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  Critical Issue: Constructing School Partnerships with Families and Community Groups

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  ISSUE: Educators sometimes are content to let parents and families take the initiative in becoming involved in their children's education. But for a real partnership to occur, educators must look at ways in which the school can initiate this involvement. In such a partnership, the school and the home share responsibility for children's learning; the relationship is based on mutual respect and acknowledgment of the assets and expertise of each member. As an extension of this partnership, schools can emphasize a broad base of community involvement. When schools develop and implement strategies for promoting effective school-family-community partnerships, the result is improved learning for all students and strengthened schools, families, and communities.

Overview | Goals | Action Options | Pitfalls | Different Viewpoints | Cases | Contacts  | References

  OVERVIEW: Research indicates that family involvement in schools increases student achievement (Henderson & Berla, 1994; Ballen & Moles, 1994; Epstein, 1995). The benefits of parent and family involvement include higher test scores and grades, better attendance, more completion of homework, more positive attitudes and behavior, higher graduation rates, and greater enrollment in higher education. A literature review of school-family partnerships indicates that benefits are apparent not only for younger children but all students through high school. Although parent involvement typically is strongest at the primary level, continued involvement through the middle grades and at the secondary school level is important in encouraging and guiding children's development and achievement.

When schools regard their relationship with families as a partnership in which school and home share responsibility for children's learning, the result is an increase in the levels and types of parent involvement as well as the support that families demonstrate for the school. When this partnership is extended to include the larger community, the benefits are greater yet. Perhaps most important is that when responsibility for children's learning is shared by the school, home, and community, children have more opportunities for meaningful, engaged learning. Students are able to see the connection between the curriculum in the school and the skills that are required in the real world.

Joyce L. Epstein Joyce L. Epstein, director of the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, talks about the reasons for developing school, family, and community partnerships. [330k audio file] Excerpted from "School/Family/Community Partnerships: Caring for the Children We Share," by J.L. Epstein, 1995, Phi Delta Kappan, 76 (9), p. 701. A text version is available.

A partnership approach gives families and community members greater opportunities to determine options for school involvement, to participate in the wide range of involvement activities, and to assume key roles and responsibilities in school-improvement efforts, including participation in the school's decision-making processes. If a partnership is to succeed, it must be based on "mutual trust and respect, an ongoing exchange of information, agreement on goals and strategies, and a sharing of rights and responsibilities" (Ballen & Moles, 1994). Schools must be willing to involve parents, families, and the community at deeper levels and to support their participation.

Ruth A. Mueller Ruth A. Mueller, director of the Leadership Academy, School City of Hammond, in Hammond, Indiana, notes that schools need to enlarge the roles and options of parents and families who wish to be involved in schools. [660k audio file] Excerpted from a videotaped interview with Ruth A. Mueller (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1997). A text version is available.

Support for family and community involvement begins with school administrators. Their willingness to recruit parents and community members for school tasks, to listen to other people's viewpoints, and to share decision making provides a necessary foundation for all school-family-community partnerships. Williams and Chavkin (1989) note that administrative support can be provided through funding that is made available from the district office budget; materials, space, and equipment used in promoting family and community involvement; and people designated to carry out programs.

School administrators are instrumental in providing teachers with professional development in family and community involvement. Such professional development is a critical part of effective partnerships. All school staff need to develop the necessary skills for working effectively with parents and families. Typically, very little preservice time is devoted to preparing teachers in family involvement. The school district or system can take the lead in offering teachers professional development on collaborating with parents and families, learning about family dynamics and nontraditional family structures, improving two-way communication between school and home, reducing barriers to family involvement, and understanding diverse cultures (Ballen & Moles, 1994).

Administrators also can encourage other approaches to help the school expand its ability to work with families. One activity is for parents or community volunteers to help teachers and other school staff develop an awareness of the school families and the community in which the school is located. "Parents in some schools, for example, take teachers on Community Walks that introduce teachers to the local neighborhood and help them understand the lives of their students outside of school," note Funkhouser and Gonzales (1997). Another activity is involving school staff in action research. In this approach, teams of teachers meet monthly in small groups to study school-family-community relationships, discuss efforts to involve families and the community, and devise strategies to improve their own practice (Davies, 1991).

After the groundwork has been laid with school staff, schools can begin to establish school-family-community partnerships through the creation of an action team that is committed to developing a comprehensive family-involvement program. This team is a collaboration of teachers and other school staff, administrators, students, parents, and community members. Members of the team bring their own perspectives, experiences, and skills to the project. They are responsible for the following tasks: conducting a needs assessment, developing goal statements, identifying strategies to meet the goals, developing implementation plans, and using evaluation tools.

