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Youth Taking Leading Roles: Defining and Improving Family Engagement

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August 1, 2017

Heather Weiss and Linda Jacobson

Members of the 2015-16 Cambridge Youth Council sitting at the mayor's desk.

Pictured are the members of the 2015-16 Cambridge Youth Council. 

An active youth council in Cambridge, Massachusetts is helping to shape the city’s efforts to increase parents’ engagement in supporting their children both in and out of school.

Last year when members of the Family Policy Council in Cambridge, Massachusetts heard a presentation from the city’s College Success Initiative, they wanted to make sure they also heard from the individuals who the initiative is designed to help. 

So, they turned to the 16 members of Cambridge Youth Council (CYC), a subcommittee of the Family Policy Council that helps to connect city leaders to the issues teens are experiencing in their schools and communities. The adults heard concerns from students about the high costs of test prep books for college admission tests and they said they wanted parents to better understand the differences among college prep, honors, and Advanced Placement classes when their children are registering for classes. Their concern is that not enough low-income students and students of color are enrolling in these classes, and they want parents to know they can advocate for their children to get into higher-level courses. 

But the CYC students didn’t just talk about the obstacles some students and their families experience in preparing for college. They devised their own plans to eliminate some of those obstacles, such as holding a test prep book drive to create a lending library in the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School College and Career Resource Center. They work with the College Success Initiative coordinator to help encourage all seniors to fill out financial forms, and they created a document that explains the different course levels that will be translated into multiple languages.

“It’s one thing when you have numbers, but [the students] put a face to the statistics,” says Nancy Tauber, the executive director of the Family Policy Council. “They are pushing the adults to really take a good look at what’s happening.”

With this month’s release of “Parents 2017: Unleashing Their Power & Potential” from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Family Policy Council’s experience demonstrates the value of including students in planning and implementing efforts to engage families in supporting their children’s education. 

Commissioned by Learning Heroes, a nonprofit organization that supports parents’ involvement in their children’s education, the “Parents 2017” survey shows that parents would like to be more involved in their children’s learning and would welcome more information and resources. Parents, however, might be overlooking an important voice in learning how they can be more helpful—their children’s. 

The Family Policy Council, chaired by Mayor E. Denise Simmons, includes representatives from community organizations and city agencies that interact with children and youth, such as the Cambridge Public Schools, the Cambridge Public Library, Human Services and the police department. CYC members are given three votes on the policy council and receive either a stipend or community service hours for their commitment.

Defining family engagement

The important contributions of the CYC members became clear a few years ago when the Family Policy Council began to take a close look at how people define family engagement and to craft a citywide policy statement to guide family engagement efforts. 

When CYC members took on the challenge of developing a definition, they described family engagement as a support system in which parents keep their children involved in learning at home, at school, during out-of-school time and in the community. Families are engaged, they said when they “set goals and expectations,” “teach children outside of school,” “get children tutors if they need help,” and “make sure students are involved in school and doing well.” 

Their definition of family engagement included firm belief statements, such as “education is the foundation of success in this world today” and that “each child should have as much opportunity as the next.” The teens also made recommendations for what parents and other adults could do to improve opportunities for students, such as strengthening relationships between parents and teachers, providing translation services for non-English speaking families, and informing parents about the college application process. 

The students’ written report gave the adults on the larger council a perspective that they might not have considered. Their voices counteracted a common perception that teens are focused only on gaining independence and don’t want their parents involved.

Focus on transition

It’s especially important for adults to seek out students’ voices on the transitions that they experience—whether it’s between middle and high school or after high school. These periods can be both exciting and frightening for youth and capturing their input on ways to smooth transitions can better inform educators and other organizations working with youth during these years. 

“Parents 2017” shows that transitions can also create stress and uncertainty for parents. The survey finds that when their children are in middle school, parents begin to shift more of the responsibility for academic success to their children. But at the same time, they experience anxiety about whether their children will be prepared enough for college. Parents also place a lot of emphasis on their children’s happiness and emotional well-being, the survey shows. 

The CYC’s work demonstrates that youth not only have ideas on how families can navigate transitions together, but that they can also help share important messages with their peers. The CYC members focused on helping middle school students and their families make a successful transition to high school. 

They used their Facebook page to reach more middle school students and their families throughout Cambridge, and they created a mentoring program to provide support to incoming 9th graders. Mentors organized workshops, addressed issues such as peer pressure, making new friends and setting academic goals. 

By serving as mentors, teens are also able to gather more input from students on their concerns, which they can then share with adults. Eighth-graders, for example, felt their middle school teachers had too much control over which courses they registered for in high school. They also could share feelings of anxiety about bullying or the academic demands of high school that they might not share with adults—another reason why it’s important to involve youth in capturing this feedback. 

The CYC also participates in the annual “incoming 9th grade information night” at the high school, which allows new parents and students to hear from administrators, guidance counselors, and older students about how to have a successful start as a freshman.

Ongoing youth involvement

Since that first year that the Family Policy Council asked for teens’ input into improving family engagement, the CYC has continued to focus on issues important to youth and community leaders. In addition to addressing the topic of transition, the members have also addressed the topic of race and teens’ interactions with police. They again used Facebook to launch a social media campaign entitled Cambridge Raw Perspectives, in which members of the community can share their thoughts on race and equity in education. 

They held three workshops focusing on racial issues—one on police, one on how race is portrayed in the media, and one on education. More recently they have shifted their work to align with the Family Policy Council’s focus on reducing opportunity gaps. Their work on preparing for college and providing information to both students and parents is an example of how they are identifying and addressing those gaps. 

The CYC members have also continued to share their perspectives with different audiences and participate in various events, such as the Massachusetts Women’s Conference, the National League of Cities conference in Washington, and as part of Envision Cambridge, a community-wide project focusing on future sustainability, economic, and quality of life issues in the city. 

Teens reap multiple benefits by participating in youth leadership opportunities, such as the CYC. They sharpen their communication and critical thinking skills and have opportunities to present their thinking to adult audiences. When they presented their views to city and school officials, they paved the way for future community discussions about family engagement to routinely include youth input. 

“We’ve created a vehicle for both sides to share their views,” Tauber says. “It’s very reciprocal. The youth get guidance and information from the adults and the adults get guidance and information from the youth.” 

Youth also learn about civic engagement and gain a wider understanding of community organizations and governance. Other teens in the broader community gain by having someone who represents their opinions and ideas to school or community leaders. 

Lessons about youth voice in family engagement

Several lessons have been learned through the process of involving youth in efforts to strengthen family engagement in Cambridge. 

  • First, teens feel family engagement is important for keeping them on track during times of tremendous change and helping them to prepare for the future. They want their families involved at school and in helping them find opportunities outside of school. 
  • Second, it’s important to be sensitive to the reality that not all children and youth have parents or family members who play those supportive roles in their lives. Educators and other youth-serving professionals should consider that sometimes a caring teacher, a mentor, or a friend’s parent might be the only person in a child’s life who is focusing on his or her learning and positive development. 
  • A third lesson is that adults can guide and support youth in the beginning of such a process, but over time, teens are capable of taking more responsibility and control. They shaped their written statement, prepared presentations and initiated more strategies to gather student voice.
  • Finally, from the Mayor’s office to community leaders, officials in Cambridge take the student’s voices seriously. The CYC is not a token activity, but is viewed as an essential part of the Family Policy Council. The students’ active involvement has strengthened the scope and the quality of the broader council’s work on family engagement.