News from the Field: Fox Valley Park District and West Aurora School District 129 Rethink Family Engagement

For 21st CCLC programs, family engagement has always meant being responsive to family needs and helping them engage in their children’s education. When in-person programming abruptly stopped in spring 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Fox Valley Park District (FVPD) and West Aurora School District (SD)129, two 21st CCLC programs in Aurora, Illinois, adapted their family engagement strategies to respond to emerging needs in the community.

Both 21st CCLC programs partner with Cities In Schools Aurora (CISA), a nonprofit organization that leverages the public and provides partnerships to offer resources and support for students and their families. This partnership has included the support of Laura Ramirez-Nuñez, a CISA parent liaison who leads family engagement efforts. In addition, the FVPD and SD129 21st CCLC programs collaborate closely, with teams from each organization drawing on their respective resources, expertise, and staff to support programming. 

As the Aurora community weathered both the public health and economic impacts of COVID-19, the 21st CCLCs focused on providing resources and supports for parents. Ramirez-Nuñez sent out daily resource emails, including links to educational websites and resources to support remote learning, as well as information about community resources. “I didn’t know if the parents were even opening the emails with everything that was happening and all of the challenges they were facing,” says Ramirez-Nuñez. “But within two weeks, I started getting questions about specific websites and programs [included in the emails] and even some thank yous.” 

As online programming continued into the 2020–21 school year, the 21st CCLCs revised their outreach approach, opting for less frequent but more customized communication. Ramirez-Nuñez surveyed parents at both FVPD and SD129 21st CCLC programs. Based on responses, the 21st CCLCs customized resource emails according to the needs of each afterschool site. They also began leveraging state and local organizations and partnerships. “I realized that I just couldn’t do this alone,” says Ramirez-Nuñez. She subscribed to mailing lists and information hubs on topics ranging from public health to economic supports and joined partnerships to align resources and avoid duplicating activities. “It was nice to see that people wanted to collaborate,” says Ramirez-Nuñez. “[People from] all of the organizations that serve children really pulled up their sleeves and began to share resources with each other.” 

Even with the leadership and support of a parent liaison, FVPD and SD129 treat family engagement as a responsibility shared by all 21st CCLC staff. Site coordinators, tutors, and other staff make regular phone calls to families. Sometimes the calls focus on virtual 21st CCLC programming and student activities. They also provide an opportunity to assess family needs, determine what supports the 21st CCLC might provide or connect families with, and build and maintain meaningful relationships. SD129 21st CCLC Project Director Rachel Shields says, “That shared responsibility that we all took on made family engagement grow. Being consistent, having someone that our parents can trust and go to when needed is a source of pride.” 

During virtual programming, both 21st CCLCs provided opportunities to engage families in afterschool enrichment. For the 2020–21 school year, the FVPD recreation supervisors created virtual programming for students and their families. Enrichment programming included the arts, fitness, and exploring nature in the surrounding communities. Once families registered their students in the 21st CCLC program, staff invited them to pick up activity kits with materials and supplies for the program period. Each week, families received an email with information about activities they could complete independently or in a virtual session. Activities have included virtual hikes with a naturalist at Red Oak Nature Center and lessons and videos teaching students and their families about different animals that are native to the area. “We’re bringing what’s around the community into the home,” says FVPD 21st CCLC Project Director Katie Kulakowski. “We’re just finding creative ways for the kids and families to stay engaged.” The activity kits also included a set of binoculars for each student to help them safely explore their communities, “since we’re doing six-feet social distancing,” notes Kulakowski. 

Staff from the 21st CCLCs and Cities In Schools Aurora also stress that having a strong foundation in family engagement focusing on communication, outreach, and fostering a welcoming environment helped them maintain contact and support during online programming and the stress of COVID-19. “Even prior to [the pandemic], the whole program prioritized making parents feel welcome when they came into the school,” says Ramirez-Nuñez. “All the communications from site coordinators and any other staff [with parents] was always to be positive. That’s always something that has been valued in the program, but [during the pandemic], the whole team went above and beyond to make [sure] the families were being taken care of.” 

Amidst excitement about resuming in-person programming, staff at FVPD and SD129 21st CCLC programs predict that some family engagement practices adopted during virtual programming may continue. For example, the 21st CCLC may continue to livestream or offer virtual programming in addition to in-person events to accommodate families’ schedules. Staff also anticipate different types of family engagement in the future. “I think a lot of parents are going to come out of this more confident in terms of advocating for their students,” says Shields. “Now they’ve been with [their children]. They’ve seen where their kids are weak, where their struggles and their strengths are.” The teams from FVPD, CISA, and SD129 better understand their role in helping families support their students. “We need to continue to seek out ways to support our parents and be those advocates for their children,” says Shields.