Family engagement that is more than lip service — that really works — is finally getting close attention from the Charleston County public school system in its decades-long struggle to close the gap that puts thousands of mostly poor and black students far behind white students in academic performance.
The local system’s emerging new strategy on educational reform amounts to an acknowledgment that focusing on what happens in the classroom isn’t enough. The new strategy recognizes that students do most of their learning at home and in the community — “beyond the classroom” — and that reality can be shaped most positively by “Next Generation Family Engagement,” especially in the preschool-elementary years.
School Board Chairman Eric Mack told me he is confident the board will approve a new Next Generation Family Engagement program where the school system will “work with families to design an equitable pathway for success for all our students.” Mack said the board would adopt the specifics after school staff completes its study of Next Generation, which is getting its initial tests in other school districts.
It won’t be easy doing the right thing, Mack says. “I find the concepts encompassing Next Generation Family Engagement as essential in breaking cycles of poverty. However, the school district cannot do this work by ourselves. We are reaching out to faith-based groups, other agencies and community partners to enlist their assistance as we consider the best approach to early-childhood, family-engagement centers.”
With Next Generation Family Engagement, the local school system’s poor, black families, including the sizable majority headed by single mothers — upwards of 75% at some schools — would, for the first time, have the resources for their children to be prepared to succeed in school and be career- and college-ready.
Next Generation Family Engagement grew out of a 2018 report by the Carnegie Corporation of New York based on the research of three former Harvard educators. True engagement, the trio of Ph.D. educators — Heather Weiss, M. Elena Lopez and Margaret Caspe — says, “starts early and lasts along a child’s entire learning pathway.” Most of all, they emphasize, parents, including poor ones, must be equal partners with teachers and administrators, and the engagement process should be geared to “changing mindsets and developing capacity to leverage families’ strengths.”
Shawnita Montgomery of North Charleston knows all about family strengths. She was a single mother for the first five of her 11 years as a parent. It was a daily struggle where she had to make every dollar stretch to pay the rent and electric bill, put gas in her car and juggle work hours and find and pay for child care.
Montgomery, a black high school graduate, gradually built a career as a certified optician that took her beyond a low-wage existence. She also found a partner, Davon Daniels, a seaman who is studying to become an HVAC technician, with whom she had the two youngest of her four children.
All the while, she built on her family strengths to take the lead in the education of her children in the Charleston system, finding most of her resources from inside herself in the absence of any robust engagement program in the school district. Montgomery’s brand of motherhood is working. Her two older children are honor-roll students – Sean, 11, a sixth-grader at Charleston Development Academy, a public charter school, and Elyse, 10, a fourth-grader at Mitchell Elementary.
Montgomery thinks Next Generation Family Engagement could be a big help to local parents and students, especially those at underperforming schools. But she has an important qualifier: To work especially for single mothers, many of whom have to hold down two and more jobs to meet their budget, any new program has to provide meaningful support, she says, adding: “First and foremost, that has to be child care so mothers can get to services that the program will offer.”
In their study of options for Next Generation Family Engagement, local school staff would be well served engaging with Shawnita Montgomery.
Tom Grubisich contributes op-eds on local race issues to The Post and Courier. He can be reached at email@example.com.