We know that parental involvement in elementary schools pays off in improved achievement of students and quality of their schools. But whether school-parent partnerships are initiated by administrators at the district level or by parents, agree that it takes commitment from district leaders as well as creative thinking and hands-on staff management to make partnerships work well. And according to a report by the Safe and Responsive Schools Project, increased parent involvement can lead to home environments that are more conducive to learning and improve communication and consistency between home and the school. Schools can promote parent involvement in learning in part through teaching better child-rearing skills and stressing learning at home. And parental notification systems, such as STN Alert Now, can help keep parents in the loop on emergency and important school matters.
Although data directly linking parental engagement with positive results is limited, administrators, teachers and parents cite anecdotal evidence—and some numbers about test scores and attendance from individual schools—to affirm the effectiveness of engagement programs. Meanwhile, researchers are studying the keys to successful programs and bringing the results to the attention of educators.
“The nation’s schools must improve education for all children, but schools cannot do this alone,” says Joyce L. Epstein, director of the Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University. “More will be accomplished if schools, families and communities work together to promote successful students.”
The center conducts research into the types of parental involvement that work effectively in its National Network of Partnership Schools (NNPS), which includes more than 900 schools in 91 districts. Researchers have found that successful programs can boost students’ reading skills and test scores, improve school attendance, and engage parents of different cultures who might be unfamiliar with and intimidated by how U.S. schools function. But Epstein acknowledges “the numbers are tricky” when measuring the specific impact of parental involvement. “In most school reform efforts, if scores go up, every component of the school’s program gets credit. If they go down, the kids usually get the blame,” she says.
While administrators generally welcome parental engagement, it can make them uneasy when groups representing special interests extend their involvement to aggressive advocacy with senior administrators and school boards. With access to modern tools and techniques from cell phones to social networking, parents can become engaged at the click of a button and sometimes drown out other voices with differing viewpoints on issues from grading and testing policies to budgets and birth control.
Open, Written Policies
Some parental involvement programs have written policies that spell out the details. For example, the Naperville (Ill.) Community Unit School District 203, whose 21 schools are members of the NNPS, has a school board policy that states what parental and community involvement means. It includes requiring each school to “develop an open and inclusive process to select parents” and other community members for school and district committees and school improvement teams.
As the district’s director of community relations, Nina Menis provides day-to-day support to a volunteer, districtwide School Family Community Partnership Core Team. This district team works with individual school Action Teams to plan activities like “International Night” at Meadow Glens Elementary School, a multicultural event that introduces parents and children to the different student cultures. “It’s important to have a point person so things don’t get lost in the shuffle,” says Menis. “I believe having supportive parent and community partners has an impact on our test scores, which keep improving,” she adds. Menis provides continuity that helps when parent leaders change as their children move on, says parent Peggy Kulling, a co-chair of the Core Team.
The NNPS also includes schools like Jane H. Bryan Elementary in the Hampton (Va.) Schools. After below-average test scores over several years kept the school from attaining adequate yearly progress goals, administrators set a goal in 2007-2008 to have 70 percent of students in grades 3-5 pass the language arts section.
They engaged parents, along with school bus drivers, crossing guards and custodians, who teamed with teachers and administrators in “Bryan Reads Together,” a program in which students and adults read the same books and discuss them together in a celebratory exercise. It worked—76 percent of targeted students passed the test last year, and the program is continuing this year, reports LaKitta Hicks-White, parent involvement facilitator at the school. “The activity was intended for parents to read with their children at home in the evening,” she says. Parents and guardians read aloud to youngsters not yet able to read.
Bridging Cultural Differences
Given the nation’s growing minority populations and expanding cultural differences, one Pennsylvania district is opening its doors to parents who wouldn’t normally get involved. In the North Penn (Pa.) School District, where 71 languages are spoken, Linda Abram, family and communication specialist in the district’s office of school and community engagement, credits Superintendent Bob Hassler with directing the district’s parental engagement efforts, including creating her position. “Without strong support from leadership, these efforts are often not realized or implemented,” Abram asserts.
While the district does not track students’ religions, it estimates that Muslims represent 5 percent of an increasingly diverse student body, and when administrators realized that their parents often were not involved in school activities because they were unfamiliar with the U.S. education system, they planned an outreach activity to the Bengali,Gujarati and Hindi Islamic communities at a local mosque one Saturday in 2007. With the help of a translator familiar with the languages the families spoke (among 71 languages spoken in the district), district officials explained policies and procedures on matters such as student absences on religious holidays (they are considered excused absences), early dismissals for weather-related reasons, and parent phone chains to inform parents of activities and schedule changes.
