Lakeridge Elementary

Bake sales, PTA meetings and parent-teacher conferences have long been seen as the key to engaging parents in their children's education.

Relying on these traditional approaches, however, limits the agency and expertise of parents. Even worse, such approaches are particularly apt to marginalize parents from non-dominant communities.

The work of the University of Washington's Equitable Parent–School Collaboration research project is driven by a desire to expand how schools and districts recognize and tap parental expertise and leadership in improving student learning. For the past three years, UW researchers have partnered with schools, families and community organizations in the Road Map Project region of South Seattle and South King County to develop pathways and tools that will foster authentic parent and family engagement.

Ann Ishimaru, a UW College of Education assistant professor and principal investigator for the project, said the new tools will help schools and communities — particularly those whose members have historically been marginalized — reshape how they relate to one another.

"Ultimately, the process is critical," Ishimaru said. "We want to position parents as experts and agents in the collective work of school improvement."

The newly available tools include:

  • Road Map Family Engagement Survey User's Guide — Designed to help schools, districts and community-based organizations get started as they build equitable collaboration between families, communities and schools.
  • Parent Curriculum: Families in the Driver's Seat — A culturally-responsive, asset-based curriculum that can be adapted by schools to build capacity and relationships between parents and educators.
  • Building Relationships Bridging Cultures — This research brief is a comparative case study that describes cultural brokers (individuals who acts as bridges between families and schools) and three promising strategies they used to engage families.
  • Data Inquiry For Equitable Collaboration — This research brief describes one example of an inquiry process that engages a broad range of stakeholders in making sense of data to improve the work of an educational organization.

All too often, Kent School District Principal Melanie Strey says schools focus inwardly as they work to meet performance standards.

"It's challenging to break institutional practice," said Strey, one of numerous educators and parents who served on the project design team. "Schools tend to exclude community-based and parent-based strengths, even though we both want the same end result, which is to improve student achievement and expand their opportunities in life."

Creating a platform for parents to network, build relationships and offer support was an empowering experience for Maxine Nguyen, a parent with four children in Kent schools who served on the design team.

"These lessons that were created represent parent voices on issues that are important and current to parents, they were created for parents by parents, but most of all they represent progress of the relationship between parents and schools," Nguyen told the Kent School Board in a recent meeting updating board members on the design team's work.

Traditional parent involvement and education efforts often seek to "fix parents." Ishimaru and Joe Lott, associate professor of education and co-principal investigator on the project, say shifting away from that mentality is necessary to move toward great educational equity.

"Instead of asking educators what parents need to know in order to better support the school’s agenda, we asked parents themselves what they wanted to know and how they wanted to learn it," Ishimaru said. "We started from the premise that parents and families were the experts on their own learning needs, priorities, children, cultures and communities’ best interests. There is tremendous power in bringing together parents, families, teachers and formal leaders together on an equal footing to build relationships and capacity."

Strey pointed to research showing that engaging families in the education of their children can help reduce behavior issues, improve attendance and strengthen academic performance.

"Schools live in an accountability world, and there's a shared accountability that happens through authentic engagement with our families," she said. "The parent can become part of the solution."

In multiple cases, Strey noted that parents involved in the design team process gained skills that led to employment with a community partner or school.

"I've seen lives change," Strey said. "I believe it's critical for our school systems to hear and embrace this work if we want to change outcomes for all children."


Ann Ishimaru, Assistant Professor of Education


Joe Lott, Assistant Professor of Education


Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications