Case study: Cajon Valley Union School District
Case Study

Cajon Valley Union School District

Organization:
Cajon Valley Union School District Government
Location:
El Cajon, California, United States
Goal(s):
Improve learning and development

Overview

Since 2000, Cajon Valley Union School District has become increasingly ethnically and linguistically diverse. By the end of the Iraq War in 2011, the district had welcomed a large influx of families from Iraq and surrounding areas. Many of these families were nonnative English speakers and unfamiliar with the U.S. education system. The school district was unprepared to help build authentic relationships with these parents to help them understand how to effectively support their child’s education. Hence, district leaders began a concerted effort to develop parent engagement strategies (S. Candler & M. Serban, personal communication, June 11, 2021). State offices supported this endeavor, allocating additional funding for refugee family engagement. Some funding sources were new and local, such as the three-year California Newcomer Education and Well-Being grant, while others included grants from the Kaiser Foundation and Jimmie Johnson Foundation and existing federal monies, such as Title I and Title III funding, which assist local agencies in supporting low-income and nonnative English-speaking students (California Department of Social Services, n.d.). Another important grant came from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which allowed for the building of Parent University and the creation of teacher training workshops and a central office administrator position (E. Bergman, personal communication, July 26, 2021).

Cajon Valley Union School District used these funds in service of its diverse families. Today, it is home to a diverse population of over 17,000 students from kindergarten to eighth grade. As of the 2020-21 school year, 52 percent of the student body were from minority groups and 33 percent were classified as English language learners (Public School Review, n.d.). Approximately 70 percent of students receive free or reduced-price meals, a common measure of the proportion of low-income families in a district (Education Data Partnership, n.d.).

In order to engage and support families and act as a bridge to schools, the district began hiring bilingual community liaisons to better communicate with parents who were struggling financially or lacked English fluency. What began with unstructured recruitment of liaisons developed over the next decade into a highly organized culture of family-school engagement, with most initiatives developed by or alongside the Family and Community Engagement (FACE) office, established in 2016 to build the capacity of teachers and families to form closer partnerships (Cajon Valley Union School District, n.d.a). FACE employs myriad research-based and personalized strategies to better engage parents from across socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds. It is guided by the national Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family-School Partnerships, a framework designed by Dr. Karen Mapp and Dr. Eyal Bergman to support the development of family-school engagement strategies, policies, and programs (Mapp & Bergman, 2013).

FACE strategies focus on enhancing relationships between school staff and families to improve students’ academic and socio-emotional development during their schooling and in their careers after graduation. These strategies include training community liaisons to support home visits, host career workshops and parent skill-building courses, and provide parents with the tools they need to support their children. Further initiatives include an annual parent survey to gauge participation with the district and before- and after-school programs, which were redeveloped during the COVID-19 pandemic to serve working parents. Each of the 28 schools in the district is encouraged to take part in these interventions, though given the decentralized nature of the district, individual schools and teachers are encouraged to personalize strategies based on their students’ needs. (S. Candler & M. Serban, personal communication, June 11, 2021). These interventions have created a culture of listening, understanding, and relationship building in the district. This is evidenced through the annual survey of parents conducted in partnership with Gallup, which in 2019 showed that parents in the district engaged at a rate almost twice the national average—39 percent compared to 20 percent (E. Hidalgo, personal communication, September 6, 2019).

Strategies

Goal: Improve learning and development
Student age: Primary
Tech level: No Tech
Lever: Building Relationships
Place: School
Family role: Supporting
Parent community liaisons: Cajon Valley Union School District has hired 16 itinerant bilingual community liaisons from the community of local parents. They work in high-need schools in the district in order to create and maintain long-lasting relationships between school staff and parents. The goal of the liaison position is to drive family-school engagement through strategy implementation and provide opportunities for staff and families to build authentic relationships to improve students’ academic and socio-emotional development. Community liaisons take part in weekly team-building activities with the FACE office supervisor and FACE teacher facilitator, a school representative who works alongside the liaison. Community liaisons facilitate many elements of family-school engagement, including Parent University, positive home visits, and regular phone calls to all families. All community liaisons are parents in Cajon Valley Union School District who speak English and at least one other language commonly found in the district.