“We had families there with their children. They were asking us questions and we were asking them questions. It was a real give-and-take,” says Abram. To honor Muslim customs, she adds, district officials removed their shoes before entering the mosque, and men and women used separate doors. At Knapp Elementary School, the NNPS school closest to the mosque, parent participation in teacher conferences has increased from 43 percent in the last school year to 91 percent this year as a result of those engagement efforts, Abram reports. She adds that more Muslim families are attending school events and volunteering. The district plans to bring middle and high school staff to a Muslim “Community Day” in September.
Reading and Attendance
Other avenues for parental involvement are through reading. At Lake Park Elementary School, an NNPS school in the Lowndes County (Ga.) Schools, administrators and parents on the school’s Action Team for Partnership devised a “Biography Blitz” last year as part of an effort to boost standardized test scores. Looking for ways to get students to read more nonfiction books, they challenged all students to read historical biographies between September and February and make presentations about their favorite books at a culminating celebratory event at a “White House Tea” just before Presidents’ Day.
At the tea, hosted by the school, students dressed as distinguished historical figures made their presentations as parents enjoyed finger sandwiches, biscotti, and tea served in china cups. The school’s Action Team for Partnership donated refreshments and decorations for the tea.
Further, Lake Park staff put on their version of American Idol with teachers dressed as judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson, who critiqued other teachers’ performances of The Lion King and The Little Mermaid. “Our test scores have been going up consistently,” reports Teresa Parkerson, Lake Park’s academic coach, although she acknowledges she cannot relate the success directly to the Biography Blitz. Nonfiction books are now read widely, like fiction books have always been with the students, she adds. The school is repeating the program this school year.
When administrators and teachers at W.T. Cooke Elementary School, an NNPS school in the Virginia Beach (Va.) Public Schools, noticed a problem with attendance last year, the school’s Action Team created “Papa John’s Pizza Party Patrol” to reward parents who get their children to school regularly and on time every day for a month. Named for the pizza provider, and with the support of local grocers that provide soda and dessert, the program delivers pizzas to parents, selected randomly, whose children have perfect attendance records.
Activism at Higher Levels
In the Portland (Ore.) Public Schools, volunteers in Community and Parents for Public Schools (CPPS) created workshops in three Title I elementary schools to explain to parents in both English and Spanish how to help their children read successfully. From 25 to 38 percent of families in the designated schools consider Spanish their first language.
CPPS is one of 19 chapters in 11 states of Parents for Public Schools (PPS), a Jackson, Miss.-based organization that also advocates for more parental activism at higher district levels. “We believe it is crucial for parents to be involved in a way that they understand the laws, what schools are required to do for their children, and the education product schools are delivering. And when things need to be changed, parents need to be part of making those changes,” declares Anne W. Foster, PPS’s executive director.
“Our goal is to have meaningful parent involvement at every level, not just helping your kids do homework but also in decision-making and leadership at the district level,” asserts Doug Wells, boardpresident of Portland’s CPPS and parent.
Among other activities, CPPS holds an annual Parent Leadership Conference to teach parents “everything from how to get involved at the basic school level to how to become a school activist and get involved at the higher levels,” Wells explains.
He chairs a CPPS committee that reviews the district’s budget. CPPS leaders also meet bimonthly with Superintendent Carole Smith to discuss other “high level strategic issues,” like redesigning high schools, Wells says.
When It’s Not All Roses
Some parental involvement activities make administrators uneasy. In the Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools, a parent-led campaign last year used sophisticated lobbying and communications strategies like e-mail blitzes, online petitions and social networking to force the school board to back off from a 46-year grading policy that some parents thought was unfair to their children competing for admission to the country’s top colleges. The parents wanted to lower the minimum numerical benchmark grade for an “A” from 94 to 90, but Superintendent Jack Dale wanted to keep it. The school board yielded to the parent group and told the superintendent to recommend a new grading policy.
“To win, you have to build pressure on the county school structure. You have to run it like a eal referendum campaign” with supportive data and “control of the message,” says Catherine Lorenz, a veteran communications strategist and mother of two school children who managed the campaign, called FAIRGRADE.
Barbara Hunter, assistant superintendent for communications and community outreach at Fairfax, says the campaign was driven by parents of students in three high schools in affluent communities who gained 10,000 petition signatures but did not necessarily represent all parents in the 168,000-family district. “The downside is that these groups tend to drown out quieter voices that school boards and superintendents need to hear before they make decisions,” she says. They had to ensure the decision was right for all students, not just those at the upper end. However, Hunter adds that it shouldn’t surprise districts that these campaigns can be launched and be successful, given the technology and social networking parents have access to. “They are very skilled,” she says.
Alan Dessoff is a contributing writer for District Administration.