February 28, 2020

Sun West teachers receive research award

Sun West is very proud that three of our teachers, Pam Grasby Sawatzky from Westberry Elementary School in Kindersley, Amber Thompson from Outlook Elementary School and Carly Robson Gilchrist from Walter Aseltine School in Rosetown, recently received the McDowell Foundation Research Award. They received the award for their research on Promising Practices for Meaningful Family Engagement. They presented their research and received their award from Lieutenant Governor Russ Mirasty on January 31 in Saskatoon. The Report included input from 42 parents and identified promising practices to engage families in the rural context. Click here to read their report.

This project grew out of the Sun West Engagement Circle that all three teachers were a part of and which began in the spring of 2016. It was chaired by Mrs. Grasby Sawatzky and Sun West Superintendent Vicki Moore. The aim of the Sun West Engagement Circle was to bring together stakeholders across Sun West to create a common understanding around parent engagement. It proved to be a catalyst to keep the three teachers together in order to continue this work once the life of the circle had come to a close.

After the Sun West Engagement Circle disbanded, the teachers looked for ways to continue working on family engagement. Their interest was on helping classroom teachers find ways to make family engagement a widespread practice built into good teaching, rather than being seen as an “add on.”

In April 2017, the three teachers met in what they fondly call the “Tim Horton’s Summit” to discuss their future direction and in fall 2017, they attended a McDowell Foundation information session to see if their ideas were something the McDowell Foundation would support. The McDowell Foundation proved to be an excellent fit for their research and their grant application was successful.

Ellen Whiteman with the McDowell Foundation was very helpful to the teachers and the grant was very generous. It covered travel costs for meetings, substitute teacher costs and interview transcription costs. The McDowell Foundation grant afforded the teachers the freedom to work on their passion.

Sun West was also very supportive of the research project. The Division granted the teachers release time to do this work and Superintendent Vicki Moore provided support throughout the process.

One of the major influences on the project was Dr. Debbie Pushor, a Professor of Education at the University of Saskatchewan, who is a well-respected expert on parent and family engagement. Dr. Pushor had been Mrs. Grasby Sawatzky’s advisor in her Master’s program and Ms. Robson Gilchrist had taken undergraduate courses from her. Dr. Pushor proved to be a valuable mentor for all three teachers throughout the duration of the project.

Through their research the teachers wanted to identify which engagement practices were most meaningful to parents. They set out to find what were the critical elements of those practices and which practices were less meaningful and why.

Their research used narrative inquiry because they really wanted to capture the parent voice. Several focus groups were held with parents as well as other teachers. A written questionnaire was developed for parents that couldn’t attend a focus group. In the end, 42 parent voices contributed to their research. The willing participation of these parents was essential to the success of the research.

In their final report, the teachers made the following top five recommendations:

• Communicate – the more the better – early, often, and timely.

• Build an open and welcoming environment that fosters relationships with families.

• Use an online learning platform that makes learning visible and allows two-way communication such as Seesaw or Class Dojo.

• Select building blocks that honour family knowledge such as home learning projects.

• Personalize engagement opportunities to meet the needs of the families in your care. Consider access to technology and work schedules.

To cap off what had been a very rewarding process, the teachers were delighted when the McDowell Foundation honoured them as researchers of the year.

The three teachers indicated they were grateful for the honour and hope their project and their passion will provide family engagement in the rural context some extra attention and thereby reach more students, families and educators in the Sun West School Division.

(Pictured above: left to right) The Honourable Russ Mirasty, Pam Grasby Sawatzky, Amber Thompson and Carly Robson Gilchrist.