by Dani Smilanich
How do you engage families in a pandemic? Family engagement is a tenet of Full-Service Community Schools, so this was the question that crossed our minds as Site Coordinators of Duluth’s community schools in April after schools had closed. Then George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer at the end of May, and we knew we needed to do something to connect with our kids and families in person and make sure they knew how important they are to us. Riots and protests were ongoing in the Twin Cities, and in the Twin Ports we also experienced the trauma from afar. Our first priority when planning this event was to give families space to connect with one another again, see their site coordinators and principles, and share feedback on how community schools can best serve their children.
And so we planned. We reached out to community partners who have been doing equity work in the community, and asked for feedback before going forward. A key partner was the Education Equity Alliance (EEA), which is looking to get family feedback about the schools and make positive changes that help Duluth Public Schools improve services for all students. EEA was seeking information about disciplinary practices in schools, how teachers are working with students from the parent perspective, and wanted to share about the work that they are doing to improve equity. The Collaborative made a commitment to center our work on BIPOC youth and families and partner with EEA on their efforts to address disproportionate discipline of students of color, and this was a perfect opportunity for us to do that.
The principals were excited to be involved, and students, staff, and parents wanted to volunteer. We sent postcards to families inviting them to the Back to School Get Together. We posted the event on Facebook and we connected personally with families and students to bring people together. We hosted more than 300 people (though not all at once per COVID guidelines). The Back to School Get Together was held outside the Denfeld Stadium, which was chosen because it was on the bus line and close to families. Volunteers took temperatures at welcome tables, masks were required, attendees were encouraged to stand six feet away from each other, and there were directional arrows showing people where to go. This was the first event held at the schools with this many people since the pandemic began, and we followed the requirements of our COVID plan to keep everyone safe and healthy.
The event was supported by school staff, Duluth Community School Collaborative staff, volunteers, and partners. Partners included the Duluth NAACP, Generations Health Care Initiatives, YES Duluth, Duluth Public Library, Archie Davis, Education Equity Alliance, and ISD 709 Early Childhood. Minnesota Power generously sponsored the event. A highlight from these partnerships was the Duluth NAACP mask distribution and voter registration drive. Anyone who did not bring a mask received a free one from the NAACP.
As families left the event, grab and go meals were provided by the Whole Foods Co-op Denfeld location. They spent over eight hours packing food for our families. We were unable to have families eat food at the event due to the COVID guidelines, but every person there had the opportunity to grab food on their way out.
The Back to School Get Together was a very good experience for families and for the Collaborative. Parents and students had a chance to meet with their school principal and some school staff. Over 65 family groups filled out the survey, which will be given to the Education Equity Alliance and used to give feedback to the schools as they work to improve equity. Families were engaged, they got delicious food, and they shared information on discipline and other equity-related issues, giving them the opportunity to affect change at their children’s schools.