Family Leadership Design Collaborative national convening

Joyce Parker devotes her heart and soul to making sure kids are in school and pointed toward graduation.

“Everyone’s responsible when children are out of school: parents, social workers, church members, teachers, police officers and so on,” said the director of Citizens for a Better Greenville.

That belief set the foundation of the organization’s “Missing in Action” campaign, launched as a concerted community approach to boosting the Mississippi city’s 66 percent graduation rate.

Parker shared Greenville’s story during a February convening of the Family Leadership Design Collaborative (FLDC), a national effort to redesign family engagement in education for community wellbeing and justice. The FLDC, based at the University of Washington College of Education, is bringing together researchers, educators, parents, families and communities to develop better ways for various stakeholders to interact with one another and make decisions about their children’s education.

In the “Missing in Action” campaign, stakeholders in various roles across the community galvanized around the message that good school attendance is everybody’s business.

“We found every hook we could to let people know that supporting kids as a community, whoever you are, is so important for our future,” Parker told other members of the FLDC during a session reflecting on the work taking place in her community.

Today, that support ranges from having church members volunteer as mentors to a local HBCU institution helping certify child care providers to boost early learning opportunities for Greenville’s youngest children.

“If we want to be serious about equity issues, we need to recognize all the other things beyond education that are impacting our children and families,” says Ezekiel Dixon-Román, an assistant professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania and FLDC participant. “Education is a public health, social policy issue, it’s not simply an issue of what goes on inside the classroom.”

A new vision for family engagement

What does a design process look like? One might imagine chips and circuits, or perhaps computers and lines of code. And who would be the experts doing this design? Perhaps lab coat-clad researchers, industry experts and engineers come to mind.

But what if, rather than an iPhone or a software platform, the focus of design is an idea?

In redesigning family engagement in education, FLDC members are looking to radically change the old model of how education happens.

“The old model is driven by deficit-based approaches that seek to ‘fix’ low-income, marginalized families and communities to produce better student outcomes,” said Ann Ishimaru, assistant professor of education at the UW and primary investigator for the FLDC. “But in doing so, this old model inadvertently reinforces racial inequities in education. It’s a fatal design flaw.”

Rather than simply tweaking parts of the old model or adding new shiny features, Ishimaru said the FLDC realized early on that a redesign of family engagement would require building anew using different parts and designing towards broader aims of educational justice and community wellness. In order to address the diversity of schools, contexts, geographies, racial/ethnic communities and histories across the country, it isn’t tenable to simply design a set of universal activities or agendas to impose through top-down policy mandates. 

Megan Bang, co-PI and associate professor of education at the UW, said the recent convening helped the initiative transition into the next phase of its work: engineering an agenda shaped by a set of principles that might guide new and more equitable pathways for family engagement in education.

“One of the design principles at the heart of this new model of family engagement involves recognizing schooling as an important but not sole aspect of education,” Bang said. “Rather, this principle focuses on family and community priorities, interests, needs and their complex lived experiences, histories, knowledge and relations as starting places for redesigning education.”

Because co-design involves iterating on ideas and practices, a number of FLDC members—Parker among them—have conducted design circles in their own communities since the initiative was launched in 2015 with funding from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. Data from these circles, and what it says about designing from family and community ecologies, were explored in depth during the national convening.

“We have a pressing need to support family and community leaders, researchers and educators in building cross-community solidarities with and through change-making efforts, particularly in this moment,” Ishimaru said.

The FLDC has already begun developing a series of research briefs and tools to support those interested in a new model of family engagement. Those interested in learning more about these resources and subscribing to an email list for updates can do so online.

In the next phase of its work, Ishimaru said the FLDC will launch deep dives in three sites for in-depth work designing tools, practices, measures and policy to enact a new approach to family engagement.

“We have a great opportunity to build our knowledge of what it takes to do this work both in and out of schools,” Ishimaru said. “There’s great energy to build the capacity of people doing this work throughout the country.”


Ann Ishimaru, Assistant Professor of Education

Megan Bang, Associate Professor of Education

Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications