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Creating a Great School Family Night with Graduate School Partners


Barbara Flom is Professor in the School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Stout, Menomonie, Wisconsin. After twenty years in public schools as a special education teacher and school counselor, she is now privileged to prepare future school counselors. Her interest in the impact of natural settings on student learning has led to publications including Classroom Guidance and Naturally.

“This night was the funnest night ever!”

“The college students were nice to me.”

These children’s comments, overheard in a rural Wisconsin elementary school the day after Hometown Heroes Family Night, confirmed what my graduate school counseling students had documented: the event was great fun for students at both levels. Moreover, each group demonstrated mastery of learning outcomes anchored to its state and national standards.

A five year project connecting future educators with a community school promotes standards-based learning for students at both institutions. Graduate students in the University of Wisconsin-Stout M.S. School Counseling program take a two year sequence of courses with increasing levels of connection to the local community, including a field practicum during the second or third semester and a full-time capstone internship in the final semester. Yet students arrive at our program eager to connect with young people at the outset. Partnering with the local elementary school in our introductory Professional Orientation course has opened doors to learning and service opportunities for these eager graduate students.

What learning outcomes have resulted for the future school counselors who produced our family events? What have the elementary students gained from the partnership? Finally, what “lessons learned” have guided our evolving service learning partnership to minimize glitches and maximize impact at both levels? By sifting through artifacts from five years of family night events, we unearthed answers to all three questions.

Connections and Context
Our grad school/grade school partnership began six years ago with an invitation from the elementary school. For the past ten years, this elementary school has served a student body of about 400 students, half being economically disadvantaged and about a quarter being students of color. Last year, of roughly 400 students, 65% were economically disadvantaged; 70% identified as White, 18% Asian, 5% biracial, 4 % Hispanic, 3% Black, and 0.3 % American Indian. Diversity is celebrated: the hallways, a mosaic of colorful artwork, are crowned by rows of international flags signifying the countries of origin of past and present students.

Through a State of Wisconsin 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant, the school has developed a rich array of before- and after-school programming, along with quarterly family night dinner/program events. Family nights are conducted jointly by elementary school staff (serving free dinner to families) and various community organizations (providing programming). UW-Stout’s school counseling program is one of partner organizations.

Our partnership family nights have included rousing successes and mildly embarrassing flops. Memories deliver general impressions, but archival data such as brainstorming lists, master planning schedules, committee reports, evaluation surveys, and compiled observations reveal more clearly what has worked and failed over the years.

Graduate Student Gleanings
Field-based, experiential education enhances engagement, promotes civic responsibility, improve attitudes toward learning, and increases retention among postsecondary students (Falasca, 2014; Taggart & Crisp, 2011). Place-based learning projects link easily to learning outcomes for graduate students. The Family Night partnership captures these benefits and aligns with Wisconsin School Counselor Competencies and CACREP School Counseling Standards. Both frameworks require graduates to demonstrate skill in program planning, organization, evaluation, collaboration, cultural competence, family partnership, technology, and data management/interpretation.

What evidence do we have that our graduate students were able to demonstrate these skills? Notes, lesson plans, participation rates, evaluation surveys, and other artifacts demonstrate the impact of Attitude of Gratitude Night, Carnival of Summer Nights, Healthy Family Recipe Exchange, Camp River Heights, Family Safari Night, and Hometown Heroes Night.


During the first couple of years, our graduate class determined their family night theme, broke into committees, met as needed outside of class, and reported progress back to the class each week. After the elementary school contact person pled for fewer committee contacts, we learned to funnel all contacts to the school through one student liaison. An electronic master calendar became an essential tool in the process: by the third year of the project, each committee initially broke down its tasks into a weekly “to do” list and the lists of all committees were posted in the master schedule available to all students on our course website. This master calendar was updated weekly and has subsequently become our template.

Grad student products have included announcements for the elementary school newsletter, fliers for families, press releases, detailed schedules, and activity plans. As we became more attuned to accountability, evaluations evolved from standards-based observations to more detailed surveys that we analyzed both quantitatively (percentages, frequencies, means) and qualitatively (analysis of themes in open-ended response items). My students awaited the results of these surveys with anticipation and a dash of dread. Comments from families clearly carried significant weight; as instructor, I was delighted not to be their only source of feedback. Since initiating surveys, our item means (between a favorable 4 and very favorable 5 on a 5-point Likert scale) have indicated strong parent satisfaction with the events; comments typically echo enthusiasm (“Great job!” “Very engaging for children”) and provide helpful ideas for improvement (“Thicker paint for the pumpkins”).

Synthesizing the outcomes and reflecting on the overall experience has been as illuminating as implementation itself. After each family night, the graduate class produces a step-by-step summary of the process and evaluative outcomes. Individually, they reflect on the process in their program portfolios. Our course final exam also includes an extension of the project, requiring them to prepare a digital presentation for hypothetical stakeholders such as school board or parents. Along with artifacts demonstrating skills, knowledge, and attitudes, course evaluations show the family night project often named as the best part of this graduate course.

Grade School Gains
Matching learning activities to student outcomes is at the heart of educators’ practice, yet beginning school counseling students often have no background in education and may lack understanding of student standards and curriculum design. Their first introduction to these concepts often comes experientially with our family night project. What learning could my neophyte graduate students offer their young counterparts at the grade school down the road?

Many states including ours have adopted the American School Counselor Association’s (ASCA) framework of K-12 student standards in the domains of academic, personal/social, and career development. These standards guide the work that school counselors do in classrooms, small groups, and individual encounters with students. ASCA K-12 student standards and aligned objectives form the basis for every family night activity designed by our university students.