A needs assessment is a vehicle used to determine the needs and current level of satisfaction of school staff and families regarding the school's family-involvement opportunities. It also asks all respondents to describe additional programs and practices that would be of value to them. A needs assessment typically takes the form of a survey, which can be a simple questionnaire asking parents' opinions on the school's current involvement practices and how welcome they feel in the school, or a more detailed parent involvement inventory asking for feedback from school staff as well as parents. The use of telephone interviews and school meetings also can ensure that a greater percentage of families will provide their input into the process. Goals and policies for school-family-community partnerships then can be developed based on real needs and strengths, not perceived ones, increasing the chances for a successful program built on what is already working.

Barbara Haxby Barbara Haxby, director of implementation for the Roots and Wings program, based in Baltimore, Maryland, notes the importance of surveying parents and families to determine their needs and to obtain feedback on various school programs, such as reading strategies and WorldLab (an integrated science and social studies curriculum). [300k audio file] Excerpted from an interview with Barbara Haxby (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1998). A text version is available.

After analyzing the results of the needs assessment, the action team can develop goals for the school's involvement program. Agreement on a few basic goals can lead to the development of a family involvement policy. The assessed needs of the school, families, and the community help the team to determine what a policy should include. A family involvement policy generally reflects the school's commitment to a partnership approach and to ongoing communication between the school, families, and the community. It also can establish guidelines for the types and levels of involvement programs that the school will support. In addition, this involvement policy can clarify the school's priorities in generating an outreach approach to all families, developing parent education and support programs, providing professional development programs for school staff, and creating formal partnerships with agencies and businesses in the community. Some school-family-community partnerships also develop a learning compact, a written commitment that defines the goals, expectations, and responsibilities of schools, parents, families, and the community. A learning compact ensures that all stakeholders share responsibility for the education of children.

The next task of the action team is selecting the types of involvement programs that will help the school reach its goals. Specific programs and activities should reflect the partnership approach. Successful family-community involvement can take many forms--helping children at home, volunteering in the classroom, participating in decision making at the school, serving on school boards and committees, and promoting bond issues in the community. Deciding on the partnership programs or activities that best suit each school or district is determined by the situation in the school community; there is no specific program that will work for all schools. "Effective strategies for partnerships differ from community to community, and the most appropriate strategies for a particular community will depend on local interests, needs, and resources," note Funkhouser and Gonzales (1997).

To help educators develop programs that promote family and community partnerships, the National Network of Partnership Schools (1997) describes Joyce Epstein's framework of six types of involvement:

After selecting the types of involvement and specific strategies necessary to meet the identified goals, the action team then develops implementation plans for each of the selected practices. When developing an involvement program, the team considers many important factors, such as assigning responsibilities, preparing budgets, and delineating a timeline. The National Network of Partnership Schools (1997) has identified sample practices, expected challenges and redefinitions, and anticipated results when implementing each of the six types of involvement.

Communication is an important part of any involvement program. The action team needs to develop strategies to ensure that two-way communication occurs on a regular basis between school and home and between school and community. "If families are to be involved as true partners in their children's education, it is important to provide ongoing opportunities to hear their concerns and comments as well as providing them information," notes Moles (1996). Strategies for personal contact can include home visiting, establishment of a parent center and a parent liaison to coordinate involvement efforts, telephone communication, and parent-teacher conferences. Strategies for written communication can include introductory and year-end letters to parents and students, parent-teacher contract letters, notes for keeping in touch, and classroom newsletters. When schools serve familes who are from a diversity of cultures or who have limited English-speaking skills, special consideration must be given to communication; a good beginning is to provide information on school policies and programs in materials that are jargon-free and written in the preferred language of the families. When schools serve families who have low literacy skills, teachers may wish to use cassette tapes instead of written material to communicate with parents and caregivers.

Janith Jordan Janith Jordan, Vice President of Audrey Cohen College in New York City, describes how the Audrey Cohen College System of Education uses parent-purpose packs to increase communication between schools and families. [480k audio file] Excerpted from an interview with Janith Jordan (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1998). A text version is available.

On the basis of the needs assessment, the action team may determine that the involvement program will include parent and family education on such topics as parenting skills, helping children learn at home, skills improvement, and assuming new roles in the school. Schools that share teaching and learning strategies enable parents and family members to reinforce the efforts of teachers. If parents and families understand how to relate classroom activities to home activities, students are more likely to see the connection between school learning and life beyond school. By making this type of commitment, the members of the action team--who represent the school, the parents, and the community--emphasize that they regard learning as a shared responsibility.

