Title 1 Admin Featured Article On Friday Cafe

Monday, March 16, 2015

Friday CAFÉs bring coffee, camaraderie to family engagement field

This article appeared on Feb. 17th, 2015 in Title1Admin.com
Written By Tricia Offutt

Family engagement professionals often feel isolated; many are part-time and among the first whose jobs are cut when budgets get tight, said Judy Carson, director for school-family-community partnerships at the Connecticut State Department of Education.

To help those in the field connect, Carson helped launch free monthly Friday CAFÉs (Community and Family Engagement). Participants listen to and discuss a presentation, and share frustrations, successes, and ideas with like-minded colleagues, said Anne Mead, administrator of early childhood education and extended learning programs for Danbury (Conn.) Public Schools.

“There is no homework (except what one gives himself), and a lack of pressure,” said Bill Stover, director of family and community partnerships for Windham (Conn.) Public Schools. He encourages his district’s family liaisons to attend as well.

Friday CAFÉs are for networking, not training, Carson said, adding that the get-togethers are more like a laboratory setting — one that she hopes will expand nationwide, and cost little to nothing to replicate.

The CAFÉ concept is inspired by Creative Mornings, started in 2008 by New York City artist Tina Roth Eisenberg, who craved interaction with fellow artists. Now there are more than 100 Creative Mornings groups worldwide. Connecticut’s Friday CAFÉs are a collaboration among CSDE, the Capitol Region Education Council, the State Education Resource Center/Parent Information and Resource Center and the CAFÉ advisory group.

Creative Spaces

Friday CAFÉs meet at unique community venues, such as museums and art galleries. “Getting out of our offices and our institutional buildings really brings out a different kind of engagement in the conversation,” Carson said. “I think people also feel like they’re being respected and treated to something a little special.”

Speakers volunteer their time, and venues are either low- or no-cost.

Anyone with an interest in the “intersection of families and learning” is welcome, Carson said. This can include district and school staff, as well as representatives from community agencies and afterschool programs. “I think it’s great to meet people who are doing the same type of work but from a different vantage point,” she said.

Not a cookie-cutter approach

Participants describe the Friday CAFÉs as focused, yet free flowing. “Leave an opportunity to share but always have a topic that keeps everybody focused,” encouraged Penny Finlayson, who joined the Friday CAFÉs after retiring from the Connecticut Technical High School System, for which she now serves as a consultant. “Be ready for meetings to go their own way and don’t get upset about that,” she added.

Topics should be “provocative in the sense that they are not the normal ‘data-driven’ discussions,” said Dolores Mason, National Network of Partnership Schools facilitator for the Bridgeport (Conn.) Public Schools. “Rather, [they’re] about what’s on our minds or those of the families whose needs we attempt to meet.”

Past Friday CAFÉ topics have included building trust with families and listening to students’ voices; future topics will include families’ strengths, community partnerships, and how to move forward when lack of leadership or funding makes it difficult.

Dena Booker, family and community engagement coordinator for East Hartford’s (Conn.) Goodwin College Early Childhood Magnet School, said she leaves the CAFÉs rejuvenated, reminded of the importance of the family engagement work happening at her school, and encouraged after hearing about others’ triumphs and struggles.

The group, which usually ranges from 45 to 60 participants, continues to include new faces, Carson said. “There is a thirst, a hunger for it,” she said.

For more information, email Judy Carson.

Related Story:

Launch a family engagement network

Want to launch a Friday CAFÉ (Community and Family Engagement) network? Here are some tips to keep in mind.

  • Advisory Group: Gather some family engagement leaders and staff willing to give advice as needed on topics, format and other needs along the way.
  • Venues: Seek out free or low-cost venues in creative, unusual settings. Try to find enough options that meetings are held somewhere different each month throughout the year. Ask participants for ideas and venue contacts.
  • Format: Stick to two-hour meetings. Allow time for networking, introductions, a 30- to 45-minute presentation, a facilitated discussion, and more networking.
  • Presenters: Ask participants to serve as presenters, along with community members who may not work directly in family engagement but have valuable, related expertise.
  • Engage Attendees: Involve participants in efforts to improve and expand the meetings. For instance, ask for feedback on the group’s logo, website, and future topics. Ask participants to complete a brief evaluation each time. Provide notecards where participants can jot down “ah-ha” moments.

Sources: Connecticut educators Dena Booker, Judy Carson, Penny Finlayson, Dolores Mason, Anne Mead, and Bill Stover.

–Tricia Offutt is a former Title I teacher and author of LRP Publications’ Title I Family Engagement in the Field: Partner with Parents to Transform Student Achievement.