"At the first year's Family Involvement Festival, a mother arrived with her children almost two hours late," recalled Anne Thompson. "She was tearful and agitated, as her car had broken down and she'd had to take several busses to reach the event. She was determined to get there, though, for this was the first time in her life that anyone had honored her and she wanted her children to be proud of their parent."
The memory of that parent still inspires Thompson, the director of the office of parental involvement for Miami-Dade County (Florida) Public Schools. Attendees of the annual festival receive awards for their effort and spend a day with their families at a local attraction. Parents may nominate themselves through a simple questionnaire. From the nominations, those who support their children's education are identified as "Very Involved Parents" (VIPs). Then all district schools honor one family in a special way as a "Family of the Year." The program sprang from the need to better define parental involvement in Miami's diverse urban community.
"Because too often only those parents who are able to volunteer regularly or otherwise take an active role in the school are considered involved, many families feel unable to fill this expectation," Thompson told Education World. "By defining involvement in its most profound activities -- supporting learning at home, assuring school attendance, communicating with teachers, and participating in at least some school activities -- we hoped to provide a standard which is understandable and attainable."
The goal was not to ignore those who give their time generously to the schools but to allow the larger community of parents to feel connected and validated. Thompson has seen the impact of the award program on many families.
"The most moving stories have been those from struggling families, many of them recent immigrants, that have been recognized for providing this support and encouragement to their children's success in school," shared Thompson.
The Family Involvement Festival is a district-wide event that brings together Very Involved Parents and their children. At the time, Thompson reports, a luncheon or award ceremony seemed inadequate to embrace the many types of families honored through the program. While individual schools often also recognize their VIPs, it was important to establish a unique event that provides a sense of community.
The initial event took place at a local zoo called Jungle Island. It was a treat for the families, but it proved to be too limited in size to accommodate the potential numbers of attendees. About 3,000 students and parents came to the event. With the assistance of a sponsor, the event was moved to Miami-Dade County Fair in its second year, and the district is likely to continue to use this venue as the festival grows.