Strategies used by 20 local Title I programs to overcome barriers to parent involvement are featured in an idea book recently added to the U.S. Department of Education's Web site. Here we explore in-depth one of those programs.
"Family Involvement in Children's Education: Successful Local Approaches" is a recently released 150-page idea book produced by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) of the U.S. Department of Education. The book features strategies used by 20 Title I programs to overcome barriers to parent involvement.
Among the 20 programs that are the focus of "Family Involvement in Children's Education: Successful Local Approaches," some involve parents in school planning and governance activities, and as volunteers. Some also provide coordinated non-educational services for families to support their children's academic development. All programs strengthen parent-school communications and help parents support children's academic work at school and at home. Nearly all have created schoolwide programs and use Title I* and other federal and local funds to support various parent involvement activities.
The new idea book is organized around strategies for overcoming a common set of barriers to family involvement in schools:
Below are excerpts from one of 10 in-depth profiles in the book.
Atenville Elementary School is located in a rural coal-mining community in southern West Virginia. The community struggles with high unemployment and poverty, and is geographically isolated from county social service agencies, which are located about one hour away in the county seat of Hamlin. Many Atenville families receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), and 83 percent of the school's population is eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. All 213 students in grades preK-6 at Atenville are white. Most come from families who have lived in the Appalachian Mountains for generations. During the 1996-97 school year, Atenville began implementing a schoolwide program.
In the spring of 1991, Atenville applied to work with the Parent-Teacher Action Research project at the Institute for Responsive Education (IRE) in Boston, Massachusetts. This partnership resulted in the school developing its Parents as Educational Partners (PEP) Program, which began during the 1991-92 school year. The major components of PEP include a "telephone tree" staffed by parent volunteers, a home visiting program, a parent coordinator, and the Atenville family center.
One challenge Atenville faces is that some parents do not own telephones or have access to adequate transportation. As part of the PEP program, parent volunteers disseminate information and calendars of upcoming events by mail and through word of mouth. To help parents attend meetings and events, the principal and teachers often arrange to pick up and transport those parents who do not have their own transportation.
Home visits target hard-to-reach parents.
The principal and teachers often visit the homes of parents who, for one reason or another, have difficulty coming to the school building. Teachers use release time to conduct their home visits, while the principal and other teachers cover their classes. The principal usually conducts her home visits on the weekends. The school's parent coordinator and telephone tree parents conduct about 20 home visits per year to families that are not actively involved in the school or whose children are experiencing difficulties in the classroom. The parent coordinator, who has been trained in home visiting, accompanies all school staff and volunteers on these visits.
Time and resources for teachers to reach out.
All teachers at Atenville have telephones in their classrooms to communicate with parents throughout the day. Teachers use these telephones to call parents whose children are absent or are misbehaving in class, as well as to report a child's good progress. A daily in-school planning period and a duty-free lunch period afford teachers the time to call and meet with parents. In addition, students are dismissed one-half hour early on Thursday afternoons, and teachers and parents serving on various committees can use this time for program planning.
The PEP program relies heavily on communication between families and schools and on training for both parents and school staff. In response to requests from parents for improved communication, Atenville established its telephone tree in February 1992. Telephone tree parents volunteer to call 20 to 25 families at the end of each month. During these calls, telephone tree parents tell other parents about school activities scheduled for the coming month, solicit feedback on the prior month's activities, and ask parents for suggestions on future activities and services. Two examples follow:
Telephone tree parents receive training from the school principal on telephone courtesy and on parent/teacher confidentiality. In addition, they are trained to make home visits. Monthly meetings with the principal and parent coordinator enable telephone tree parents to share information and receive instructions for their monthly communications with parents.
Support for learning at home.
To help parents serve as their children's first teachers, Atenville offers parent workshops about seven times each year on topics such as how to increase language development among young children, how to help children learn to read, how to help children with math, how to increase children's self-esteem, how to help with homework, and basic information about whole-language reading instruction and portfolio assessment. An average of 25 parents attend each workshop, with turnout sometimes as high as 75 parents. Workshops are held in the school's family center during the day and taught on a volunteer basis by the principal, teachers, or the IRE facilitator.
Training for volunteers.
Parents are encouraged to volunteer at Atenville to assist teachers in the classroom, provide teachers and administrators with logistical support, and help supervise children in the library and during lunch and recreation periods. As a result, about eight to ten parents volunteer at the school each day. The school offers parents two volunteer training sessions each September; to accommodate parents with varied schedules, one session is offered during the day and the other at night. These sessions not only teach parents about school policies, particularly in the areas of discipline and confidentiality, but also provide them with guidance on assisting teachers in the classroom as teacher aides and tutors. About 100 parents participate in the training each year.
Training staff to collaborate and set goals.