Goal: Improve learning and development
Student age: Primary
Tech level: High Tech
Lever: Building Skills
Place: School
Family role: Supporting
Building parents’ skills through the Parent University program: Parent University is an eight-week in-person program using the Families in Schools Reading Roads curriculum and WestEd Positive Solutions for Families, adapted for use by FACE and the California Collaborative on the Social-Emotional Foundations for Early Learning. The goal of the Parent University program is to build parent literacy skills and confidence through weekly lessons facilitated by one teacher and one community liaison. Parents can also participate in individual hour-long courses. Given the diverse nature of the district, the 24 classes offered are provided in the four most common languages spoken by parents: English, Spanish, Arabic, and Farsi. Since 2018, community liaisons and teachers have facilitated 120 Parent University cohorts, or around 1,230 parents, in the fall and spring of each school year. A total of 4,599 parents have participated in individual courses to build their skill sets. Courses include learning Zoom, creating and using email, learning Google Classroom, navigating the district’s parent website, and internet safety. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, these courses were continued online.

Goal: Improve learning and development
Student age: Primary
Tech level: No Tech
Lever: Providing Information, Building Relationships, Shifting Mindsets
Place: School
Family role: Supporting
Building relationships via family-teacher team meetings: Family-teacher team meetings serve as a relationship-building activity for schools and their parents. The district adopted and modified this strategy from San Francisco nonprofit WestEd’s Academic Parent-Teacher Teams model of family-school engagement. In the beginning of each 30-to-60-minute meeting, students perform a song or dance for their parents and teachers before leaving the room for supervised activity time. Chairs are then arranged in a circle, and parents are asked one question: “What are your hopes and dreams for your kids?” After each parent has the chance to respond, a school representative then shares one piece of academic data about every child, such as reading scores. Parents can compare their child’s data with that of their classmates. Parents then receive one strategy they can consistently do at home to support their child’s academic growth before the next meeting. Before a school conducts these meetings, the FACE leadership team facilitates one or two meetings in the spring, followed by another in the fall, where staff receive flyers, translator information, and organizational and logistical tips. Meetings are conducted two to three times a year, either with individual parents or in a group setting, to follow up on the previous session’s academic and strategy focus.

Goal: Improve learning and development
Student age: Primary
Tech level: High-tech
Lever: Providing Information, Building Relationships
Place: School
Family role: Supporting
Annual parent engagement survey: The yearly parent engagement survey organized by Gallup determines the level of support parents feel they are receiving from the district. For example, the 2021 the survey focused on a specific survey item: “My school delivers on promises.” Through parent responses, the district can determine which families require more attention. Results actively inform ongoing and new engagement strategies. In many instances, parents who require more attention are invited to share their needs and concerns at listening sessions facilitated by school staff and supported by community liaisons. Other interventions shaped by the Gallup survey results include a framework for principals to more effectively and empathetically engage their families.

Goal: Improve learning and development
Student age: Primary
Tech level: No Tech
Lever: Building Relationships
Place: Home
Family role: Supporting
Home visits from teachers and community liaisons: The district conducts voluntary positive home visits using the model established by Parent Teacher Home Visits, a nonprofit organization that works with public schools and partners across the United States to support relationship-building home visits between teachers and families. Positive home visits are optional preplanned visits by teachers and community liaisons to students’ homes with the goal of helping schools bridge gaps by building trust and increasing understanding of cultural and socio-economic differences. Visits are made to a cross section of students, and staff members are compensated for their time. Staff members are trained to facilitate discussions with parents around their hopes, dreams, and expectations for their child during the visits and to work collaboratively with parents on how to best support the student.

Goal: Improve learning and development
Student age: Primary
Tech level: No Tech
Lever: Building Relationships, Shifting Mindsets
Place: School
Family role: Supporting
Poverty empathy simulations for education personnel: The poverty empathy simulation, conducted during a two-hour staff meeting, followed by an hour-long debrief, allows teachers and principals at participating schools to understand what it would be like to live in poverty for a month. During the session, parents and community liaisons also share their lived experiences. The district purchased the program and received training in the program from the Missouri Community Action Network. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the simulation had been implemented at three to six schools per year since 2016.

