When it comes to engaging with families and the community, there are some bright spots in Pasco County Schools — but there’s no consistency.
The issue exists throughout the district, and at every level, those are some of the key findings in a report shared with the Pasco County School Board at a workshop in April.
The district has identified community engagement as one of its top priorities and, as it attempts to make improvements, it has been working with TNTP, a national consulting company.
A Landscape Analysis has been done to get to know Pasco and its needs.
“Every community is unique,” said Janet King, of TNTP.
“So, we really need to start by understanding the place’s unique history, needs and priorities.
“Even within a district, communities are not monolithic, so it’s really important to look across a county and to understand that different parts of a county have different ways of accessing information, and different challenges and different resources that we need to understand before we build any kind of plan or solution.
“Finally, without this understanding, any improvement efforts are not likely to last because it’s not responsive to what families and community members most want and need, and works for them,” she said.
The Landscape Analysis included:
- Market research: Taking a deep look into Pasco’s unique history, demographics, landscape and growth patterns
- Asset mapping: Peeling back the layers of who’s doing great work in Pasco and who could be great potential partners
- Insights Survey: Surveyed 38 representative schools, using TNTP’s survey, to enable the results to be benchmarked nationally
- Listening Tour: Conducted focus groups, one-on-one sessions and superintendent-led sessions. In short, the sessions asked: “What are your experiences? What’s working? What can be improved?”
The efforts included:
- 5,397 caregiver/stakeholder surveys
- Eight parent/caregiver focus groups, including two conducted in Spanish
- 42 community stakeholder interviews
- Five student focus groups
- Four teacher focus groups
- Five superintendent-led listening tour sessions
In total, the efforts have included more than 70 hours of listening, said TNTP’s King, who shared findings from TNTP’s work during an April workshop with Pasco County School Board.
Vanessa Hilton, the district’s chief academic officer, said TNTP was brought in to help the district to develop its capacity to improve its efforts regarding community engagement.
The district also formed its own Community Engagement Task Force, made up of district personnel representing different departments, roles and responsibilities. The task force includes school board member Alison Crumbley and assistant superintendent Dr. Kim Moore.
Hilton said the district realizes “we have lots of bright spots around the district in regards to our school efforts, but not yet, an intentional, meaningful strategy from the district level.”
Efforts to establish authentic engagement are important because it has a real impact on student achievement, King said.
“Research shows that when families and communities are engaged, it makes a real difference for students. Increased family engagement has been linked to higher test scores, increased school readiness, better attendance and decreased suspension rates for students,” she said.
Assistant Superintendent Moore noted that some of the school system’s challenges stem from its rampant growth. In the 1999-2000 school year, the school district’s enrollment was 46,458; now, its 82,377.
“That growth puts a strain on our resources. It puts a strain on how we operate as a school district,” Moore said.
“We have to look at putting in systems so our community feels that they can come in and interact with us, and be an authentic partner with us,” Moore said.
“Many of our community leaders, they want to partner with us. They don’t know how. They don’t where to go, to connect with us,” she said.
They call the district and they get passed from one person to the next.
“That increases their level of frustration and then they give up. They want to work with us. They want to support our students,” Moore said.
Steve Hegarty, public information officer for Pasco County Schools, said, in general, the district pushes out information. And, when it seeks feedback, it doesn’t routinely reach back and let people know what it did with the feedback it received.
The lack of systemwide expectation for school-based family engagement has resulted in inconsistent experiences for families, Hegarty said.
One of the issues is the variety of tools that is used to communicate with parents.
The variety of communication methods and styles can be confusing.
“If you’re a parent with three kids in the system, you might have three different ways that you’re being communicated with,” Hegarty said, adding that can be frustrating for parents.
School board member Crumbley said improving community engagement is crucial.
“This is really such important work because it touches everything we do in the school district. Everything. It really does. It has so much to do with the success of our students and our families,” Crumbley said.
She’s particularly alarmed by the survey results that reveal the connection in secondary is far below the national average.
School board member Colleen Beaudoin said she wasn’t surprised by the findings, noting these issues have persisted for years.
She suggested the district build on what’s working.
Beaudoin also pointed out the need to devise training that is focused and avoids wasting staff time.
School board member Megan Harding asked: “If we’re trying to engage the community, shouldn’t we have some parents on that task force as well? We need to be sure that we are listening to those groups.”
Harding likes the idea of holding town hall meetings, to add a forum for engagement.
Board Chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong said when people want to know more about a school, they’ll visit its website.
She’s visited nearly all of them and she’s not impressed by the inconsistency she found.
“There’s nobody in charge of the websites at the schools. It’s whoever has an interest in it.
“That just doesn’t work, from what I saw,” she said.
While one school may offer a plethora of information; another might just say when lunch money is due.
Both Armstrong and member Allen Altman also said greater efforts are needed to inform the general public — who do not have children in school — about accomplishments within the district.
When he talks to people who don’t have students in the district, Altman said that many have no clue about the positive things that are happening. Instead, they only know the negative news they’ve read or heard.
Superintendent Kurt Browning agrees that much work lies ahead, and added that establishing authentic community engagement will require a broad-scale commitment.
“It cannot be just a small group of people in this district running, managing the community engagement work. It has got to be a districtwide effort. Not only that, but I’ll also say, community-wide.
“Beyond setting clear expectations, the district needs to develop tools and provide training, to shift the mindset,” the superintendent said.
The effort needs to involve “all district staff, whether you’re a bus driver, an entry operator, a school teacher, a principal, a superintendent,” Browning said.
Efforts to develop a plan of action are under way and more details are expected in June.
Community Engagement in Pasco Schools
Some key findings
- Many community leaders want to partner with the district, but don’t know where to go or what the district needs.
- District communication practices with community leaders tend to be one-way; stakeholders want more transparency and opportunities to provide feedback.
- Where there are bright spots, there are not system-wide expectations for school-based family engagement, resulting in inconsistent experiences for families.
- A lot of information is provided to caregivers at the school level, but it is not streamlined, consistent or focused on how they can support their student.
- Parents want to know what their children are learning and how they can help.
Comments contained in TNTP’s report reveal the school district has myriad issues, when it comes to communication and engagement.
Here are some comments from the report:
- “It is great to know that it is blue T-shirt day, but I want to know what my children (are) learning and how they are doing.” (Elementary and middle school caregiver)
- “I left voicemails and never got a response. As a community partner, that is disappointing. I hope that they are not missing other opportunities.” (Community organization staff member)
- “Sometimes community input and engagement is more of a ‘checking a box’ exercise, rather than meaningful participation.” (Community Engagement Task Force member)
- “Each teacher communicates differently. There are many portals, that we, as parents, have to access.” (Elementary school caregiver)
- “The communications from teachers are inconsistent.” (Elementary school parent)
- “I wish the teachers all shared a cohesive communication standard.” (Caregiver)
- “We should have town halls and be asked: ‘What do you think?’” (Community leader)
Source: TNTP Community Engagement report
Published May 18, 2022