Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium: Combining MTSS & ParentPowered

Case Study: MAEC, Inc. Leverages ParentPowered & MTSS in Pennsylvania & Maryland

Discover how MAEC brought MTSS principles into family engagement by reading their success story.

By Maren Madalyn, contributing writer

“Just doing family engagement work in its entirety is a unique role to have!”

Jessica Webster, Senior Family Engagement Specialist

Perhaps no educator understands this assertion better than Jessica Webster herself.

From her early years as a middle school teacher and administrator, to her current role as a Senior Family Engagement Specialist at the Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium, Inc (MAEC), Webster has been steeped in the world of family engagement for nearly 25 years. Today, she has the rare opportunity to work closely with Pennsylvania and Maryland school districts on their approaches to partnership, as part of the Collaborative Action for Family Engagement (CAFE), a federal grant awarded to MAEC in 2018. 

Her team’s mission is two-fold:

  1. Co-create family partnership strategies with educators that move beyond one-off school programs;
  2. Drive continuous improvement for greater student outcomes with parents and caregivers as true partners in learning.

Their approach to achieve this mission with district partners is particularly unique, leaning on principles that underpin another model often used to improve learning outcomes: Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS)

Most educators experience MTSS in the context of school buildings, tailoring academic learning, attendance, and behavioral supports to meet students’ unique needs. But this framework is precisely how Webster thinks about family engagement, too. 

Image of Jessica Webster, Senior Family Engagement Specialist with MAEC, Inc.
Jessica Webster, Senior Family Engagement Specialist at MAEC, Inc.

By layering engagement strategies for families — combining MTSS and family engagement from the ground level up to more intensive supports — educators set the stage for true collaboration and partnership together to boost student learning outcomes.

Quality programs for quality partnership

With each partnership, Webster and her team leverage technical assistance, training, and a carefully curated toolkit of high-quality, evidence-based services — including ParentPowered Trauma-Informed, a family engagement curriculum delivered via text message to families of students from birth through high school. Today, six partner districts have implemented the Trauma-Informed curriculum.

Though no two districts, or even schools in the same organization, are the same in their challenges, priorities, and community makeups, Webster’s team has witnessed a consistently positive impact among caregivers receiving these text messages. It ladders up into a larger strategy that aims to re-center students in all family engagement efforts. 

“We aren’t asking [educators] to do something NEW in family engagement,” Webster explains. “We are asking [them] to do something [they’re] already responsible for: student learning.”

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Tiered family engagement: Lessons from the MTSS model

Research is core to MAEC’s work to center family-school partnerships around student learning. In particular, Webster and her team lean on one of the most widely recognized and respected frameworks for family engagement: the Dual Capacity-Building Framework (DCBF), developed by Dr. Karen Mapp of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Learn more about Dr. Mapp's Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family-School Partnerships.
Dual Capacity-Building Framework | Source

With new partners, Webster usually spends time upfront with administrators talking through parts of the DCBF, such as process conditions for building relationship trust. She emphasizes the value of incremental shifts over introducing new programs. That way, teachers and administrators can increase the quality of existing family engagement strategies for the entire community, step by step.

How can educators apply this mentality of “working smarter and not more” in a way that meets families where they are, across the wide variety of needs, backgrounds, experiences, and more?

For Webster, this is where layering caregiver support like ParentPowered Trauma Informed comes into play — exactly as an MTSS model layers services for students. 

Tier 1: Support for ALL families

When beginning the journey towards tiered family engagement strategies, Webster encourages educators to start at ground level. These “Tier 1” strategies should focus on scaffolding every caregiver’s engagement in student learning. 

Put another way, educators can first ask themselves:

  • What information, resources, and support should every family receive in our school community? 
  • How do we ensure that each support we offer is equitable and accessible for everyone, regardless of language, cultural background, etc.?
  • How are we communicating these supports to families? How are we translating materials, delivering resources to the community, etc.?

