Leading Innovation for Tennessee Education (LIFT) is a group of Tennessee districts working together to explore innovative approaches and share best practices that benefit students. One of LIFT’s primary areas of focus has been improving literacy outcomes in the early grades.

In spring 2018, Trousdale and Sullivan County Schools surveyed parents regarding their child’s early literacy instruction. Parents have an intimate view of their child’s literacy progress and needs, but their voice is easy to overlook. Below, leaders from these two districts share what they learned from parents and why they prioritized hearing their feedback.

• Demetrice Badru is the principal of Trousdale County Elementary School
• Dr. Robin McClellan is the Supervisor of Elementary Education with the Sullivan County Department of Education
• Deanna Zarichansky is the Assistant Principal at Trousdale County Elementary School

Why are families important partners in your efforts to improve literacy outcomes?

Demetrice: Fostering a positive relationship between home and school impacts the learning outcomes of students because parents are students’ first teachers. Our parents are always excited to extend learning at home, and a partnership between a school and families is critical to ensure all students become strong readers.

Robin: Families are a tremendous resource as a checkpoint for a child’s transfer of knowledge and application of skills. They provide the time, attention, and resources for children to fall in love with reading.

What priorities do parents in your district have for their children?

Demetrice: Parents want students to come to school to be safe, to learn, and to grow. They want their children to be stretched academically and to be challenged in a well-rounded way.

Robin: Parents want their children to have bright futures. They want their kids to be ready for college or career. They want their children to love school, to be engaged in learning, and to be equipped with the skills necessary to lead a happy life.

How have leaders and teachers in LIFT districts worked to build trusting relationships with families?

Deanna: Our teachers spend a lot of time communicating with parents. We use daily communication sheets, a school website, and frequent phone calls. But our teachers also go to games and see families at the grocery store. We take any opportunity we have to communicate with parents and meet families where they are, rather than always asking them to come to us.

Robin: Our teachers build trusting relationships through transparency and respect. They communicate regularly through a variety of platforms. They provide specific, tailored ways for families to support their child’s learning. They celebrate accomplishments—no matter how great or small. By coupling strong, challenging curriculum with high expectations, families are more connected to student learning because their children can now have rich conversations about the world around them.

What did you learn from families when you asked for their feedback?

Deanna: Parents agreed that their children are better readers. We are glad parents see a benefit to our instruction, and we believe the investments we’ve made in instructional materials and teacher development contribute to that success. We hope that every child becomes a strong reader, and we hope to partner with parents to make sure that happens.

Demetrice: We also heard that our families want more communication from us. They want specific examples about how to help match what happens at school with support at home—especially how they can fill any gaps for kids if additional support is needed. They want to know when their kids are mastering content, and they want to know how to push them further.

Robin: The vast majority of families indicated their student is excited about the topics in the reading curriculum, is developing a broader vocabulary, and is a better reader because of the instruction s/he received. Qualitatively, they shared the stories behind the numbers—stories about building confidence, curiosity, and a more well-rounded student. One major lesson learned is that parents want more frequent updates. They want to know more about how to support their students’ developing skills at home. We are now tackling that as a group, and our teachers are strategically planning to bridge the gap.

How will this change your work moving forward?

Deanna: Literacy is a big focus for us, so we want to further our partnership with families to develop strong readers. We are beginning a “Text Tuesday” with our Kindergarten parents this fall. This idea came up in response to parents wanting to know more about what kids are learning and how to help at home. We wanted to try communicating more via text message after giving the parent survey via text and having a really strong response rate.

Demetrice: Every week we will send a text about what kids are learning and a practical idea about how to extend learning outside of the school day. Our hope is to spread this practice to each grade level. We also ensure that newsletters go home to share information about the content of upcoming units, so parents know more about what kids are learning.

Robin: All K-3 teachers analyzed our family survey data, and they are now creating a district-wide, grade-specific family newsletter. Through this newsletter, parents will hear about topics their child is learning about, as well as the foundational skills that are being taught. Additionally, they will receive tips and tricks on how to help their child at home.