In downtown New Bedford, Massachusetts, the three-story central office of the city’s school district serves as a gateway for families enrolling their kids in one of the district's twenty-six schools. Upon entering the building, new enrollees engage with the aptly-named Family Welcome Center—a place dedicated to creating clear pathways to education for all students.
New Bedford has long welcomed waves of immigrants—from the Irish in the early 19th century to the Portuguese and Polish in the 20th century. Once again, New Bedford Public Schools is in the midst of a demographic shift. Many of the newest arrivals hail from Central America: Since 2000, the Latino population has grown by 59 percent.
Although the rich diversity of backgrounds and experiences benefit the city in many ways, New Bedford Public Schools has struggled to accommodate and support its changing population. Julie Mador, registrar at the Family Welcome Center, says that in the recent past her office would do its best to welcome and acclimate families to the school system and the city, but that services like translation often didn’t extend into the schools.
“When the Family Welcome Center opened, they set the bar and would spend several hours working with our new families—and building relationships—to get all the paperwork, immunizations, appointments, and records needed for entrance into school. Parents would return and report back that it wasn’t as inviting at the school level," she says.
A recent district survey supports Mador’s perspective that many families and students feel—and are being treated—like outsiders. According to data collected in 2015, only 16% of families responded favorably to questions on the topic of parent engagement. (As of 2018, that number has jumped to 51%.)
With an ongoing influx of diverse families, leaders of New Bedford Public Schools knew they faced significant challenges—and opportunities—to build stronger home and school connections to improve student outcomes, as research demonstrates that students learn better when their families and local community organizations are engaged in schools. This is in addition to positive links between community engagement and increased student achievement, reduced absenteeism, and higher graduation rates.
The Road Ahead
The summer of 2019 marks the end of the three-year grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. However, the sustainability question has been answered, at least in part, by a financial commitment from the district to continue the work.
Even though strides have been made amongst faculty and staff with regards to better understanding and connecting with families, there’s still a long way to go before many district educators feel comfortable communicating with diverse families, says Amanda Gonzales, Assistant Principal at Pulaski Elementary School. “I think still we're finding that a lot of staff are nervous to make calls home to parents, and are worried about if they'll make a mistake while on the phone.”
It all comes down to elevating the importance of relationships, Vergne adds, who is optimistic about the new directions the New Bedford Public Schools is taking to support families. “In two years, we've really solidified this work, and the community response has been overwhelmingly positive. They are asking for more. People can feel the momentum of all the coordination” and programming that has emerged, he says.