Among the districts that Webster supports, educators have implemented various forms of Tier 1 support via parent education. These examples include parent universities, home visits, and even training focused on specific skills such as advocacy during IEP meetings. 

“ParentPowered is also a great example of a Tier 1 support,” shares Webster. 

As a research-based curriculum available in multiple languages, ParentPowered Trauma-Informed provides a unique combination of protective factors-aligned messages to families that scaffold their participation in their child’s learning. From family communication tools to social-emotional learning insights to activities that buffer the effects of trauma, caregivers receive accessible strategies that promote their children’s development.

And when nearly half of today’s children have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE) in their lifetime, it is essential that families receive such support with minimal risk of reactivating that trauma.

Social and Emotional Competency of Children
Social and Emotional Competency of Children

But the text messages do more than anchor families’ engagement in learning. Caregivers also benefit from validation that what they are already doing for students has an impact. 

“It’s been a great reminder about how my child functions and encouragement that I am doing a good job as a parent.”

ParentPowered Caregiver in Interboro School District (June 2023)

Last, Webster points to ways in which ParentPowered activities fit into existing family routines, making it easier to involve parents in students’ growth: “It’s a tough time to ask people to do one more thing. Instead it’s much easier to say ‘I’m just going to add this [activity] to my routine.’”

Educators gain from implementing ParentPowerered, too. “The program takes that burden of coming up with family activities and supports off educators’ shoulders,” Webster highlights. “[Educators] don’t have to continuously generate content, ParentPowered does it for you. . . it frees you up to do other things.”

In the end, Tier 1 family engagement is all about building caregivers’ skills, knowledge, and confidence so that they have greater capacity to engage with their childrens’ learning and development.

“When you have a busy schedule sometimes you forget to do these type of things and little things do count and make a difference so reminders really do help a lot.”

ParentPowered Caregiver in Duquesne City School District (March 2023)

Tiers 2 & 3: Adding supports for specific family needs

Most districts have some families that just need extra assistance. Webster highlights that family support at Tier 2 and Tier 3 must be carefully tailored to meet the unique needs of their community.

For example:

  • Newcomer families may seek English Language Development resources to help them navigate a new language and strengthen communication with their children’s school. 
  • There may be families who need assistance with meeting basic needs such as food or housing security, both of which can impact their students’ attendance as well as academic achievement
  • Families of children with special needs benefit from highly specific knowledge and training related to their children’s development needs and school services such as IEPs.
A sample ParentPowered CSS message from Lancaster School District in Pennsylvania offering services for mental health and housing support.

Webster praises ParentPowered’s Community Support Stream (CSS) as an example of an effective Tier 2 family engagement strategy. The tool provides families with links to local resources curated by district partners, as well as national resources compiled by ParentPowered.

Districts often share links to health care, food access, housing, and other essential supports with their communities through CSS. Connecting families with community resources is a powerful way to build families’ capacity to support learning.

Webster shares, “A text message may not be enough [for some families]. . . What do we educators need to make sure we give our whole community the opportunity to thrive? Because when children’s parents thrive, children do too.”

Debunking common assumptions

With any tier of strategy, Webster emphasizes mindfulness with navigating common assumptions about family engagement in schools that educators may hold.

Take common school processes, for instance, like registering a child for school and how to ride the bus. Educators may make the assumption that, because a family is part of a school community, they know exactly what to do here. And yes, many families may already be familiar with these protocols for their school. 

But Webster reminds educators that this isn’t always the case. When such processes vary from building to building, even in the same district, it is crucial that all families receive clear guidance and instruction from their schools. This in turn means educators must also ensure their communication strategies are accessible in terms of language, reach, readability, and more.

When navigating assumptions, or exploring changes to family engagement supports, Webster advises educators to “build it with parents, not for parents.” She recommends establishing two-way communication mechanisms that bring together a diverse and representative set of stakeholders. That way, schools receive clear insights about what the community actually needs — especially for Tier 1 supports. 

Watch our on-demand webinar to hear Webster and Rebecca Honig, ParentPowered’s Chief Content & Curriculum Officer, debunk more assumptions about family engagement.