Volunteering can be encouraged by the school and the action team. Volunteers should be valued for their efforts in whatever capacity they are able to participate. A lack of time or academic skills on the part of parents and caregivers should not be interpreted as a lack of interest. Even minor participation can be the basis for greater involvement later (Eastman, 1988). Any form of family involvement becomes more difficult when the parent's personal experience with school has been negative, however. Before many parents and caregivers can be enlisted as supporters of the school, they must begin to see the school--and education--as valuable. To encourage their participation, schools can create positive experiences so parents realize that school is a place where they are welcomed and able to acquire needed skills. (Refer to the Critical Issue "Creating the School Climate and Structures to Support Parent and Family Involvement.")

Collaborating with the community leads to the development of partnerships with selected community organizations and agencies. These partnerships promote the sharing of information and resources that are helpful to students and families. Community groups, cultural organizations, volunteer organizations, businesses, senior groups, and religious organizations can provide cultural, recreational, and extracurricular opportunities so that children's lives are enriched. A broad base of community involvement contributes to awareness and support for the activities and learning taking place in the school.

Community partnerships also can help schools address family concerns. Because growing numbers of children come from households in which all the adults are employed outside the home, families may be looking to schools for assistance with child-care needs. Community organizations can provide child care, after-school programs, assistance with homework, and parenting education programs. Often the living conditions of families are so severe that they must be addressed before parents have the time or energy to devote to school concerns. Partnerships with community agencies can make health and social services, such as medical care and counseling, available to students and families through the school. (Refer to the Critical Issue "Restructuring Schools to Support School-Linked Services.")

The success of the action team's efforts to develop family-involvement strategies is a barometer of whether the school climate welcomes parent participation in other decision-making roles. For example, the school can encourage families and community members to participate in decision-making activities through representation on various committees or local school councils. Funkhouser and Gonzalez (1997) note that families and community members can "share ideas and help make decisions on school policies related to the budget, teacher and principal hiring, schoolwide plans, and parent involvement activities." Parent and community involvement in school-based governance makes the school more accountable to the community. Shields (1994) notes the importance of including families and the community in school reform efforts:

"This vision of school improvement compels us to create a new conception of the appropriate relationship between the school and its community, parents, and families. Pedagogically, as we have come to know the importance of rooting learning in children's real lives, we can no longer tolerate the artificial boundaries between the classroom and the home. Politically, as we move the authority for decision making down to those closest to children, we cannot afford to exclude parents and community members from the process of crafting new schools. Nor can we avoid being held more directly accountable to the immediate community constituency for decisions made at the school site. Practically, schools have no chance of enacting the fundamental changes on the reform agenda in the absence of whole-hearted support from the entire community--parents, citizens, and business."

Finally, it is imperative to evaluate strategies to determine if the desired results are being achieved. The original goals of the involvement program should be used to establish indicators of success, and these indicators can be developed for every aspect of the program. The evaluation process should be continuous throughout the program, not only at the end of the school year. By evaluating progress on a constant basis, ineffective strategies can be changed to better address evolving needs. Goals and objectives can be refined if assumptions made at the beginning of the program are no longer true.

By taking a collaborative approach to the development of a family-involvement program, schools can form successful partnerships with families and community groups to improve the educational achievement of all students. The synergy resulting from such partnerships creates greater benefits than each group working individually. "With frequent interactions between school, families, and communities," notes Epstein (1995), "more students are more likely to receive common messages from various people about the importance of school, of working hard, of thinking creatively, of helping one another, and of staying in school" (p. 702). As a result, school-family-community partnerships enable students and families to produce their own successes.


  ACTION OPTIONS: Educators, with input from families and community members, can take the following steps to build strong partnerships:

  IMPLEMENTATION PITFALLS: Teachers may view working with parents and community members as an addition to their already long list of responsibilities. School districts or state departments of education often mandate teachers to work with parent or advisory groups but fail to provide the needed time for learning and developing leadership skills, communication proficiencies, and facilitation competencies. Teacher education at the undergraduate level typically provides little training in parent involvement. If a family involvement program is to succeed, the school must provide professional development activities. (Refer to the Critical Issue "Finding Time for Professional Development.")

The school culture may marginalize the role of parents and families and create an environment that discourages participation. Inconvenient hours, inaccessible personnel, communication that uses educational jargon, and unwelcoming visiting procedures all can be barriers to parent and family involvement. To assess the situation, schools can survey parents' opinions through a questionnaire. Together, schools can work with parents and families to develop strategies for overcoming barriers to parent involvement.

