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  • Writer's pictureWith Equal Step


In her recent book, Just Schools, Building Equitable Collaborations with Families and Communities, Dr. Ann Ishimaru argues for systemic brokering as a means of building collaboration between school and home. She writes that the “focus in these efforts (is) not on changing families and communities…but rather on changing how schools and districts engaged with families in consequential interactions and decision-making processes.”

This is an important distinction for anyone looking to build effective engagement practice. In shifting our thinking from school centric to family centric work, we can’t shy away from bringing families into school decision-making. To do that, schools must leave their deficit lens behind and acknowledge that families have much to contribute.

I was reminded of two stories involving school councils and school administrators. Both involved a contentious issue within their communities and who would/could be involved in deciding the outcomes.

The first example took place at an elementary school with over 1400 students. While relationships between the Council and administration had been deteriorating for a while, it came to a head over community demands for physical changes to school entrances that would offer protection from storms. When this arose at Council meetings, the parents were told it was impossible, against Board polices and procedures, and unnecessary. Council members felt dismissed. The Principal felt disrespected. This issue adversely affected the work of Council and any collaboration between them and the school stalled.

How might systemic brokering have improved this situation? The Principal may have been correct in asserting that Board policies prohibited the construction asked for by the Council. The families felt she was just asserting her power. The Principal felt the parents were disrespectful of her position. A more collaborative approach would have involved giving Council the documents and allowing them to investigate whether their request was possible. Discovering it was not, the parents may have found alternative actions that would have satisfied their concerns. Or they could have decided to lobby the Board for a solution. While their wishes may never have been met, a process that honoured both the Council request and the Principals responsibilities would have gone a long way to building relationships and trust.

The second example took place at an elementary school with less than 200 students. The small school population had resulted in split grades for a number of years. The parents were historically unhappy with this situation, especially when the splits extended across two divisions. There was always grumbling in June when the class distribution was made public. The new Principal had built a good relationship with the School Council, allowing for the sharing of concerns and ideas. In the Spring, when she and her staff were looking at teacher assignments for the next year, the Principal came to Council and asked that a parent committee be formed to do the same work. She gave the committee projected student numbers and budgetary information regarding staff allotment. The committee took their time to examine this information, asking questions about possible solutions and Board policy. The Principal honoured all requests, without stating any preferences. In the end, the Council committee recommended some split classes, organized much like the staff committee had advised.

What were the results of this systemic brokering? The School Council had a better understanding of the many aspects that affect school organization. They felt respected and part of a collaborative team. The Principal benefited from having “a second pair of eyes” examine a complicated and controversial issue. When classes were announced, there were no surprises because the Council committee had already explained to the families that split grades would be occurring and why. They did the public relations work for their Principal.

There is another element to these stories that should not be over-looked. In fact, it often informs how school and home work together. I believe race played a role. The first school was in a very culturally diverse, low socio-economic area. Dr. Ishimura writes that “low-income parents and parents of colour feel teachers treat them with paternalistic condescension or outright hostility”. Justified or not, the parent leaders at the first school felt this to be true. Positive relationships were nonexistent. Was “institutional mistrust” (Ishimaru) of parent leadership exacerbated by deficit-based beliefs about the families? Was mistrust also evident in the way parent leaders reacted to the school administration? When an opportunity arose for both sides to come together to answer a perceived need, they could not bridge this chasm.

In contrast, the second school was in a predominately white, middle class neighbourhood. The Council had inherent knowledge of “unspoken dominate norms and assumptions”(Ishimaru), born from the parents’ social capital, located in the privilege of the community. The resulting mutual trust led to the Council’s contribution to organizational decision-making.

Dr. Ishimaru argues that we can “either (reinforce) status-quo institutional dynamics or (build) equitable collaborations”. Family engagement depends upon the latter. The work begins at the top levels of a Board - developing systemic norms, training educators in authentic, unbiased practice, and valuing family input. It continues at the community level, where families, respecting teacher expertise, work to ensure inclusivity of all their families in leadership, and help to build effective school-home relationships.

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