Profile in Leadership: Diana Suarez
Coaction Collective, Founding Partner
Diana is an optimist at heart. Her work is grounded in the belief that if we look squarely at our past and co-design for our future, all children and families will thrive. Diana started her career as a small business owner and has found ways to channel her entrepreneurialism ever since. As a Founding Partner at Coaction Collective, Diana supports the team to design partnerships that meet the needs of clients and communities. Before founding Coaction Collective, Diana led the national expansion and training strategies at Flamboyan Foundation. Diana has served as a coach, designer, and partnership director for leaders in urban and rural communities. Her passion for family and community engagement was born out of her work as a first and second grade teacher in DC Public Schools. Now Diana splits time between Washington, DC and West Virginia with her husband and dogs. She is an incredibly lucky step-mother and auntie to a crew of hilarious and loving people who make life full and special. Diana has a Bachelors of Arts in English Literature from Catholic University and a Masters of Education in Curriculum and Instruction from George Mason University.
What is your personal journey into working at Coaction Collective? How did Coaction Collective come to be?
A year and half ago my partners and I launched Coaction Collective. We are a group of good friends who have collaborated for many years and finally decided to take a leap of faith and build an organization together. We launched in September 2021. Like most of my colleagues at Coaction Collective, I started my career in education as a teacher for District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). As a teacher I learned the importance of family engagement and family school partnerships. More than 90% of my students spoke English as a second language and their families generally did not speak English at all. My student’s families wanted to play a role in their children’s education but struggled to advocate and guide their education due to challenges the school and the system inadvertently created for anyone who could not communicate in English. As a result of my experience as a teacher, I have dedicated my career to supporting teachers, leaders, school systems and organizations to foster strong family-school partnerships that are grounded in trust and mutual respect. Over the last decade, I’ve built expertise in family engagement, content development, coaching, facilitation and management and I apply that expertise to each project and partnership.
At Coaction Collective, our partnerships are built on three things: Appreciation, Collaboration, and Liberation. These words have individual and collective meaning to each of us. We work constantly to be appreciative. Yes, there are many things that are not right about the education system. Yes, we need to be tenacious as we work to improve systems for children and families. And, we must note what is working, we must celebrate those who came before us, and we should not throw out every old idea just because it isn’t the newest, freshest, most innovative concept. So, at Coaction Collective we are appreciative. We also know there are no heroes or medals to win in the pursuit of strong family-school partnerships. No one organization, or individual person will “fix” family engagement. Individualism is great—but it won’t get the job done. We are collaborative, because it is only a collective of families, teachers, leaders and community members, who can truly impact the day to day lives of children. The Coaction Collective team is dedicated to a future in which all children have the skills and opportunity to pursue happiness as they see fit. That’s liberation, we want it for ourselves, for educators and leaders, and most importantly for children. Pursuing appreciation, collaboration and liberation with my partners at Coaction Collective has been the greatest pleasure of my career to date, and I am excited to see what the next several years will bring. In our first year, we’ve supported a range of partners in support of our collective goals, including: SchoolSmart Kansas City, National Parent Teacher Association, New Mexico Public Education Department, Amazon Future Engineers, South Dakota Statewide Family Engagement Center, and many more.
Tell us about the importance of family engagement work to student success and overall student wellbeing?
We face a challenging cycle in the United States public education system. There are countless studies that show the importance of family school partnerships for overall student well-being and success. And yet, family engagement is too often an afterthought in schools and districts because of a myriad of challenges—lack of time, lack of funds, lack of practical skill sets. Our colleges and universities do not universally prioritize family engagement, so teachers enter the classroom without knowing about the importance of family engagement and they don’t have a clear vision for how to partner with families. This is a dynamic that we can shift together. When families and teachers are partners in children’s education, kids are more likely to read at grade level, attendance rates go up, and kids graduate from high school at a greater rate. These outcomes are a direct link to their options in school and in life. Beyond academic success, family school partnerships result in better social emotional skills for children. It isn’t negotiable and it isn’t rocket science. Family engagement is as important to student success as any strong academic curriculum. We simply need to prioritize it as SSKC has done in Kansas City, MO.
You are leading the Family Engagement Cohort alongside SSKC – what role does this play in supporting our schools? What outcomes have you seen?
I believe SSKC can and should be a national model for organizations that seek to support schools. Our family engagement cohort is one of many comprehensive programs and supports SSKC makes possible in Kansas City Public and Charter Schools. The trusting relationships SSKC staff have built with schools are vital to the success of programs like ours. SSKC delivers a broad range of supports in schools, and has made family engagement one of the pillars they prioritize. This helps to elevate the importance of family engagement.
Cohort schools have each set context-specific goals for their family engagement practice. Schools were intentional about starting the school year off by building relationships with families and opening lines of communication. Teachers in cohort schools took a listening stance with families by asking about their hopes and dreams for their child, their goals, and their communication preferences. Throughout the school year, teachers continue to build on this strong foundation to engage families as co-creators of their child’s education journey. They strategically include families in the planning process for school conferences, reflect on the equity of individualized communication with each of their student’s families, and practice leading honest, data-driven conversations with families about students’ academics and social emotional well-being.
We are also grateful to have the flexibility SSKC provides to make sure our programs meet individual school needs. We developed a road map for the family engagement program based on the best information we had at the time. But, family engagement is dynamic because it is about people and relationships. With SSKC’s support and input from the wonderful school leadership teams, we’ve adjusted each professional development session and each teacher resource to meet individual school needs.
What has been the most meaningful part of this project for you?
I am a teacher at heart and I love the opportunity to connect and collaborate with teachers. Last fall, I joined my partner Justin Stephens in a series of professional development sessions for teachers in our partner schools. Hearing the passion and excitement local teachers have about kids and families in the community fills my cup! It was also so much fun to take a tour of the artwork at Academy for Integrated Arts. The student projects that align the walls were impressive and inspiring. I often think about those images and all of the heart and learning that went into them.
What important piece of information would you want the community to know about what is currently happening in our schools?
We are still in pandemic recovery mode. We need to be gentle with ourselves, with teachers, and with students and families. Every community experienced incalculable loss since 2020: lost lives, lost valuable classroom time, lost experiences. In Kansas City, MO, I see school staff working hard to acknowledge these facts while doggedly pursuing a positive future for kids and families. I’ve been impressed by the level of conversation educators are ready to have at our partner schools, and I believe this is a result of strong leadership. I hope the community sees and celebrates these strengths.