Running an alternative high school program, as I wrote about in the September issue of Educational Leadership, teaches invaluable lessons, especially where engaging families are concerned.
I’m now the principal of the Blackstone Innovation School, a large and diverse elementary school in Boston, but issues of lack of voice and marginalization are never absent from the equation. Nearly half of our students are English language learners. We have a cohort of students with multiple disabilities. Over 65 percent of our students come from families who are considered low income.
I cite those figures as a reminder of the many challenges today’s students face that have the potential to become barriers to success. To combat that possibility, it is critical that educators work to ensure that families are closely engaged in their children’s education—that they and the community more broadly come to see the learning space as their own.
Too many caregivers are made to feel their role is simply to drop off and pick up their children at the schoolhouse doors. My objective in my new position will be to open the school—and my office—to caregivers. Healthy schools that aim to empower communities and reverse the trajectories of failure must value parents’ input, honor their cultural knowledge and experience, and enlist their expertise in the development of their children.
In my article for Educational Leadership, I wrote about the importance of opening up communication lines with the parents of struggling students, gaining their trust, and leveraging their expertise. In my new position, I plan to use those same lessons, uncovering and centering the concerns and possibilities of students’ families to enhance student learning and support. I’ve already made listening to parents and learning more about the school community the first orders of business. The Blackstone School is located in the historically Puerto Rican Boston neighborhood of Villa Victoria. That community is a source of cultural and organizational strength that we can’t afford to overlook.
A primary ingredient to student success is the knowledge, expertise, and caring of the adults entrusted to educate them. That is as true of their first teachers—their parents and caregivers—as it is for the ones they learn from in schools. While some of the challenges in my new school will differ from my last position, the importance of engaging and empowering families is a constant. I can think of few endeavors more humbling, or with the potential for more lasting impact, than working in service of students, families and their communities. I look forward to sharing our journey with you.
Jamel Adkins-Sharif (email@example.com) is the principal of Blackstone Innovation School in Boston, and was formerly director of AIM Alternative Academy in Randolph, Massachusetts. A doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, his research focuses on social justice leadership, race, and equity in schools.