At the Heart of Family Learning: Family engagement is crucial for student success at the secondary level

The passage from elementary to middle school is a key transition point, and it comes with a host of changes that students and families must learn to navigate together. Changes in school structure at the secondary level often mean that volunteer roles and other opportunities for parent involvement are fewer. The shift from a single teacher at the primary level to different teachers for each subject at the secondary level means many families are left without a unified school point of contact. Alongside these changes, adolescents themselves are undergoing profound physical and emotional shifts that include an increased desire for autonomy. 

Research has consistently shown that family-school partnerships play a crucial role in fostering positive student outcomes in middle school and beyond, including increased student learning and higher graduation rates. Despite this strong evidence, family engagement tends to decrease as students transition into middle school. Whether due to difficulty connecting with new secondary school systems or a desire to let their learner exercise a newfound sense of independence, many families step back from school partnerships during this time.

Family engagement is even more important as a means of combating absenteeism. Chronic absenteeism rates have long been a concern but, as noted by Attendance Works and others, the rapid increase in chronically absent students during the pandemic presents new and different challenges. Studies have demonstrated that, even as early as sixth grade, chronic absenteeism is an effective early warning indicator of non-graduation. Even before the pandemic, schools were beginning to focus on improving their family engagement strategies to combat absenteeism. This effort is crucial as a first step to building and sustaining the family/school relationships as students transition from elementary to middle school.

Schools, districts, and communities must prioritize intentional strategies to support children and families at transition points to ensure that all families have the knowledge and capacity to support their learners in these new environments. By focusing on building family knowledge of school systems, improving digital literacy, and expanding social capital, schools can create a strong foundation for student success. In practice, this means:

  • Ensuring educators have the supports and training they need to engage with families; 
  • Orienting families to school structures and organizational changes;
  • Providing families with training on how to access and monitor a learner’s progression, attendance, and other key data; and
  • Offering family leadership workshops to build parent advocacy capacity.

In partnership with Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Kentucky, NCFL has been able to take our family engagement work a step further through our Family Service Learning in Science (FSLsci) program. The program, piloted during the 2022-23 school year in select middle schools across the district, invites a middle school student, parenting adult, and educator to partner together for a rigorous STEM learning experience that incorporates virtual reality technology. Active learning opportunities like these are key to re-engaging students in school, especially those who are opting out because they’re unable to connect their in-school experiences with relevant out-of-school opportunities. Responding to these students with redesigned learning experiences that also incorporate parenting adults and deepen family/school partnerships is an important step towards bridging this divide.

Learn more about NCFL’s family engagement work at our website or by contacting


A lifelong educator and national thought leader for teaching and learning, Dr. Felicia C. Smith brings decades of valuable experience to advance NCFL’s mission of working to eradicate poverty through education solutions for families. Having served in a variety of leadership roles in P-12, higher education, nonprofit, and philanthropy, her career has allowed her to experience leading systems and develop a unique vantage point of a learner’s educational trajectory from preschool to adulthood. Smith holds an Ed.D. in education leadership and administration from the University of Kentucky, and an M.A. in elementary education with an emphasis on K-12 literacy development and B.S. in elementary education from the University of Louisville.

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