The PEP program is guided by the school improvement council and an action research team (composed of the principal, two teachers, two parents, a parent coordinator, and an IRE project facilitator), which was formed to support efforts to make parents true partners with teachers in the educational process. All members of the action research team receive training on action research two or three times a year from IRE. Last year, team members received two-day training sessions on: (1) collaboration and action plans and (2) goal-setting. Team members share these new skills with other teachers and parents on the two or three staff development days scheduled each year. In addition, all teachers meet with the parent coordinator at the monthly faculty senate meetings to discuss the parent involvement program and to receive feedback gathered from the telephone tree and home visits.
The PEP program represents a major commitment from the school staff and community to improve student achievement by restructuring the school to support a successful school-family partnership. Restructuring efforts included assessing family needs, designing a family center to serve as the headquarters for parent volunteer activities and to house the parent coordinator, and maximizing parent decision-making.
Assessing family needs.
One of the first steps taken by Atenville was to hire a part-time parent coordinator in December 1991. In late 1991 and early 1992, the parent coordinator and other parent volunteers conducted home visits to gather information on how families viewed the school and to seek their input on the design of the parent involvement program. During the 1994-95 school year, information was also collected from focus groups involving parents, teachers, students, and the entire Harts community under the direction of the community-wide school improvement steering committee. The school program and the PEP program continuously adjust their services based on information gathered from these sources. For example, the focus groups showed that parents were concerned about their children's transition from elementary school to junior high school. As a result, a subcommittee that included one parent and one staff member each from Atenville, Ferrellsburg Elementary, and Harts High recommended block scheduling, similar to that implemented in the high school, for fourth through sixth graders. This recommendation was implemented during the 1995-96 school year. Together the parent coordinator and the telephone tree provide school staff with the means to gather useful parent perspectives on a variety of education-related issues.
New uses of school space to welcome parents.
A key component of the PEP program, the Atenville family center serves as the headquarters for parent volunteer activities at the school and houses the office of the parent coordinator. Established in the fall of 1991, the center posts important school-related information for parents. Also, the center is the location for preschool and kindergarten registration, for parent workshops, and for PTA meetings. To encourage communication among teachers and parents, the family center also serves as the teacher workroom and as an informal lounge for parents and teachers to meet and have coffee or lunch together. Teachers are encouraged to spend their planning periods in the center and to eat lunch there whenever possible. Between eight and ten parents and 16 teachers visit the family center each day.
Maximizing parent decision-making.
Parents participate on all committees at Atenville, including the action research team, the 13-member school improvement council that guides all school decisions, and the 11-member schoolwide program planning team that was formed last year to develop the schoolwide plan for Title I.
A parent from Atenville also sits on a community-wide school improvement steering committee that guides school reform for the entire community, including the expansion of the PEP program to the local high school and the other elementary school in Harts. Atenville parents sit on all 11 subcommittees of this steering committee, addressing issues such as curriculum, staff development, building and facilities, parent involvement, and health and wellness. A subcommittee on transitions to high school specifically engages parents of older children to determine strategies for easing the transition from sixth grade to seventh grade.
In developing its schoolwide program this year, Atenville received an additional boost in its parent involvement activities through a newly developed school-parent compact. Although Atenville has had a parent involvement policy for some time, the schoolwide program planning team revised the plan in the spring of 1996 to reflect the goals of the PEP program. Staff, parents, and students drafted the compact at an open meeting attended by 15 parents, three teachers, two students, and the principal. The compact assigns specific responsibilities to students, parents, teachers, and the school principal, in order to help all Atenville students meet West Virginia's high student performance standards.
For example, students agree to attend school regularly and be ready and prepared to learn. Parents agree to provide a good learning environment at home by assisting their child with homework and providing a consistent time and place for homework. Teachers agree to continually change and adapt the curriculum to meet the needs of all students, maintain high expectations for all students, and participate in ongoing staff development. The principal agrees to fulfill a number of responsibilities, including communicating and working with families and staff to support students' learning and providing a safe environment for learning. The school presented and distributed the compact to all parents who attended an open house potluck supper during the first week of school. Those parents who missed the open house received a home visit from the parent coordinator and a telephone tree parent to review the compact. All parents also received a handbook on how to become involved in their children's education.
"It was almost as if the parents were saying, 'They're your responsibility during the day, you teach them,' and the teachers were saying, 'They're your responsibility in the evening, you make sure they're prepared to do well in school.'"
Both parents and teachers report that building comfort and trust between school and home is an intensive and ongoing process. At the start of the program, many parents did not trust the teachers or the school -- too many parents had negative school experiences of their own. As a result, the school established new partnerships to provide parents with the educational assistance they need, and many parents who participated in school-sponsored adult education classes have gone on to receive their General Educational Development (GED) credential and enroll in four-year college programs. On the other side of the coin, many teachers did not want parents in their classrooms because they viewed them as a disruption.
