Building Assets-Based Family-School Partnerships

by Dr. Debbie Zacarian

Wherever I’ve been working, educators are discussing the social-emotional and academic impact of the elongated COVID-19 pandemic and how to mitigate it.  At a recent training, we explored the question: What did you gain (not lose) from working with families during COVID?  At first, most shared what was challenging. Then, the interactions shifted toward the lessons we all learned.  Many shared tips and strategies that they used to overcome the challenge of reaching families during times of crises. That interaction led to thinking more carefully and intentionally about the heart of building and sustaining strong partnerships with families and the urgency for taking an assets-based stance of what’s positively possible. 

Here are two elements that are based on the research and lessons learned from crises, whatever these might be and whenever these occur, and about creating strong family-school partnerships with multilingual families.

  1. Make the Move from Deficits to Assets!

As educators, we may find ourselves spending too much energy and focus on what we perceive is missing in the lives of our students and their families.  Crises can exacerbate this tendency and lead us to spending too much time engaging in deficit-based interactions like: “they don’t speak English; their life is too chaotic for us to help them; I try to call them, and they never respond.”  How many of us have found ourselves in the negative spiral of these types of conversations?  Taking a deficit-based stance unfortunately raises the odds for failure. 

However, there is great news!  The shift toward using an assets-based approach has been carefully explored since the 1990s by such luminaries as Maslow (1987, 1999); Moll, Amanti, and Gonzalez (1992) and Dweck (2006).  Overwhelmingly, it has been demonstrated that when we move from a deficit- to an asset-based way of thinking and acting, students have a far better chance of succeeding in school and in their lives. 

  • Accentuate the Positives of Working Together

While crises challenge all of us in unprecedented ways, they accentuate our need to work closely with families on behalf of their child’s success.

Great examples are the Brockton Public Schools in Massachusetts and the Dearborn Public Schools in Michigan.  At the onset of the covid crisis, Brockton purchased smartphones for its multilingual family liaisons so they could continue the type of personal one-to-one contacts that had worked successfully before the pandemic.  At Salina Elementary School in Dearborn, its family site coordinator used What’s App to continuously communicate with families and established partnerships with various community organizations to help with food and school supplies.

An important means for supporting multilingual families is to employ a multilingual multicultural school-family liaison who:

  • has depth of knowledge about our school and family communities and can act as an essential bridge to building interconnected family-school partnerships;
  • supports students’ engagement and success in school and in after- and out-of-school activities;
  • helps us all in honoring and valuing the multiple languages and cultural identities of students and their families;
  • aids families in making informed decisions about the language assistance programming provided to their child; and
  • supports the empowerment of families as our partners.

This article was based on Zacarian, Calderón, and Gottlieb (2021). Beyond Crises: Overcoming Linguistical and Cultural Inequities in Communities Schools and Classrooms.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.