Sometimes a school will adopt a new family-involvement program and overlook the many ways parents and families presently are participating in the school. An inventory of current efforts by parents within the school should be done before new programs are undertaken. Members of existing parent groups--such as PTA, PTO, or Booster Club--should be invited to work with school personnel in defining new family-involvement efforts.

Every school has several activist parents. It becomes easy to call on them whenever a parent representative is needed. Special efforts need to be made to broaden the list of parents who represent the school, perhaps using more active parents to recruit others.

Although parent and community members do not expect to get paid a salary, they rarely stay involved if their efforts are not appreciated. A successful volunteer program "pays" participants by providing them with new skills and knowledge and finding ways to show appreciation to volunteers.

The task of establishing and overseeing an effective family and community involvement program is too large to be an add-on to anyone's staff assignment. The strongest programs rely on a parent liaison or parent-involvement coordinator who networks with families and the community, plans programs, assists teachers, and develops materials.

When the school building is shared by a number of organizations in the community, several issues arise. A plan must be developed for coordinating activities, providing additional maintenance services, and establishing procedures for the use of materials and equipment.

  DIFFERENT POINTS OF VIEW: Some educators believe that schools have neither the time nor the resources to establish partnerships with families and community members. They say that providing an instructional program that will prepare young people to be effective citizens in the 21st century is more than a full-time job for schools. When additional responsibilities are added, the school's ability to offer first-rate curriculum and teaching is diluted. Further, they note that teachers and other school personnel are not prepared to address the social and emotional well-being of children, to reach out to parents and community members, or to provide services to adults; adding these concerns will stress the already thin resources available to schools. They point out that other institutions in the community are charged with providing services to adults and should be encouraged to do so.

Other educators think that if schools begin to give parents a greater say about their children's education, parents will think they have the expertise to make decisions regarding curriculum or the choice of textbooks. These educators do not want parents to challenge the school's professional autonomy and judgment. They believe it is best to keep a healthy distance between parents and the school lest the parents attempt to run the school.

Some parents prefer the domains of school and home to be discrete. They believe that they are perfectly capable of carrying out their parental responsibilities without the interference of institutions such as schools. They may find the school's overtures of help to be an intrusion rather than assistance. When a school begins providing health services, offering recreational programs, and promoting certain parenting practices, these parents may believe the school is usurping their role as parents. In some cases, however, such activities may encourage the parent to allow the school to assume responsibilities formerly held by the parent.



Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships
Johns Hopkins University
3505 N. Charles St.
Baltimore, MD 21218
(401) 516-8800; fax (401) 516-8890
Contact: Joyce Epstein, Director

Communities In Schools (CIS)
1199 N. Fairfax St.
Alexandria, VA 22314
(703) 519-8999
Contact: Neil Shorthouse
or Linda Harrill

Family Support America
20 N. Wacker Drive, Suite 1100
Chicago, IL 60606
(312) 338-0900; fax (312) 338-1522

National Association of Partners in Education (NAPE)
901 N. Pitt St., Suite 320
Alexandria, VA 22314
(703) 836-4880; fax (703) 836-6941

National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education (NCPIE)
1201 16th St. N.W., Box 39
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 822-8405; fax (202) 872-4050
Contact: Sue Ferguson

National Network of Partnership Schools
Johns Hopkins University
3003 N. Charles St., Suite 200
Baltimore, MD 21218
(410) 516-8818; fax (410) 516-8890
Contact: Beth S. Simon, Dissemination Director

National Parent Teacher Association (PTA)
330 N. Wabash Ave., Suite 2100
Chicago, IL 60611-2571
(312) 670-6782
Contact: Patricia Yoxall, Director of Public Relations

Parents as Teachers National Center
2228 Ball Drive
St. Louis, MO 63146
(314) 432-4330; fax (314) 432-8963
Contact: Sue Stepleton, President

Partnership for Family Involvement in Education
(formerly Family Involvement Partnership for Learning)
600 Independence Ave., S.W.
Washington, DC 20202-8173
(800) USA-LEARN or (202) 401-0091; fax: (202) 205-9133

Project Success
North Central Regional Educational Laboratory
1120 E. Diehl Road, Suite 200
Naperville, IL 60563-1486
(630) 649-6500; fax (630) 649-6706
Contact: Greg Hall

Responsive Schools Project
Institute for Responsive Education
Northeastern University
50 Nightingale Hall
Boston, MA 02115
(617) 373-2595; fax (617) 373-8924
Contact: Amy Marx, Project Director


This Critical Issue was researched and written by Judith G. Caplan, director of Early Childhood and Family Education at North Central Regional Educational Laboratory in Oak Brook, Illinois.

Date posted: 1998
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