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At Earl Boyles, Parent-Teacher Conferences Foster Community

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In a school community where over thirty different home languages are spoken, the faculty and staff at Earl Boyles Elementary in Southeast Portland work to make sure all members of the community feel welcome. Whereas one primary role of schools has been to assimilate immigrant children into a generic ideal that did not necessarily reflect American life, researchers have now come to see the importance of the cultural knowledge that students and families bring with them. Schools that value such knowledge and create authentic relationships with students and families note an increase in children’s academic achievement and emotional development, research has shown. Earl Boyles provides a great example of how to foster these kinds of authentic relationships with all families.  

Welcome signHead Start, with its Two Generations Together Initiative, pioneered an approach to fostering community and comprehensive child and family services that achieved long-term outcomes by focusing on children and their families. Parent-teacher conferences, which took place at schools across the state this month, including Earl Boyles, are one way for K-12 schools to adopt a family-engaging approach, and create the kind of welcoming environment that has been shown to improve family involvement, as well as to build trust between parents and teachers.

For the past five years, Earl Boyles has implemented a new approach to conferences designed to elicit family involvement and foster a sense of community. While the primary purpose of conferences is still to convey information to parents about how children are doing in school, Principal Ericka Guynes also wanted to use conferences to “create a space that was safe, where parents could start to network, have a cup of coffee, talk to other parents, and access resources.” To achieve that goal, the school incorporated a “Parent Break Space” into its conference model, using the cafeteria as a place for parents to gather throughout the day, and for community partner organizations to provide resources.

Facilitated by Earl Boyles’ Parents United/Padres Unidos group, the Break Space provides snacks, a place for children to draw, and resources—such as a community health worker, information on housing assistance, and a food pantry—determined by a community needs assessment, and ultimately selected by the Parents United leadership team. In addition to meeting community needs, the school uses the Break Space to continue to communicate with parents, distributing a survey from the community schools program Schools Uniting Neighborhoods (SUN) to determine the adult education topics parents are most interested in.

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This year, for the first time since the school implemented the Break Space, Earl Boyles will be collecting even more input from parents, working with Portland State University (PSU) to survey parents about the information they received at conferences this year. Principal Guynes is interested in determining whether parents feel as though their voices are being heard, demonstrating that the school views parents as valuable partners in their children’s educations, rather than passive recipients of information during conferences.

The innovation does not end here at Earl Boyles. In the Spring, the school will be using student-led conferences. These conferences allow students to present their work and their future goals to parents, and teachers more time to connect with families. These new approaches to conferences demonstrate how small changes within a school can help build a welcoming school community that supports young children’s learning experiences. 

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