

    Some sample questions included: “Are you happy with your student’s experience with their school? What praise, questions or ideas do you have?” Schools could also include a third, customizable question.

    These prompts were then built into the school and district dashboards to provide important feedback for specific areas of support within each school and community. This year, we have added staff pulse checks to these dashboards in order to ensure educators are being supported strategically, as well.

    Personalized Student Dashboards

    The district set a goal of getting at least 80 percent of families to access a personalized student dashboard by the end of October, with a big push at schools through parent-teacher conferences. These dashboards will be used to empower students and families with data around achievement, district and state assessments, and individual growth projections. MNPS plans to expand the dashboard over time to include goal-setting, success plans, “Ready Graduate” status, and more.

    Step 2: Addressing the Need

    Once we were able to connect with our families and students and begin collecting the data, our next step was to address those needs thoughtfully and strategically. Given that identified support needs varied drastically, our approaches needed to be nimble, focused, and accessible to everyone. Some of the ways we have started to address these needs are:

    • Text-based content support: Each week pre-K and elementary school families receive three text messages with brief learnings or strategies parents can use to support effective development of literacy skills, SEL, and math. In addition, MNPS is also using Ready4K, a text-based, early literacy support system for parents and caregivers.

    • Spiral ESSER funding to schools: MNPS spiraled ESSER resources to schools to keep the funding close to the students who needed the support. Many schools have invested these funds in student and family supports, including communication systems to ensure the conversation continues and students are continuing to get focused support.

    • Community support hubs: During the 2020-21 school year, MNPS launched virtual help centers called Community Support Hubs to serve families and students during remote learning. Each site offers support for enrollment help, food assistance, school supplies, standard school attire, and technology. These have become an important resource and will continue to be staffed every weekday during the current school year within each quadrant.

    • Transition plans: The district is also launching transition plans to support seamless support as students move from pre-K to elementary, and throughout other major grade transitions. These plans cover goal-setting across academic and SEL outcomes, as well as a checklist of guaranteed experiences at each tier, such as a college visit in middle school and participation in at least one extracurricular activity in high school.

    The past year and a half has been challenging for everyone, but MNPS was able to surface important learnings that helped our school community make meaningful steps forward, even in a period of uncertainty. We found that if we focus on staying true to our core values and beliefs, and ensuring that every student – and their needs – are known, we can work together to support our community as a team. By continuing to engage our families and our community remotely this fall, we have enabled open and transparent communication, the real-time shifts that need to be made, a way to leverage community support around wellness and safety, and a process we can use to learn from and listen to each other, every step of the way.

    To learn more about MNPS, listen to the TLA Stories of Learning Podcast,Episode 8: What Will We Take With Us?: Metro Nashville Public Schools on Relationship-Building, Family Engagement, and Remote Support During COVID, or explore additional concrete strategies from them and other districts in the guide: Hop, Skip, Leapfrog: Exploring the concrete ways schools and systems pursuit student-centered innovation during COVID-19.

    About the Author

    Dr. Keri Randolph is the Executive Officer of Strategic Partnerships at Metro Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee.