The term ‘family engagement’ sounds warm and fuzzy. But in Federal Way, the practice is seen as a way to boost student outcomes, and national educators are taking note.

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Growing up with two teacher-parents, Trise Moore had a front-row seat to the real-life drama that unfolds daily in public-school classrooms. She was not always moved to applause. The eldest of six, Moore watched two younger brothers — both African-American youths she describes as brilliant — become increasingly disengaged.

They were smart but did not apply themselves. They were creative thinkers but showed none of that in class. Neither went to college.

The memory of her brothers’ unhappy school years — and the difficulty of bridging the gap between their brand of intelligence and teachers’ perception of it — inspires much of Moore’s work today as the head of family and community engagement for Federal Way schools.

Last week, she was honored nationally as a pioneer in that field by Education Week, which spotlighted Moore as one of 14 Leaders to Learn From.

The only educator cited this year from Washington state, Moore was hailed for using family-engagement as a means to improve academic outcomes. During her 14 years with Federal Way Public Schools, she has written a handbook to help families navigate the education bureaucracy (it has since been translated into more than 100 languages), watched previously disconnected parents become school-board members, and seen her work spotlighted by Harvard University’s School of Education.

Somewhat stunned by the national attention, Moore, 52, took a few minutes to talk with Education Lab about an aspect of education that rarely receives the spotlight.

Q: Did your brothers’ experience shape the way you do this job?

A: Yes, very much. At home, I’d see them do brilliantly at reading and writing and math. But it wasn’t in the classroom. I thought that was strange. For their teachers, focusing on instruction was a lot more important than engaging students. And my parents agreed with that approach — they were teachers, too.

Curriculum, instruction and applying yourself on paper — that’s the language of educators. But my brothers were not into proving how well they could read or how fast they could do a math problem. They wanted to be engaged in a relational way, like ‘We know you. We see who you are’. That never happened for them.

They really were my inspiration for trying to figure out the bridge between teachers trying to teach and parents who know their kids best, so that both parties can talk to each other.

Q: You’ve spoken about ‘covert barriers’ that discourage parents from connecting with schools. What do you mean by that?

A: It’s a barrier if the only way that parents can engage is by reading a newsletter or attending an event. In Federal Way we have a phone system now, in various languages, and school leaders who connect with parents outside the classrooms — though home visits or meetings at the library. This is about introducing teachers to ways to pull out parents who want to be involved — beyond PTA — and convincing parents that they have a lot to offer.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge in your work?

A: A lot of parents say ‘I don’t have a college degree so I don’t know how I can help or contribute.’ They don’t understand that their voice — and knowledge of their students’ aspirations — plays a big a role in engaging students It’s challenging to get parents to believe in their voice.

Q: Helping to change that probably feels good, but how do you know it’s improving academic achievement?

A: So then the goal was to have a family liaison in every school. But we were short by seven people when Dr. (Tammy) Campbell, our current superintendent, got here two years ago. She did a 90-day listening tour, and that’s what she heard — without me sitting there trying to convince people — this confirmed parent voice saying, ‘I feel like I understand how to help my child, I can connect with the teacher and with the school.’

We don’t just provide services for poor families. It’s about connecting families to academics. To see every parent as someone who wants to help their student academically.

(Editor’s note: Since then, the district has hired those seven liaisons.)

Q: Is there something that you’ve learned from parents in doing this work?

A: Yes. They can engage their students in ways that schools probably haven’t noted in the data. There is an immeasurable impact that an inspired parent has. They can use their knowledge and love for their child in ways that we can’t quantify on the district level.