Too often administrators view parent involvement programs as neglected gardens. If by chance they grow and bear fruit, terrific. If they don't, it can't be helped. But a national institute says that, with some planning, all schools can grow parent involvement programs. Included: Tips for creating effective community outreach programs.
Is "increasing parent involvement" on your list of goals for the current school year? If so, you're in good company. Most administrators have that exact same goal, but many have little or no concrete ideas about how they might accomplish the goal. That's because, for years, school administrators took the approach that they would encourage parent involvement and hope parents would get involved -- but not so involved that they would be underfoot. If parents didn't respond and didn't get involved, then there was little that could be done.
With pressure coming from all sides to improve schools, school leaders need allies in the community. No longer can they afford that centuries-old approach, according to Dr. Joyce Epstein, director of the Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships based at Johns Hopkins University, and the National Network of Partnership Schools. The center conducts research and disseminates information about effective ways schools, parents, and communities can work together to improve education.
"I think people are realizing that to develop more diverse and equitable community involvement programs, they need more planning," Dr. Epstein told Education World. "Now the programs are being viewed more as part of school operations and school reform. That leads to more consistent planning for programs to reach all parents."
"The more traditional approach has focused on what parents should do, not what schools should do to make this equitable," according to Dr. Epstein.
But with adequate planning, all principals can have greater involvement in their schools, she said. "The old way of thinking was that parental involvement was all about parents," she said. "The new way is that it's about student success."
Not to mention that there are parental involvement requirements in the Title I section of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, added Dr. Epstein.
Principals need to approach parent and community involvement the same way they do curriculum, professional development, and other areas critical to school life. "Teachers and administrators have not been trained in college to address this issue, and it should be a component they should plan for," according to Dr. Epstein. "There needs to be systemization and planning and thinking for family and community involvement. For centuries, it's happened by chance."
Besides studying ways to increase community-school partnerships and looking at best practices, the National Network of Partnership Schools offers schools step-by-step guidance for assessing and building community outreach programs, and has created a pool of schools that can share information. About 1,000 schools, 100 districts, and 17 state departments of education are part of the network. The majority of those schools are in urban areas and qualify for Title I funding.
"We invite school districts, states, and schools that know they need improvement to join with us, and we supply them with tools, resources, networking, and a handbook," she said.
As part of the program, Dr. Epstein suggests that school communities form an Action Team to organize partnership programs, and provides guidelines, such as "six types of involvement" [see sidebar] schools can employ.
Besides providing information for implementing the six types of involvement, the partnership annually recognizes schools, districts, and state agencies that have shown "excellence in developing and sustaining comprehensive, goal-oriented programs of school, family, and community partnerships."
In assessing programs for recognition, the partnership does not honor programs simply for existing, but for how effectively they are implemented.
Samuel Clemons, principal of Lowndes Middle School in Valdosta, Georgia, whose school won a partnership award with special recognition in 2004, said the National Network of Partnership Schools provided the guidance his community needed to build a comprehensive community involvement program.
"We joined the National Partnership to acquire some professional learning," Clemons told Education World. "Registering was very important; they provided us with a lot of information, and we revamped our whole program. Academically, we needed to improve, and we were looking at all components. One of them was parental involvement. We felt we needed specialized learning."
The school created a Parent Action Team, which had a parent as the chairperson and included parents, teachers, and administrators.
"Forming an action team really helped us set long-range plans," he added. "It's an ongoing program."
Orchard Hills School, in Milford, Connecticut, a 2005 partnership school, began employing Dr. Epstein's philosophy to parent involvement about ten years ago because it's "all encompassing," according to principal Kathleen Murphy. "It's not just about volunteers, it's about community, and how parents can help schools, how schools can help parents, and teaching parents to build on what happens at school."
Teaching parents to improve their children's reading skills is the focus of Orchard Hills School's community partnership effort.
One of the programs involves parents of third through fifth graders reading a book together. Families are invited to school one evening, and all students in the same grade are given the same book to read with their parents. Teachers review with parents the type of higher-level thinking questions they can ask their children about the book as they read it together.
A month later, parents and children reconvene at school to discuss the book, and perhaps present a project about the story.
"We target struggling readers," Orchard Hills' Murphy said. "We call their homes, and encourage them to come with their families. We try to educate parents to help kids at home."
The family reading program was so popular that parents formed a summer reading club for children called Reading Wizards, and this past summer 100 children participated.
The school also has held evening workshops for parents of students in first and second grade. Staff members taught parents how to focus on reading skills such as predicting and making connections while reading with their children. Dinner was available for parents.
Another project with strong parental support is the Friday Folders. Volunteers and secretaries prepare folders every week with information about school-wide programs and forms parents need to sign. The return rate on the forms is quite high, Murphy added.
Improving literacy also is the focus of another 2005 partnership honoree, the Cleveland (Ohio) Municipal School District's Department of Family and Community Engagement (FACE), which provides workshops for parents on how to help their children learn as well as on life skills for parents. FACE staff members also oversee programs at individual schools.