The impact of ParentPowered’s ground-level family supports

Today, Pennsylvania and Maryland families continue to receive ParentPowered text messages through the CAFE grant and MAEC’s district partnerships. MAEC has also expanded its family engagement collaboration with ParentPowered to support caregivers in the state of Maine through the Consortium for Engaging Families Across Maine grant.

As more parents engage with these programs, Webster and her team keenly examine the ParentPowered dashboards, which is especially important for the CAFE grant and their reporting structure. Specifically, they analyze data to ascertain:

  • Are we reaching families in equitable ways?
  • Are we equipping families with skills to participate in education?
  • Are parents and caregivers gaining confidence in the work they’re doing to support students’ social-emotional learning, academics, etc?

Thus far, the positive impacts of ParentPowered’s ground-level support are clear from the data collected.

“We’re always pleased with the family feedback we receive from the ParentPowered surveys,” celebrates Webster. “90% or more caregivers report that [ParentPowered] has helped, whether they feel affirmed or supported with learning new skills or perspectives.”

Webster finds the analytics available in ParentPowered easy to use and highly impactful in measuring the core outcomes tied to the CAFE grant. In particular, her team points to the low parent opt-out rate within the program.

Pie chart showing 95% of MAEC survey participants agree ParentPowered texts helped children learn and grow.
Pie chart showing 100% of MAEC survey participants agree ParentPowered texts help parents feel supported.

“People vote with their feet,” Webster explains, “and families are staying in the [ParentPowered] programs — which tells us that people are finding the messages helpful to their jobs as parents and family members.”

“Cada vez que recibo el mensaje me pone a pensar en mi hija. Recibi muchas estrategias y ideas que me ayudaron a ser mejor como madre que son fáciles a implementar. (Every time I receive the message it makes me think about my daughter. I received many strategies and ideas that helped me be better as a mother that are easy to implement.)”

ParentPowered Caregiver in a MAEC partner district (March 2024)

A bright future ahead: Family leadership and continuous improvement

As the second year of grant funding approaches, Webster and her team are eager to build upon the foundational work established among their Pennsylvania and Maryland district partners. 

First, the team will explore how to connect district-family partnership efforts to a continuous improvement process akin to a curriculum review. In some cases, this approach includes mapping strategies to state family engagement standards where available. 

Second, Webster looks forward to developing structures for educators to grow family leadership and advocacy within schools. While certain schools may have excellent examples like parent academics and councils in place, Webster sees immense opportunity to aid educators with deepening this work. Explore MAEC’s recent report outlining a framework and recommendations for building out family leadership structures.

And of course, Webster is thrilled to continue collaborating with ParentPowered to bring evidence-based family engagement support to districts. “I’m always so impressed with the level of curiosity, openness, and readiness to try new things [that the ParentPowered team brings],” Webster praises. 

ParentPowered takes a carefully constructed approach to developing and adjusting its programs, leaning on the guiding principle of co-creation. In addition to conducting literature reviews and standards crosswalks, ParentPowered also interviews practitioners in the field and collaborates with key advisors and subject matter experts on student learning. But most crucially, the team conducts listening sessions and focus groups with the very families and students that each program is designed to benefit.

For Webster, this approach is part of what makes ParentPowered stand out, both as an organization and a family engagement program. 

“ParentPowered moves deliberately. . . We [educators] need to be student focused, not adult focused, and that is something that comes through. . . in the quality of the work [from ParentPowered]. It always makes me feel confident in recommending these programs to our schools and districts.”

Jessica Webster, Senior Family Engagement Specialist

To learn more about ParentPowered Trauma-Informed, join an upcoming info session or take a self-paced tour of the program.

About the author

Maren Madalyn has worked at the intersection of K12 education and technology for over a decade, serving in roles ranging from counseling to customer success to product management. She blends this expertise with fluid writing and strategic problem-solving to help education organizations create thoughtful long-form content that empowers educators.

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