I didn’t become a parent until I was 41. When I started my new job as the superintendent of Madison, my son was 10 months old. As I’ve grown into my role as superintendent, I’ve grown into my role as a parent — and I’m still growing in both capacities. It is amazing how much your life influences your work and your work influences your life. At least, I know that is true for me.

Please know when I use the word parent, I mean parents, guardians, family members, friends, and other caring adults who play the parent role in the lives of young people.

As a superintendent, I’ve come to realize that we simply cannot make the kind of change we want to make without authentic parent partnership. I used to say that we can only focus on what is in our control, which meant that family engagement was a “nice to have.” I reject that notion now.

Partnership with parents is an essential strategy for raising student achievement, closing gaps, and ensuring every child has access to deeper learning and a sense of belonging in school. That is why it has been our major area of focus this year—and that is why it will continue to be a major focus in the future.

There are four essential value statements we’ve been using as our guideposts for decision making within MMSD, offered to us by researcher and practitioner, Karen Mapp. I thought I’d offer them to you.

All families have dreams for their children and want the best for them.

I’ve never met a parent who doesn’t want the best for their children. To kick off our school year, we invited a diverse panel of parents to talk with our school leaders. They shared with us their hopes and dreams for their children—to have great careers, to have better lives, to be bilingual and bicultural, to use their gifts, and to be valued in this world. Most important, they asked us not to limit any single child’s possibilities.

This speaks to me as a parent, because all I see in my young son is his exhilarating potential. My hope is that his teachers will see what I see, recognize, cherish and nurture his inherent capability, give him legitimacy in the classroom, and lead him to deeper learning. My dream is that he’ll develop the confidence to set goals, exert himself, and achieve them—with the ultimate goal of making the world a better place. In every interaction I have with a parent, I assume they feel the same.
If we are to be successful as a school district, we need to know the dreams our parents have for their children.

All families have the capacity to support their children’s learning.

While we all may not be able to contribute in the same ways, we all have the capacity to support. Last week, I met with a mother and her grown daughter (an MMSD graduate) who shared with me their family’s success story. The mother’s parents, who were migrant workers and never learned to speak English, created an environment in their family that set the stage for all of their children to go to college. There is a spectrum of support parents can offer that starts with holding high expectations, encouraging our children’s positive self-images, and offering enthusiasm for learning.

I know even for me, with all of my privilege, I worry that I can’t engage like some parents do. I work more than I am willing to quantify, which makes it nearly impossible for me to participate in traditional ways. But I can be present when I am home, read with him and talk with him about his interests and worries, and affirm him every step of the way.

If we are to be successful as a school district, we need to work with parents to tap into and build on their tremendous capacity to support their children.
Families and school/program staff should be equal partners.

There is no doubt in my mind that school and district staff cannot make the best possible decisions without parents’ perspectives—from decisions about an individual child to decisions about district direction. No matter how inconvenient it might be, no matter how much expertise we may have as educators, our decisions will be stronger when they are made together. And yet, I’ve been told by too many parents and staff members, especially parents and staff of color, that the balance of power is off and I can see it too. In a public institution that serves families, we have to continue to open up the process, make it more transparent, seek out one another’s perspectives, and lead from there. Every decision we make inherently involves risk taking (meaning, there could have been a better decision), but we minimize the risk when we do it together, when we learn together, and when we determine next steps, together.

If we are to be successful, we need stronger mechanisms for decision making in partnership with families, especially families who have struggled to have voice in decision making, at every level of our system — classroom, school and district.
The responsibility for building and sustaining partnerships between school, home and community rests primarily with school/program staff, especially school/program leaders.

This seems especially poignant right now. In a time in our country and our community when children of color, Muslim children, and children whose families are undocumented immigrants are feeling unsafe, the school district has to take responsibility for creating the structures through which we can support one another. I am proud of the opportunities that our school leaders are creating to work with parents to keep our students safe during a difficult time. It is in times of crisis that we often shine, but this should be the case every day, no matter the circumstances.

If we are to be successful, we need to make the investments, create the time, authorize the people, and take a stand on issues that demonstrate our commitment to students and their families today and every day.

In closing, I know that every one of our families has such tremendous strengths, which include our diversity, our capacity to love and understand one another, and our resilience. I invite you to listen to them yourselves (above). From one parent to another, I accept the responsibility you have bestowed upon MMSD to recognize the capability of every single child and nurture their amazing potential. We are committed to working with you, in partnership, to make those hopes and dreams come true.