Amy Rovai Gregory: Building Connections, Building Capacity

A Q&A with Amy Rovai Gregory on culturally responsive family engagement

By Marie Kressin Last Updated: January 25, 2024

Originally published as "Building Connections, Building Capacity" in the Winter 2024 issue of SchoolCEO Magazine.

Like so many educators, Amy Rovai Gregory grew up knowing she wanted to work in schools. But as a child, she did more than just play school with the other kids in her apartment complex. She held pretend open houses—making sure every family got an invitation—so that she could share the work her “students” had been doing. “My mom laughs all the time,” Rovai Gregory tells us. “She’ll say I’ve been doing family and community engagement work since the age of 6.”

For the last 24 years, Rovai Gregory has worked in California’s San Juan Unified School District, holding several different positions—including teacher, English learner instructional specialist, and principal. Today, she’s the district’s director of family engagement and partnership development, extending her passion for community work far beyond a single apartment complex.

San Juan Unified School District serves nearly 40,000 students at 68 school sites. Because the nearby refugee welcome center offers a safe landing place to incoming immigrant families, a significant portion of the district’s families are new to the country—and to the school system. In her role, Rovai Gregory has learned a lot about engaging families from a variety of backgrounds. The way she sees it, an asset mindset is key to building the kinds of relationships necessary for getting—and keeping—students in the classroom.

How can family and community engagement impact enrollment and attendance?

It’s important for school districts to get to know the students and families they serve—their cultures, languages, family structures, backgrounds, and more. That’s exactly what our Family and Community Engagement team strives to do each day. We serve as the conduit between schools, families, and community partners, and we help build the capacity and the connections that can impact enrollment and attendance.

So when we talk about building connections and capacity, a big part of how we do that is by looking at our school communities from an asset mindset instead of a deficit mindset. Our goal is to look at strengths within the community. What are the skills, knowledge, and cultures our students and families are bringing to us? What physical assets are available in the community? What are the associations, institutions, and agencies that also serve the families within our school communities? And how can we work together to build the capacity of our families and community partners while developing the kinds of relationships and trust that get—and keep—families connected to our schools?

Can you give an example of an initiative that has done this work effectively?

Our Neighborhood Learning Project is a great example. It stems from work we did at Greer Elementary earlier in my career. My vice principal at the time, Kate Hazarian, had the idea of expanding our family resource outreach into local apartment complexes—and so the idea of the Neighborhood Learning Project was born. 

Now, the project’s goal is to build capacity within neighborhoods by helping school sites asset map their communities and then leverage the strengths they identify. Our school sites identify locations where families are experiencing the greatest barriers. Then, teachers and staff actually go out to those locations. By meeting families where they are, staff can provide home learning resources and build relationships in order to help families recognize that they’re valued partners in their children’s education.

Taking the time to asset map their school communities better situates our staff to partner with the district departments and community agencies who can best provide families with their most-needed resources. For example, one neighborhood might have a public library within walking distance—that’s an asset within that community. We’ve had schools organize events in the parking lots of high-population apartment complexes and invite the library to come and give out library cards right on the spot. Then, families have the capacity to access books and other resources themselves. 

The idea is to establish community partners—that’s the connection piece—in order to provide access and resources to families, which is the capacity-building piece. The more we can build the capacity of our families while connecting them to our teachers, schools, district, and community, the better. That’s how we build trusting partnerships with our families, which in turn help our students feel safe and valued so hat they want to come to school every day.

What other initiatives have impacted enrollment and attendance?

One of our recent achievements is the Family and Community Engagement Mobile—or the FACE Mobile. We used some remaining COVID relief dollars to secure a paratransit bus that would be accessible to all families, including those who might need a ramp to get on board. Then, we designed it with the idea that it’s not just a “free mobile.” Yes, all the things we have on board—like school supplies, books, and food—are available to families at no cost, but our goal is to build the capacity of our families. So we also give out flyers and other resources that help educate them on how to connect with their schools or community agencies in order to access support.

Part of what makes the FACE Mobile so impactful to our enrollment efforts is the onboard technology bar. The FACE Mobile has Wi-Fi, so when it pulls up, families can log in and access the hotspot or use the Chromebooks we have on board. If they need to enroll their children in school—or even apply for a job or print out a resume—we help them do that.

Photograph of the interior of bookmobile
Photos courtesy of San Juan Unified School District

Could you share a bit about San Juan Unified’s cultural brokers?

We use the term “cultural broker” to mean a specific person who represents the culture of a community. Our cultural brokers aren’t unique to our district but also aren’t part of a specific organization. They are usually hired from within the local community, and they are very knowledgeable not only about the languages of those we serve, but also about the cultures, backgrounds, and experiences that many of our families are coming to us with.