Goal: Improve learning and development
Student age: Primary
Tech level: No Tech
Lever: Providing Information, Building Skills, Providing Resources
Place: School
Family role: Supporting
World of Work workshops for families: The Cajon Valley Union School District created the World of Work curriculum to help prepare students for employment after graduation. This in-school curriculum uses Dr. John Holland’s RIASEC (Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising, and Conventional) framework to help children understand their strengths, interests, and values before they are exposed to a variety of different careers (McHugh, 2020). Starting in the early grades, the RIASEC framework can help students identify careers that might interest them. To complement the students’ curriculum, the district conducts one to two workshops annually for families at participating schools. Hosted by a community liaison and a World of Work program specialist, these workshops allow parents to take their own RIASEC inventory and identify their strengths in relation to career paths. Not only does this allow parents to better understand and support their child’s learning, but it can also help parents achieve their own employment goals through the district’s partnerships with workforce boards and local community college career centers. Annually, 16 World of Work workshops, in series of three, are planned with the World of Work program specialists (Cajon Valley Union School District, 2019). These have been provided at 16 of the district’s 27 schools since the program’s inception in 2018.

Roles

Staff

Families

Resources required

People

Finances

Technology

Spaces

How do they do it?

With such a diverse district, working with cultural and language differences is essential in effectively engaging families. Many families come from cultural backgrounds that position a child’s education as the responsibility of teachers alone, without parent input. Language barriers further hinder community engagement in school spaces. To circumvent previously held belief systems and overcome language obstacles, the Cajon Valley Union School District developed individual longitudinal relationships with each family through its bilingual community liaison program.

Through the program, the district leveraged community diversity to hire parent ambassadors to serve as community liaisons. These liaisons were selected from every major ethnic group in order to understand and work with the parents’ diverse worldviews. Liaison-led phone calls and meetings targeted toward nonnative English-speaking parents helped reveal the gaps that needed to be filled. For example, based on parent demand, liaisons began providing bilingual books and financial workshops for parents new to the United States. Often, cultural beliefs about gender roles initially prevented fathers from getting involved in their child’s education. After realizing this, one community liaison started a dads’ soccer and reading club, where fathers and their kids would visit school on Saturdays to engage in reading activities followed by a soccer game and pizza party.

By tasking, training, and financing a dedicated team of family-school engagement workers, the FACE office ensured role clarity and responsibility around engagement. Rather than leave individual teachers or schools to manage engagement practices, this well-resourced unit took charge of uniting best practice research and deep relationships with local families to design and implement family programming. Strategies like the annual Gallup survey and family-teacher teams create clear feedback loops to identify and target interventions to parents’ needs and desires. Furthermore, allowing every school flexibility in implementing and devising strategies based on the community’s unique needs ensures that engagement is always evolving, guided by research-based interventions and the input of district parents.

Resources and testimonials

References

California Department of Social Services. (n.d.). California newcomer education and wellbeing. https://www.cdss.ca.gov/inforesources/refugees/programs-and-info/youth-initiatives/calnew

Cajon Valley Union School District. (n.d.a). Family and Community Engagement (FACE) office. https://www.cajonvalley.net/Page/17753

Cajon Valley Union School District. (2019, July 11). World of Work parent workshop [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XvNkkdP-xtc

Education Data Partnership. (n.d.). Cajon Valley Union. http://www.ed-data.org/district/San-Diego/Cajon-Valley-Union

Mapp, K. L., & Bergman, E. (2019). The dual capacity-building framework for family-school partnerships (Version 2). http://www.dualcapacity.org

McHugh, K. (2020). The World of Work (WOW): Students aligning careers with education. The Learning Counsel. https://thelearningcounsel.com/node/1647

Public School Review. (n.d.). Cajon Valley Union School District. Retrieved August 12, 2021, from https://www.publicschoolreview.com/california/cajon-valley-union-school-district/606810-school-district