One helpful strategy has been the appointment of the parent coordinator, who is seen as an important asset in bridging school-family differences. Yet Atenville has found defining the role of the parent coordinator to be a challenge. To build trust among both parents and teachers, parents need to think of her more as a parent, yet staff need to think of her more as a staff member. Both parents and staff need to feel like the parent coordinator is "on their side." For example, when parents and school staff disagreed over the use of whole language strategies for reading instruction, the parent coordinator served as a mediator between the two.
The PEP program is funded primarily through Title I, Goals 2000, and IRE. Atenville has established several partnerships to meet various family needs. For example, to help parents improve their own skills, the school and Southern West Virginia Community College cosponsor for-credit courses in computers and math. Parents can participate in classes at the school for two hours (one hour for each class) every Monday evening during the fall semester. Atenville teachers who conduct the classes receive $250 stipends from the community college. All other costs are covered through a grant from the Benedum Foundation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Last year, 32 parents participated in these classes. Atenville also works with national organizations to provide families with needed materials and services. Monthly donations from Children, Inc., a program based in Richmond, Virginia, provide the school with clothing and other material goods for needy families. Through a partnership with Youth Works, a religious organization in Minneapolis, Minnesota, 60 to 70 youth volunteers come to Atenville every year for six weeks during the summer to help families with housecleaning, home repairs, and other needs.
To ensure that children have access to health care, a pediatric mobile unit paid for by the West Virginia Children's Health Project visits the school each Thursday. The family center serves as the waiting room for those needing to be seen by staff of the pediatric unit, and a parent volunteer acts as receptionist. A local dentist volunteers by visiting the school once a year to provide all children with free dental screenings. After the screenings, each parent receives a checklist of the dental services their child needs. The parent involvement program at Atenville has also served as a catalyst for the establishment of a community library at the local high school funded through the Goals 2000 program.
Parent involvement at Atenville Elementary has increased dramatically since the PEP program began. During the 1995-96 school year, parents volunteered more than 7, 000 hours at the school, compared with 2,000 hours during the 1991-92 school year. In 1995-96, 100 parents, representing almost half of the families at the school, participated in the annual volunteer training.
Student achievement has also increased since the program began. At the end of the 1991-92 school year, Atenville third and sixth graders scored in the 59th and 58th percentiles, respectively, on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS). At the end of the 1995-96 school year, third graders scored in the 71st percentile, and sixth graders scored in the 63rd percentile. According to a survey question on the CTBS, the percentage of sixth-grade students who believed that they would graduate from high school and attend college grew during this time period from 72 percent to 79 percent. In addition, the number of students participating in an after-school tutoring program increased from 21 to 62 over a recent three-year period. Student discipline has also improved. Suspensions have decreased from 12 during the 1990-91 school year, to an average of 3 per year since then. Student attendance rose slightly from 93 percent in 1991-92 to 94 percent in 1995-96.
School staff also note that parents are now more organized and more vocal about decisions that affect their children. Recently, the Lincoln County Board of Education sought to reconfigure Atenville and another district elementary school by placing K-3 in the other school and grades 4-6 in Atenville. Parents from Atenville challenged the board's decision based on their experience with the PEP program. They argued that the K-6 model fosters a more sustained interaction between home and school, and that disrupting this relationship would decrease parent involvement. As a result, the board reversed its decision. The success of the PEP program has not only served as a catalyst for similar parent involvement programs at two other schools in the district, Ferrellsburg Elementary and Harts High School, but has also encouraged a community wide school improvement effort.
* A schoolwide program school may use its Title I Part A funds combined with other federal education funds to upgrade the school's entire educational program rather than to deliver federally supported services only to identified children. Under the Improving America's Schools Act (IASA), Title I requires that local schools and districts adopt specific strategies for developing school-family partnerships. Title I parent involvement provisions emphasize: policy involvement by parents at the school and district level; shared school-family responsibility for high academic performance, as expressed in school-parent compacts; and the development of school and parent capacity for productive mutual collaboration. These Title I requirements might serve as useful guidelines for all schools as they strengthen school-family partnerships.
"Family Involvement in Children's Education: Successful Local Approaches" (October 1997) was produced by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) of the U.S. Department of Education. Oliver Moles of the National Institute on the Education of At-Risk Students was project officer. Assistance was provided by Janie Funkhouser and Miriam Gonzales of Policy Studies Associates. The above summary was provided by Kirk Winters, U.S. Department of Education firstname.lastname@example.org.
The entire Idea Book can be found on the U.S. Department of Education's Web site. Paper copies may be purchased from the Government Printing Office ($13) by calling (202) 512-1800 or mailing a check or money order to Superintendent of Documents, Post Office Box 371954, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7954. When ordering, it is helpful to have the stock number: #065-000-01085-2.
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