Engaging parents with school starts at work

Quick question: What do you think is the best way to improve educational outcomes across the United States?

Your answer might relate to teachers and instruction. For instance, maybe you favor better teacher preparation or more rigor in the classroom. Or maybe you would focus on policy, like school choice or equitable school funding. Or maybe you suspect that alleviating poverty is the key.

The answer may well be “all of the above”—and these are all strategies commonly considered by policymakers grappling with the challenge. But at EdNavigator, we focus on another critically important lever that is too often overlooked: the power of parents and families to guide and support their children’s education. After all, family characteristics are the strongest predictor of academic success. That’s not just socioeconomic background but also factors like how much reading happens at home and what kinds of educational expectations parents set for their kids.

Some families get consistently great results due to their engagement with their children’s education in various ways. They understand how school systems work, they expect success, and they exercise a high degree of control over their children’s educational experiences. Not all families, however, have the time, resources, and access to approach school this way. We see parents across all income levels struggle to ensure their kids are on track for success. For lower-income households, where the odds of graduation are already low, this is even more critical. Parents in this situation care just as much about their kids’ success. They, too, expect their children to thrive academically. If they aren’t as “engaged” in the ways we typically define the term, it’s because they are usually occupied with other pressing matters, like figuring out which is more important: paying rent or fixing the car?

Imagine how difficult the educational process can be when you are, say, a hotel housekeeper.  You earn $10-11 an hour. You take a bus downtown for work because gas is expensive and you can’t afford to park near your job. Your shifts vary based on the hotel’s occupancy, so you’re never sure how much pay you’ll take home each month. You can’t take time off to volunteer at school or attend a midday parent-teacher conference because of the missed wages.  It’s hard to attend Back to School Night because you have younger kids at home who would otherwise need babysitting.

This is the reality for millions of parents working in low-wage jobs where they not only earn less money but are more likely to have non-standard work hours and unpredictable schedules. Schools try to reach families in this situation, but they aren’t well equipped to do it. Most attempts at engagement consist of asking families to come to school for events, or do something else at home when time and money are already scarce.

Instead of allowing a parent’s employment situation to obstruct educational involvement, what if we used the workplace as an opportunity to help families with schools? More specifically, what if we sent well-trained experts like former teachers or school principals to meet with that hotel housekeeper during her break at work? In ten minutes, they could review her kids’ report cards, for example, and write down follow-up questions for the teacher. Or discuss spending more time at night reading with her third grade son, who is a little behind where he needs to be.

That’s what we’re doing through EdNavigator, the nonprofit organization we founded to help hardworking families get a great education for their children. We were inspired by our experience working on educational quality issues at the school district and state level at TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project), where we worked together for nearly 15 years, and even more so by our personal experience as parents trying to figure out schools for our own kids. We knew that if we felt stressed and uncertain, even with all our advantages, other families must feel completely lost.

Our hypothesis is pretty simple. We believe parents shouldn’t have to navigate schools alone and that bringing educational support into the workplace can be good for families and businesses alike.

We started in New Orleans with a single employer partner, the International House Hotel, about a year ago. The hotel covers the cost of the EdNavigator service as a kind of benefit. Every employee gets access to a Navigator who meets them at work to set education-related goals, talk over test scores, troubleshoot problems, and help their children stay on track in the classroom. Navigators are like pediatricians for families’ educational health—enduring, trusted sources of advice who have deep roots in their communities and an insider’s knowledge of schools.

When we started, we had no idea if it would work. Would families find it helpful? Would employers see its value? To find out, we conducted a preliminary survey that included 25 supported employees this summer. All of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statements, “I trust the advice I get from my Navigator(s),” “I feel more confident about my child’s education because of EdNavigator,” and “EdNavigator has helped me support my child’s education at home,” with at least 79 percent “strongly agreeing” in each case. Everyone indicated that they were very likely to recommend EdNavigator to a friend. Although our sample size was small and our first families’ experience with us may have been exceptional, we were heartened by the positive feedback.

EdNavigator’s support paid off for the hotel as well. Cleaning rooms is a hard job that doesn’t pay a lot, and employee turnover in the hospitality industry is an enormous challenge. Employees might be more inclined to stick around if they feel their employer cares about their children and their future. The International House reported increased employee satisfaction and sharply improved retention among employees receiving our support. Because every employee who quits costs the hotel thousands of dollars in recruitment, training, and lost productivity costs, the hotel believes it more than recouped its investment just through retention gains.

On the strength of that start, we soon added six more hotels, including several of the largest in the city. Later this fall, we’re going to expand beyond hotels to other types of employers. It won’t be easy. We still have plenty of questions to answer, including:

  • Will employers sustain their commitment to this work over time?
  • Can we demonstrate consistently that there’s an economic payoff for businesses?
  • Will we see substantial improvements in family and child welfare, from reduced absenteeism to higher achievement to fewer disciplinary incidents?
  • Can we partner successfully with schools to amplify the success of our mutual efforts?

The biggest question, though, is this one: Are we all willing to do more than just talk about parent engagement with schools and instead give parents the support they need to engage?