The district has parent-child book clubs, where parents, grandparents, or guardians come and read with children, and also book clubs for adults, so adults read and discuss books to set an example for students, said Theresa Yeldell, executive director of FACE.
Last year high school students and their parents came together in workshops to discuss The Breakable Vow, a novel that deals with date rape, after students read it. "These are important topics for parents and students," Yeldell noted.
Cleveland also assigns a full-time family liaison to every K-8 school and part-time liaisons to secondary schools to engage parents at the school level. The liaisons assist parents in understanding standards, grading, and how they can support their children, according to Yeldell. "We help parents understand what good student work looks like," she said. "We have conversation starters around good student work."
Membership in the National Network of Partnership Schools helped Cleveland school officials to flesh out and formalize their programs. "We always believed we couldn't do it alone [educate the community's children], we needed a commitment from other people, primarily parents," Yeldell told Education World. "We know we exist within communities."
A key part of maintaining effective community involvement programs is forging healthy relationships with parents, Yeldell added. "You can build good programs, but if you don't build programs around respect and equalitythey won't work," she said. "You can't think that parents come in at a deficit. They all have something to contribute."
While many schools and districts are able to build a solid volunteer network in the elementary schools, parent involvement and recruitment traditionally drops off in middle and high school. Educators and parents assume their children don't want them hanging around school, so there is no point in showing up. But that is not always the case, according to Dr. Epstein.
A survey of middle and high school students indicated that while they don't' want their parents on field trips, they don't mind if parents help out in class or school as long as they don't talk to them. And it's okay if it's someone else's parent volunteering, she said.
High schools also have a history of parent booster clubs for athletics or music programs, and students don't mind parents being involved that way.
Clemons, the Lowndes Middle School principal, agreed. "Parents may have been reluctant to get involved because they think their kids don't want them at school, but they just act like they don't," Clemons told Education World. "Kids want their parents there. They see parents of other children [in school], and want their parents there."
By developing and following an action plan, secondary school leaders can forge successful community involvement programs. "Left on their own, schools do less and less over time to encourage family involvement," according to Dr. Epstein. "If family involvement is left up to chance, pre-school and elementary parents will do more than middle and high school parents. [But] with proper planning, middle and high schools can have as extensive and effective family involvement program as elementary schools."
One way to involve parents in middle school students' learning is to assign students to guide their parents through a lesson they have done in class. Parents find out their children are learning a new skill, and it allows students to apply what they learned.
"When middle school teachers design a homework assignment requiring students to show and demonstrate work, students do better," according to Dr. Epstein.
Lowndes is an example of the positive long-term effects of parent involvement programs. Over a four to five year period since the school beefed-up its parent involvement program, the percentage of sixth graders passing math went from 64 percent to 81 percent, Clemons said. "Academic achievement has improved tremendously."
The school kicked-off its heightened parent involvement program with a family night, a series of workshops for parents on testing strategies. "We explained the importance of the tests, and how they could help their kids do well," Clemons said. "We served dinner and offered door prizes."
That was followed by more programs, including a physical fitness day, during which staff members talked about how physical fitness relates to student achievement.
"We gave an overview of physical fitness, and talked about alternatives for kids to do after school rather than walk in and turn on the TV," according to Clemons "We showed them some outdoor activities they could do with their kids. We wanted to do some bonding." Staff members also held a child-parent field day.
The school also offers Wonderful Wednesdays, which give parents an opportunity to come in and talk about what they can do to help the school, as well as share problems they might be having with their middle school students.
Last year, the schools opened a parent resource room, where staff members conduct parent workshops, and where parents can come in between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., and use the computers. The school provides some computer instruction. A teacher also can work closely with a parent and child on issues such as homework strategies.
Local businesses also have helped out by allowing parents to come to school when they need to.
"We have an open-door policy," Clemons said. "Parents are in and out all day. If I'm in, they don't need an appointment; they can talk to me. We try to provide a pleasant atmosphere for parents."
But not all administrators are comfortable working with parents or having them spend so much time in their schools -- which is why a systematic approach to community outreach is so important, according to Dr. Epstein.
"Because of the lack of training [in parent involvement programs], educators might be fearful of what could happen with parent involvement without a plan," she said. "That's why they need to be 'planful' rather than reactive."
Teachers have reported that when parent involvement programs get going in a positive way, they like their work better, according to Dr. Epstein. Studies by the Center on School, Family and Community Partnership also show that parent involvement has a positive impact on attendance and student behavior. The center also studies parent involvement in specific areas, such as on reading skills and students' long-term plans.
Clemons said he understands why principals may be wary of recruiting parents, but the effort is worth it. "Some administrators may have had negative experiences with parents, and that's why they are reluctant to really reach out," he told Education World. "But parents can be the greatest asset in student achievement -- studies show how important they are."