Creando Confianza: How Middle School Leaders Create Cultures of Trust to Foster the Engagement of Latino Families

Author: ORCID icon
Sweeney, Rachel, Administration and Supervision - School of Education and Human Development, University of Virginia
Dexter, Sara, CU-Leadshp, Fndns & Pol Studies, University of Virginia

Over the past twenty years, the cultural diversity in classrooms across the United States has increased exponentially. More specifically, from 1999 to 2016 the number of Latino students enrolled in American schools, from pre-Kindergarten through college, rose by 80 percent, from 9.9 million to 17.9 million (Gramlich, 2017). Latinos now comprise the largest minority group in the United States, making up 18 percent of the population and 25 percent of all school-age students (Gándara, 2017). The National Center for Education Statistics projects that by 2029, Latinos will make up nearly one-third of all public school students in this country (Wang & Dinkes, 2020).

Despite recent gains, Latino students lag behind their peers on a number of measures including grades and achievement test scores (Ceballo, Maurizi, Suarez, & Aretakis, 2013; Gándara, 2017), and have the highest high school dropout rate when compared with other ethnic groups (Gramlich, 2017; Hill & Torres, 2010). Accordingly, the academic achievement of Latino students has become a growing focus of researchers. Several studies have highlighted the transition to middle school as a particularly critical time for Latino students both socially and academically (Crosnoe & Ansari, 2016; Murakami, Valle, & Mendez-Morse, 2013); these studies show that during periods of transition, systemic differences in student achievement typically become “amplified” for traditionally marginalized groups (Weiss, Lopez, & Caspe, 2018, p. 23).

Research supports the engagement of Latino families in the education of their middle schoolers as a potentially effective lever in the creation of more equitable opportunities and outcomes for these students. In a report for the Carnegie Corporation, Weiss, Lopez, and Caspe (2018) argue that the goal for educators should be “ensuring that all families and communities-- not just economically advantaged ones-- have what it takes to build equitable learning pathways for their children” (p. 5). Additionally, the fostering and nurturance of trust between home and school has also been highlighted as a potentially important element in this dynamic (Bryk & Schneider, 2002; Tschannen-Moran, 2014).

This research study investigated how effective middle school leaders build the trusting relationships necessary between administrators, teachers, and parents to begin to close the existing gaps in opportunity and access for their Latino students. The study was based on the hypothesis that by strengthening the ability of middle school leaders to build trust with their Latino families within a culturally responsive school culture, increased engagement will be fostered, leading to positive outcomes for all stakeholders. The study was guided by three research questions: the first sought to understand how both middle school leaders and teachers define trust in the context of school-family relationships, while the second question asked if these same stakeholders viewed trust as a critical building block of family engagement. Finally, the third question examined the policies and practices enacted by a middle school leader to establish a trusting community.

This single, qualitative case study was conducted at a large, public middle school in the mid-Atlantic region with a Latino-majority student population. Data was collected during an eight-month period between February and September of 2020; due to the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic during this time, all data was collected virtually. Semi-structured interviews with leaders and teachers were conducted via video conferencing software and triangulated with observations of virtual events and relevant documents. This data was then analyzed and discussed through the lens of the study’s conceptual framework and the relevant literature base.

Five major themes emerged from the data. First, trust was found to be the foundation of all aspects of family engagement, rather than standing as an independent construct as previously conceptualized. Next, it was revealed that leaders and teachers each contribute to the building of trust but in different, yet equally critical, ways. It was also determined that successful family engagement requires an aligned and committed staff to make it all work. These staff members must focus on building relationships but growing those relationships into partnerships should be the ultimate goal. Finally, it was made clear that the work involved both in building trust and engaging families requires an ethic of care, a sense of purpose, and a commitment to reflection and growth in order to be successful and sustained over time.

Based upon the findings from this study, five recommendations were identified for practitioners at Lake Middle School and a wider audience of interested educational leaders. In order to foster both trust with and engagement of Latino families, it is suggested that leaders: 1) acknowledge and challenge deficit thinking and embrace an asset-based approach on a schoolwide level; 2) reframe engagement by placing importance on both school-based and home-based involvement; 3) take care not to mistake deference to authority for trust; 4) acknowledge that newer teachers need more support with this work and find ways to provide this support; and 5) embrace the silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic and work to apply the lessons learned moving forward.

It is hoped that the findings of this qualitative study will inform middle school leaders as they strive to build trusting communities and leverage family engagement to close the opportunity and achievement gaps for Latino students in our schools today.

EDD (Doctor of Education)
trust, family engagement, Latino families, middle school
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