Susan Holcomb was a 3rd grade teacher in Georgia when she was introduced to a variation on the traditional parent-teacher conference — one she soon came to see as a powerful way to boost student achievement by turning parents into active participants in their children’s education.
“We were bringing parents together to show them how their children were performing and to identify the specific skills the students needed to improve,” says Holcomb. “We then taught parents how to work on those skills with their children at home.”
Holcomb quickly became a convert to the new approach, known as Academic Parent-Teacher Teams (APTT). Currently being implemented in schools and districts in 24 states, APTT was developed a decade ago by Maria Paredes, now a senior engagement manager at WestEd. Building on over four decades of research indicating that family engagement is one of the strongest predictors of students’ academic success, WestEd’s APTT model takes a more focused and academically oriented approach than most traditional family participation events in schools. APTT gives families concrete information on their children’s academic progress and provides them with strategies and resources to use at home with their children to reinforce targeted grade-level learning goals.
Today, Holcomb works for the Georgia Department of Education as a family engagement specialist tasked with replicating APTT statewide in Title I schools. “We’ve seen how effective APTT can be when it comes to helping students meet their learning goals,” says Amy Song, manager of the Georgia Department of Education’s Family-School Partnership Program and Holcomb’s colleague, “and we want to expand its reach across Georgia.”
Over the last few years, WestEd has been collaborating with Georgia to infuse APTT throughout the state by training cohorts of district and school personnel who, in turn, train other educators in their regions. Paredes says that the goal of this “train-the-trainer” approach is sustainability — to build Georgia’s capacity to train its personnel in APTT independently of WestEd within five years. As of the end of the 2018/19 school year, approximately 60 schools in 18 different school districts throughout Georgia are using APTT.
A new way to engage parents
Over the course of the academic year, the APTT model features three 75-minute team meetings between the teacher and the parents of all the students in the teacher’s class, along with one 30-minute individual parent-teacher meeting. “One of the most important things we’ve learned over the years is how important it is for parents to build relationships with their children’s teacher and with other parents,” says Paredes. “APTT enables teachers to create a parent-centered environment, where parents’ voices, ideas, experiences, and feedback contribute to creating a collaborative and respectful place to learn. It’s about building a team.”
Sharing student achievement data
During the first APTT group meeting of the year, teachers discuss their grade-level expectations for students in various disciplines and then share data with parents showing how close each child in the class is to meeting those expectations. Although teachers protect student privacy by identifying individual students with a random number known only by their parents, it can still be a shock for parents to learn their child is performing far below classroom peers. Diane Bresson, principal of County Line Elementary School in Winder, Georgia, which began implementing APTT two years ago, remembers one such case. “Until the mother saw the actual data, she believed her son was doing fine,” says Bresson. “But he wasn’t. We can’t assume that parents know how their children are performing. We need to show them exactly where their children are.”
“We’ve seen how effective APTT can be when it comes to helping students meet their learning goals, and we want to expand its reach across Georgia.”
Holcomb recalls that, when she shared achievement data with parents, she was typically greeted with “a moment of silence” from those whose children were struggling academically. “In such cases,” she explained, “you try to be positive and point out that learning is like any other developmental skill, that children are on their own timeline, and that, with support and practice, they can succeed.”
Empowering parents to help their children succeed
After reviewing the data, teachers then help parents set specific, individualized, short-term learning goals for their children and the teachers demonstrate activities that help develop the skills needed to meet those goals. Parents get a chance to practice the activities with the teacher and each other, and leave the meeting with the materials they need to work with their children on the activities at home at least three times a week for 20 minutes at a time. The idea, says Paredes, is to “encourage parents to spend quality time with their children in a way that’s engaging and fun, but also substantive and productive.” Notes Holcomb, “Even though teachers teach to all of the required standards, children need lots of opportunities to practice, practice, practice in order to master learning.”
Bresson says that the APTT approach transcends traditional, one-on-one parent-teacher conferences and other family participation events. “With APTT, parents learn exactly how to help their children,” she says, “and that knowledge motivates them to do so.” She says that APTT meets the needs of both those students struggling to meet expectations who need extra support and those exceeding expectations who need to be challenged. Explains Bresson, “We show parents how to change up the activities to make them easier or more difficult, as needed.”
Monitoring students’ progress
In subsequent meetings, parents are shown bar graphs that depict, through concrete data, exactly how much progress their children have made. “That’s what drives them to come back,” says Bresson. “We put the chart right up there, and they can see each child’s growth. Usually the bars all go up, and we celebrate that. It’s very empowering, especially for parents who in the past may not have known how to help their children.” Indeed, one such bar graph showed that 23 of 27 students in a 3rd grade class at Screven Elementary School in Wayne County, Georgia, where APTT is in place, demonstrated growth over the school year in multiplication.
Fostering camaraderie among parents
APTT practitioners are quick to describe the program’s merits, crediting it first and foremost with strengthening family engagement. Says Bresson, “To have parents feel comfortable talking with each other about math and language arts is huge. And very exciting for teachers.” Holcomb points out that, by enabling parents to connect not only with their child’s teacher but also with each other, APTT creates camaraderie: “Parents really enjoy coming together, and before long they are encouraging each other and sharing ideas on ways to help children.” Asked to describe what they liked best about attending APTT meetings, parents from County Line Elementary talked about “seeing the academic progress of my child,” “being assured by my child’s teacher that he could be successful,” “helping me understand my child’s performance and how I can help,” and “the learning materials and games we received.”
Proponents of APTT also see the model as a way to level the field for minority or low-income students whose parents may not have traditionally enjoyed strong connections to their children’s schools. According to Paredes, APTT is an excellent way for Title I schools to meet legal mandates to engage with families around academics. “With APTT, you’re bringing parents into schools to focus on content, which builds their capacity to support their kids with confidence.”
Scaling up in Georgia and beyond
At the Department of Education, Song oversees a staff of three family engagement specialists who are leading the effort to expand APTT across Georgia. This year, all four of them were part of a cohort of 13 Georgia educators who participated in a series of professional development sessions provided by WestEd that culminated in May with their certification as APTT trainers. That designation will allow them to train and coach their peers working in Georgia schools interested in adopting the model.
Paredes is encouraged by Georgia’s progress when it comes to scaling up APTT — “Never before have I seen this kind of support at the state level” — and anticipates that it will lead to similar initiatives in other states. Already underway, for instance, is a WestEd-led project in the Philadelphia School District funded by the William Penn Foundation that is bringing APTT to nine schools. Paredes is cognizant that such efforts require strong commitment on the part of school personnel. “We know that APTT involves a lot of work: planning meetings, figuring out what data to use, developing the right activities, personal outreach to families,” she says. “After all, we’re asking schools to embrace a completely new way of partnering with families.”
“But the more that families are engaged with teachers and empowered to support their children’s learning,” says Paredes, “the more successful all students will be.”
For more information on WestEd’s Academic Parent-Teacher Teams (APTT) model, contact Maria Paredes at 480.823.9425 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For information about APTT in Georgia, contact Amy Song at 404.463.1956 or email@example.com.