Anaheim Union High School District expands efforts to give parents a voice on campus

The Anaheim Union High School District is putting a face on family and community engagement.

Actually, make that FACES.

Since last year, the 31,000-student district has staffed family and community engagement specialists, or FACES, at each of its middle and high school campuses. These positions, created through a state-mandated process that districts use to set local priorities, are designed to give parents and the community more of a voice on campus — and to help them become better advocates for children.

Parents attending a Parent Leadership Academy at Loara High School

Parents lead a workshop at the Loara High School Parent and Community Center. Organized through Loara’s Parent Leadership Academy, these sessions cover such topics as the U.S. education system, college A-G requirements, grade-point averages and college tuition.

FACES have expanded on the work once performed by Anaheim Union’s community liaisons. Along with assisting their administrative teams with “parent learning walks” and other activities, they host community forums in multiple languages and organize workshops on topics including parenting, positive discipline, cyberbullying, accessing community resources and navigating the college and financial-aid application processes. They work closely with Parent Teacher Student Associations, English Language Advisory Committees and School Site Councils.

“They are the face of the school,” said Parent Involvement Specialist Araceli Chávez, who heads the program. “They’re on the front lines. They’re the first point of contact with the parents and the community.”

Anaheim Union’s family and community engagement specialists are housed in Parent and Community Centers, which, in addition to being available to community agencies, are open to parents who need to take ESL classes, fill out job applications, browse the internet, sign up for volunteer opportunities or check grades and attendance through the district’s student information system. Some centers have even started their own book clubs.

FACES also train parents to lead workshops through Anaheim Union’s Parent Leadership Academy, which offers seven-week modules on topics including the U.S. education system, college A-G requirements, grade-point averages, and college tuition and financial aid. (By week seven, parent participants even work on a capstone project.)

Every district high school shares a Parent Leadership Academy site with its feeder middle school, and the program has doubled from 150 parents in 2016-17 to more than 300 in 2017-18, according to Chávez. In fact, its popularity has led to the creation of a second tier of parent workshops covering such topics as Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindsets and David Conley’s Four Keys to College and Career Readiness.

“PLA is an amazing program,” said Rosa Cardenas, a parent leader at Loara High School, “because we learn from the experience and grow as a result of helping other parents that speak the same language we do. It is fulfilling to serve our school and community.”

The success of this model has also led to a partnership with Chapman University, which led a two-day institute on parent empowerment last year. The institute focused on such topics as understating the generation gap, civic engagement and ethnic studies.

Parents attending a Parent Leadership Academy at Sycamore

Sycamore Junior High School hosts a Parent Learning Academy workshop covering changes to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Every high school in Anaheim Union shares a Parent Leadership Academy site with its feeder middle school, and officials say enrollment has more than doubled over the past year.

“The Parent Leadership Academy is a model program in that it centers engagement on many levels,” Chapman Professor Miguel Zavala said. “The parent leaders they are preparing are being equipped with practical knowledge about advocating for the education of their children. They are also being prepared to see themselves as community advocates and leaders.”

Both the FACES program and the Parent Leadership Academy resulted from the development of the district’s state-mandated Local Control and Accountability Plan, which calls for broad stakeholder engagement. Teachers, parents, students, administrators, support staff and community members essentially participate in focus group sessions that address local and state priorities. Once needs are identified, the stakeholders take part in a cumulative voting process that helps the district allocate resources.

“At AUHSD, we are building on the concept of local control through empowering parents by developing their capacity to advocate for all children,” Anaheim Union Superintendent Michael Matsuda said.  

“What we really emphasize,” added Chávez, “is that it doesn’t really matter if you’re a superintendent, a teacher, a parent, a community member. Everybody gets equal votes. Everybody has an equal voice.”

For its efforts to create an equitable stakeholder engagement process, AUHSD has been recognized as a model school district by the California Coalition for Excellent Schools, which hopes to replicate the Anaheim Union model throughout California.

Count parent leader Marcos Rivas among those who endorse the district’s engagement efforts.

“I feel the parent involvement at AUHSD is authentic,” he said, “due to the transparency shown by the district and the liberty of our parents to not only obtain the information to increase their knowledge of our educational system, but also for the opportunities parents have … to be involved, committed and grow as school and community leaders.”