Each family night program addresses one or more standards and domains of development. Hometown Heroes, for example, addressed ASCA Career Standard A: Students will acquire the skills to investigate the world of work in relation to knowledge of self and to make informed career decisions (Objective: Learn about the variety of traditional and nontraditional occupations), and ASCA Personal/Social Standard A: Students will acquire the knowledge, attitudes, and interpersonal skills to help them understand and respect self and others (Objective: Demonstrate cooperative behavior in groups).

Direct observation has typically been one evaluative measure of our success. Before the Hometown Heroes program, graduate students discussed how to define and measure cooperation. Immediately afterwards, they pooled observations and determined how many of the children successfully demonstrated target skills. We typically observe 90% or more of elementary school students cooperating with group tasks, for example. Projects such as our Family Gratitude Journal and products like family-decorated pumpkins also provide concrete evidence of skills mastery. Attitude of Gratitude night resulted in 23 family journals, while the dismal turnout for Healthy Family Recipe Swap resulted in only one family attending and contributing to a recipe collection!

Recently we have begun surveying parents, turning up additional learnings of their children. For example, several parents commented on how helpful it was for their youngsters to watch and touch a firefighter putting on full gear and mask. Parents and firefighters alike knew how frightening a masked firefighter might appear to a child in need of rescue, but this learning outcome was one my non-parenting students hadn’t even considered.

Lessons Learned
What if we give a family night and only one family comes? Suppose we get twice as many people as we expect? What if there are torrential rains on the night of our all-school bonfire? What if students can’t do our activities and parents stay glued to their smart phones? What if a youngster disappears from the assigned group? We’ve dealt with all these mini-crises. Community-based service learning ensures that learning will happen, no matter what!

When only one family showed up, they cheerfully basked in our attention, and we learned never to schedule a family night without dinner or on a different day of the week than is customary. Our headcount has ranged from that night with the family of four to 250+ attendees. We consult heavily with our school-based staff liaison, who has an uncanny ability to predict attendance based on time of year and topic. When “Camp River Heights” got flooded out, grad students quickly assembled a backup electronic campfire, staked out gym space—and learned the value of a Plan B. When we discovered that family night includes youngsters from infancy through adolescence, we began structuring activities that needed parent-child input, and we stated more clearly in our opening remarks that parents should participate with their children. When two teenagers disappeared from an activity, the importance of my “gopher-for-the-evening” role was evident. (The teens were found outside on their favorite playground equipment.

These learnings from six years of service have led to very smooth family nights:
1) It pays to schedule the family night toward the end of the university semester and introduce it to the graduate students in the early weeks.

2) Weekly communication among graduate students, with support from the course instructor, is essential. Success comes with taking class time (varying from brief updates to periodic committee work blocks), expecting some committee work outside of class, and maintaining an electronic calendar accessible to all.

3) School staff provide exceptional guidance about appropriateness of theme, format, and activities. We get their approval for all potential themes and any other issue that we question.

4) Designating one liaison each from school staff and grad students streamlines communication.

5) Pooling university instructional budget with elementary school grant has covered nearly all expenses. Our university foundation provides backup fundig to reimburse graduate students for any incidental costs.

6) Graduate students can tap ties to the community that go well beyond that of the course instructor. Their networking has secured supplies, guest speakers, and consultative expertise (e.g., information technology).

7) Sixty to 75 minutes is ample time for the program, allowing children to head home by around 7:15 pm.

8) A meal before the program, ideally provided by school staff, guarantees attendance and results in happier participants.

9) Taking five minutes at the outset and end to provide overview and summary gives graduate students practice in leading large groups; clarifies expectations; and provides a way to calm children, reinforce learning, and transition families to home.

10) Station-type formats work well to keep families engaged and active, no matter how many attend. Three stations allow for variety, traffic flow, and brief but genuine learning.

11) After the program, it is essential that the university instructor gather feedback from school staff and provide multiple opportunities for graduate students to interpret assessment data, reflect individually, and synthesize the experience as a group.

From the beginning of our partnership, graduate students assumed leadership in selecting a theme, planning activities, and determining a schedule. Their first foray into designing learning activities for others has become a significant learning event for them. No written assignments or web simulations could have matched the impact of a rained-out bonfire, armloads of gratitude journals, or real-life heroes in the halls of an elementary school. We plan for each year’s event to be “the funnest night ever!”

Falasca, M. (2014). Learning language with context and purpose: Principles of good practice. Community Works Journal. Retrieved from

Taggart, A., & Crisp, G. (2011). Service learning at community colleges: Synthesis, critique, and recommendations for future research. Journal of College Reading and Learning, 42(1), 24-44.

Artifacts: Student-created Schedule and Family Flier

Family Night Itinerary, November 27

Time What’s Happening Who Is Responsible?

School Counseling students and
Community Heroes arrive

Everyone/Outreach Committee greet

4:45-5:15 Set up, Decorations Assigned Activity
5:15-5:30 Team Meeting
greet families at doors
5:30-6:00 Dinner Everyone
6:00-6:10 MC Welcome, activity leaders-go to
activity space
Kirsten and
Steph/Activity leaders
6:10-6:15 Passing Time To First Activity
Management Team will
Direct Families
6:15-6:30 Activity Block One Everyone
6:30-6:35 Passing Time to Second Activity Management Team will
Direct Families
6:35-6:50 Activity Block Two Everyone
6:50-6:55 Passing Time to Third Activity Management Team will
Direct Families
6:55-7:10 Activity Block Three Everyone
7:10-7:20 MC Thank You to the Families/Send Off Kirsten and
7:20-7:45 Clean-up/Take Down Absolutely Everyone

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