For example, many of our district’s school community resource assistants and bilingual instructional assistants are cultural brokers because they are actual parents who live within the community. They speak the same language as a certain group; know the traditions, cultures, strengths, and challenges of that group; and may have even had a similar experience as them—such as fleeing a war-torn country and immigrating to the U.S. Having these cultural brokers available really helps build trust with our families. They’ve got someone who looks like them, talks like them, and knows what they’ve been through who can help explain the American school system. 

In the past, we’ve had our cultural brokers from the district’s incredible Newcomer Support Team present at the Enrollment Center when families first visit. We like to do that because some of our families, especially those who are new to the United States, don’t know what to expect. We want to have someone there who can help them with the differences between where they came from and what it’s like here.

What do culturally responsive family engagement initiatives look like?

There’s a lot about the school enrollment process that many families aren’t aware of. That’s especially true if they’re new to the district, they’re immigrants or refugees, they’ve had interrupted schooling due to the pandemic, or they’re experiencing challenges that prevent them from accessing district communications. It’s important that school districts learn about the backgrounds and cultures of the families we serve so that we can address barriers that may impact enrollment and attendance—whether those barriers have to do with language, cultural norms, technology access, or anything else.

For example, when my kids first went to school, families went to their neighborhood schools and enrolled in person there. We don’t do that anymore, but a lot of times, families aren’t aware of that. Plus, they may not have a phone, access to a computer, or any other way of receiving the information that we’re sending out about enrollment.

That’s why it’s up to districts and school communities to find innovative ways to address the needs of families by making both the enrollment process and attendance policies visible and accessible. That might include things like proactively working with community agencies and organizations to share early enrollment information. We’ll post things at pediatricians’ offices, libraries, laundromats—really anywhere within San Juan Unified’s boundary that our families may visit frequently.

It’s important to think beyond just putting up a flyer in the window of our schools. We need to ask where our families are going. How do we meet them where they already are? That really is the thread through all this: It’s about meeting families where they are. 

Why is it important for enrollment and attendance initiatives to be culturally responsive?

Cultural responsiveness is also about allowing students and families to see themselves represented. Our communications team is phenomenal. They’re great about making sure that we represent everyone in the positive stories we highlight. We also want to have posters and pictures that honor our diversity. We want to have a library of books filled with characters who have backgrounds similar to our students’.

Those are all ways to meet the diverse needs of students and families—because it’s not just about wanting them to choose your district. It’s about creating an environment of inclusivity and belonging. The truth is that when students feel included, they feel safe. And when they feel included and safe, they are excited to come to school.

What advice would you give to districts that have fewer resources to devote to family engagement?

Our department often returns to this quote: “Start where you are; use what you have; do what you can.” Before we had the FACE Mobile, we started with a table and a pop-up tent. It’s just thinking through what you can do with the resources you have to help build capacity.

We’ve talked about building the capacity of our families, but it’s about building the capacity of our staff, too. We recently started a digital resource library that all of our school staff  across the district can access in Google Drive, with folders organized by different resources. So let’s say a teacher knows of a student whose family is facing eviction. There’s a folder for housing they can select, and then all they have to do is print out a flyer with information to give to them. Your enrollment and attendance policies should be readily available, too. Your staff can’t know everything about everything, so you have to make information easily accessible.

What small things could districts start doing tomorrow to better support students and families?

Again, it’s about thinking through what’s manageable for you and your staff. What’s available to you, and how can you be strategic in your implementation? I’ll give you an example. When I was a principal, our school was struggling with behavior challenges during unstructured times like recess. We didn’t have a lot of people or a lot of money, so the question became: How can we leverage our community partners?

We started by bringing a couple of tables outside during recess so volunteers could do art projects and enrichment activities with the kids. From there, it developed over time. One of the most engaging things we ever did was welcome a new community partner, Cypher Hip-Hop, to our campus. Cypher Hip-Hop played music and set up a little dance floor during recess and lunch, and—because music is so universal—we had kids from all different backgrounds participating. They danced together and learned how to use sound system equipment, how to write and read lyrics, and how to engage with an audience. 

That particular activity was so popular that we decided to only do it on Fridays—the day with the lowest attendance at our school. So what started as a behavior intervention turned into an attendance strategy. We didn’t need any additional staff or funding or anything like that. It was just about being strategic. 

In this role, part of my mission each day is to help all our school sites strategically implement innovative and effective ways to support our students and keep them in our classrooms. I even consider it part of my job to help other districts, too. We’re all in this together. Sometimes, districts feel pressured to hold their cards close, but that’s not what education should be about. So at the end of the day, we all have to do whatever we can to create systems that are equitable and inclusive—because these are all our students. These are all our families. 

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