The evidence is clear — children do better and go further in school when their family is also learning and participating in the education system.

It’s a concept Pam Clayton is happy to be part of building for Walla Walla Public Schools.

Clayton has been the school district’s family engagement coordinator since late 2015, a role she took on after being an advisor for the Homelink Parent Partnership for 12 years.

Before it closed, that program paired the Walla Walla School District with homeschooled students for science, technology and art instruction. Working closely with those families was an experience Clayton said she loved and is happy to see mirrored in her current position.

“Families are the best teachers of their children, and to tap into that brings great strength to our district,” she said.

Development of the concept

Family engagement with a school was a single-dimensional picture in the past, often limited to volunteering in a classroom or attending a child’s holiday program, Clayton explained.

“It’s blossomed into a new realization that families can contribute to their child’s education in some meaningful ways,” she said.

Family engagement is so much more than bake sales, according to Karen Mapp, one of the leading voices on the subject of family-school engagement.

Mapp, a prolific author on the topic, is with the Harvard Graduate School of Education and is the faculty director of the education policy and management master’s program there. Her work has focused on the cultivation of partnerships among families, community members and educators that support student achievement and school improvement.

In writing for the U.S. Department of Education, Mapp said family engagement is rapidly shifting from low priority to an integral part of education reform. States are also adding their voices to the choir, experts say.

In a 2013 report, Mapp and co-author Paul Kuttner said any engagement efforts must begin by assessing local conditions, assets and needs.

Overall, families know more today about their children’s development and have better understanding of educational polices and programs, especially in the world of special needs. School districts have increased their knowledge of the families and communities they work with and established ways to reach out to build respectful relationships. School staff also have a deeper understanding of culturally responsive practices and the science of teaching, Mapp and Kuttner found.

Those gains have led to deeper trust between schools and families and a higher comfort level for parents when participating in school events and activities. Those can add up to more families and school staff from diverse backgrounds taking on positions of leadership at a school or within their community.

The report listed a number of engagement models from around the nation and pointed out each school district must assess its own population, needs and resources to determine how to build partnerships.

“As educators and policy makers become clearer on the ‘why’ of engagement, they are still struggling with the ‘how.’ We argue that these struggles emerge in part from a lack of attention to building capacity among families, teachers, administrators, and other stakeholders,” Mapp and Kuttner said in the report’s conclusion.

Parental-involvement policies are required at schools receiving federal funds for low-income students. Washington state also says such schools must set aside money for parent-related activities, with priority given to high-need schools, according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Using the research here

Clayton takes those requirements to heart, along with that “how” in Mapp’s and Kuttner’s findings. For example, this year’s kindergarten resource fair was a big hit with families wanting to know what to expect and how best to help their youngsters.

But an attempt this summer to create “Parent Camp” — billed as an “unconference” for sharing learning, teaching and parenting strategies — didn’t fly, she said.

Instead, Clayton will try out other approaches, such as bringing parents from all of the schools together to participate in a Parent Advisory Council.

Same goals, different road to reach them, she added.

So far, most of what’s been tried under the WWPS program’s banner has seen success, although it is too early to claim fruition, Clayton said.

Partnering with Walla Walla Community College for Love & Logic courses and housing kindergarten readiness workshops, for instance, has garnered community favor so far.

“We’re making a dent,” she said. “Parents are excited about it. I do hear from parents they are grateful for the parenting help.”

Clayton said she envisions parents learning how to not only do foundation work such as reading to their children at home, but to also get comfortable with advocating in the schools to guide education practices. In between comes things such as knowing to check a kid’s backpack, asking about homework and, yes, attending parent-teacher conferences and events.

Clayton said she will continue to search for, create and point out local offerings to connect parents and others with their schools.

“Some great things are happening in our community that families don’t always know about,” she said.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers education in the Walla Walla Valley. She also writes a column, Home Place, usually highlighting family life and slices of local life.