Giving Parents a Prominent Voice in Schools
- Expertise: Family Engagement
- Position: Director of Equity & Family Engagement
- District: Federal Way Public Schools, Federal Way, Wash.
When Teresa Garcia moved to Washington state from Arizona, she expected to have a tough time navigating the bureaucracy of a new school district—especially since her children needed specialized services and she was still trying to master English.
But she quickly found a powerful and reassuring ally within the Federal Way school district near Seattle: Trise Moore, who leads the district’s family- and community-engagement efforts.
Moore helped Garcia ensure her daughter got the speech therapy she needed. And she gave Garcia suggestions on how to entertain her children—who had loved to play outside in sunny, dry Arizona—in this rainy corner of Washington state, connecting her to the library and programs at the community center.
Best of all, Moore helped Garcia understand how to become an advocate for her children, and eventually, others’ too.
Lessons from the Leader
- Set Clear Goals: Family-engagement policies need clear success indicators for families and students. Use tools like school improvement plans and teacher- and parent-survey data to guide staff training and support efforts.
- Share Responsibility: Share decisionmaking and show a willingness to share the speaker’s stage. Create and sustain meaningful platforms to give district and school staff opportunities to listen and learn from families and students.
- Value Relationships: Data, research, and policies are important. But there’s no match for the value that comes from strong, empowering relationships between educators, students, and their families.
These days, Garcia says she can “feel confident talking to anyone in the district, even the superintendent.” She’s a regular at parenting meetings and serves on committees aimed at improving classroom instruction in Federal Way. That would never have happened, she says, if “Trise didn’t teach me my voice could be heard.”
For more than a decade, under the leadership of four different superintendents, Moore, 52, has been helping parents who might not have normally felt comfortable in an educational bureaucracy find their way and make a difference in this rapidly diversifying 23,000-student district.
Moore helped Federal Way pioneer, and then dramatically expand, its work to reach out to parents from all backgrounds and empower them to be full-throated participants in advocating for their children in their schools and shaping policy across the district.
Now, Federal Way is held up as a statewide model for parent engagement, says Penelope Mena, a program supervisor in Washington state’s education agency. For districts seeking to launch or enhance parent outreach, Moore is a go-to adviser.
Moore, whose two adult children attended schools in Federal Way, grew up on the east coast. Her parents were teachers and even they sometimes felt frustrated by their efforts to advocate for her two, much younger brothers in public schools. Moore was disheartened to watch as they fell through the cracks.
“My parents were public school teachers who did everything they could,” Moore says. “It left me wondering what I could do to help the parents of kids whose experiences were similar to my brothers feel more engaged and more successful.”
Around 2002, Moore was working on a master’s degree in project management and was serving as the chairwoman of the local Habitat for Humanity, as well as a community task force on diversity.
Through that community-based work, she met Thomas R. Murphy, then the superintendent of the Federal Way schools. He was concerned that black and Hispanic students weren’t performing as well as their white peers and was looking for ways to reach their parents, some of whom weren’t going to necessarily gravitate to the PTA.
Moore gave him ideas on how to “make the system welcoming for all parents, especially for parents who may have never experienced success in public school system themselves,” Murphy says. That included convening conversations with “affinity groups” of parents who shared a cultural heritage or background, and collaborating with new partners, like churches and community-based organizations that already had relationships with parents the district wanted to reach. Moore also wanted to help schools develop new strategies for reaching parents.
The two stayed in touch, and three years after they first met, Murphy created a position with Moore in mind. She succeeded beyond his loftiest expectations.
“What Trise did was she took a conversation she had with me and turned it into more than she or I imagined it could be,” says Murphy, now retired. “I was always racing to catch up with her. I never had to spur her on.”
Moore started to carve out her niche through a series of community meetings. She recruited a cross-section of more than a dozen parents who could help her devise new systems and structures to meet families’ needs.
“I decided I was going to learn from the families that people were calling ‘hard to reach,’ ” Moore recalls. In listening to them, she discovered “covert barriers” that kept some parents from getting involved.
Moore says the group identified a disconnect between highly educated and middle class school staff and many of the district’s working class families with a lower level of education. “Very few people want to go into a meeting where they are in the minority … if [a relationship] hasn’t been established in advance,” Moore says.
Moore and her core group of parents ultimately settled on having quarterly meetings for all parents in which they could ask direct questions of district leaders, including the superintendent. Eventually, another set of quarterly meetings was added for community partners to come and query district administrators. Moore also held informal meetings at the request of particular groups of parents.
Angela Griffin first met Moore when she wanted to address an issue stemming from an awards night at her daughter’s school. Moore, she says, helped her develop a plan for approaching the school’s principal and finding a solution. That experience inspired Griffin to volunteer with Moore, serving as a mentor to other parents seeking to do advocacy in the district and helping to lead workshops on the issue.
“Trise is one person and she can only advocate so far,” Griffin says. “There were instances where parents would see her as district person that they didn’t really trust. They would see me as a peer, not a district official.”
Moore also helped the district start and then grow its family-liaison program. The program began with two liaisons and has since expanded to include one in all of the district’s 23 elementary schools.
Moore supervises the liaisons and helps make sure that the work they do with families matches up with the district’s priorities, including a push to look beyond academics in addressing students’ needs. She’s trained them to comb through data and flag names of children that could develop attendance problems. Liaisons also help engage and build relationships with families through regular school events.
Moore organizes trainings for the liaisons, including a recent one on social and emotional learning. She also advocates for them with other district leaders, keeping them informed and trained, and making sure they can have a districtwide impact.
“She’s the mastermind behind all of this,” says Elizabeth Bagnell, a longtime liaison. “She has our back big time.”
With the help of parents, Moore wrote a handbook advising families on how to navigate the district’s bureaucracy. It has been translated into some of the 100-plus languages spoken by families in Federal Way, including Spanish, Russian, Ukrainian, and Korean. Three of the parents she worked with eventually were elected to the school board, Moore says.
There’s an accompanying booklet for teachers to help them reflect on how family engagement can improve instruction and offers them advice on how to explain to parents how they can support their child’s learning at home.
A National Model
Moore’s work has garnered attention beyond Washington state. The district’s family- and community-engagement initiative was one of six models in the nation selected as a promising practice by the Harvard Family Research project. Later, Moore was selected as an “emerging leader” by the project.
I decided I was going to learn from the families that people were calling ‘hard to reach.’
Federal Way was also highlighted in an article by the Latino Family Literacy Project and the Arizona education department. What’s more, Mary Jean Ryan, the executive director of the Community Center for Education Results, a nonprofit that is spearheading an initiative to close the achievement gap in a handful of districts in the region, including Federal Way, says she relies on Moore for advice and feedback.
Moore has made parents part of nearly every committee or task force aimed at improving some aspect of the district. They also weigh in on all important decisions, including major hires.
For instance, when Moore’s supervisor, Melanie Strey, the executive director of equity, engagement, and student and family success, sought to move from her job in a nearby district to Federal Way, she spent an hour and a half interviewing with a team of parents and community partners that Moore assembled.
Moore helped pave “the way for understanding the role of a family liaison and exploring what parent leadership looks like” in the region, Strey says. “What she has really done is to help the parent to build the capacity to have their own voice. And that’s very powerful.”