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Action Teams

Parents and communities partner to boost student achievement.

Pasco School District in Washington state and Saint Paul Public Schools in Minnesota are, at first glance, very different. Pasco, an agricultural community with roughly 46,500 residents but growing rapidly, had 12,516 students enrolled in 16 schools last fall. Saint Paul, Minnesota's capital, with roughly 277,000 people, is the state's second largest school district, with more than 42,000 students in 67 schools and special programs.

But there are similarities. The poverty rates are high in both, with 68 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced price meals in Pasco and 71 percent in Saint Paul. In Pasco, 65 percent of homes are non-English speaking or bilingual, and in these homes the first language is usually Spanish. In Saint Paul, 42 percent of students have a home language other than English. Saint Paul students speak 103 languages and dialects.

But what truly bonds Pasco and Saint Paul is their participation in the National Network of Partnership Schools (NNPS), part of the Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University. Founded in 1996 by Joyce L. Epstein, a professor of sociology who still directs it, NNPS invites schools, districts, states and organizations to join the network and use research-based approaches to organize and sustain programs of family and community involvement that will increase student success, including boosting attendance and doing homework.

Until two years ago, 16 public schools in Pasco usually began the school year with an open house where parents and teachers could meet. Held a week or two after opening day, the events did not always satisfy parents' needs for information and assurance about what their children could expect in the months ahead, says Deidra McCollum, a partnership network coordinator in the Pasco School District.

In 2005, many schools tried something new. They replaced the open houses with more informal functions barbecues, picnics, and ice cream socials before the school year began. Students came with their parents, met their teachers and learned such basics as where buses would drop them off in the mornings and where they should line up "those things that sometimes make the start of school stressful for parents and students alike," says McCollum, who also oversees testing and assessment activities in the district. "We found that these events really changed the atmosphere on the first day of school. They eased the tension, everybody knew where they were going and what they were doing, and parents started to build a relationship with the teachers before school even started."

"When we entered this program, every school already did things that involved parents, but now they do things that are a lot more directed." -Deidra McCollum, partnership network coordinator, Pasco (Wash.) School District

At Homecroft Elementary School in Saint Paul, parents also met with teachers to discuss student performance. But for many families, that wasn't enough. Now, Homecroft holds functions like "reading nights," "math nights" and "study skills nights" throughout the year. Students join in or the school provides child care or activities while parents attend an informational meeting with teachers, says Arty Dorman, Homecroft's principal. Located in a diverse neighborhood, Homecroft has earned the nickname "Home Sweet Homecroft" for involving families.

Network of Partnerships

More than 1,000 schools in 140 districts across the United States are in the national network, which costs $100 per school and $200 per district annually. Epstein says other organizations such as PTOs and PTAs promote family involvement in school activities, but the distinction of NNPS is the research it conducts " always building new knowledge and translating the results of our studies into tools and materials that schools and districts can use to structure and organize these programs." Through publications, training programs and other activities, including recognition of best practices by network members, NNPS shares its research results with members and the broader education community.

The NNPS has a model with three prongs schools, parents and communities but the community arm needs to be bolstered. And the model includes six types of involvement: parenting, communicating, volunteering, learning at home, decision making, and collaborating with the community. The model is flexible so that it can be customized to any school or district, regardless of its demographics.

Epstein says studies show that students whose parents are involved tend to do better in school, although there is no data that links the two. "Many districts are looking for ways to connect their families in meaningful ways to their children's education. The deep question for us was how to make that connection with willing parents in a way that makes a difference in student achievement," says Pasco Superintendent of Schools Saundra Hill.

Families are encouraged to play a central role, particularly in high-poverty and minority districts like Pasco and Saint Paul. "We have many parents with very little experience themselves in a school setting," Hill says. "It can be a scary institution to them. My goal is to make sure their voices are heard."

"We have families that don't read much in English and maybe don't read much at all," adds Dorman. Involving parents helps them understand what their children are learning and how they can help them at home, he and Hill agree.

Nuts and Bolts

Teamwork is vital to success. The process of forming a partnership begins with creating a team at each school an "action team for partnership" or ATP including the principal, parents, teachers and other staff members. ATPs typically include a PTA/PTO representative. High school ATPs also include two students. Other members come from the community, including businesspeople, interfaith leaders and representatives of literary and cultural organizations.

All are volunteers, solicited by the principal and other team members. Teams have about six to 12 members, depending on the size of a school's student body. The national network recommends that one parent and a teacher or school administrator serve as co-chairs. Then team members, who serve renewable terms of two or three years, split into subcommittees to address the six types of involvement in the NNPS model. Teams meet monthly and during the summer to plan for the next year and acquaint themselves with each other. And a district coordinator usually trains team members in the six elements.

Team members write a yearlong action plan for partnership activities at its school that includes the model's elements.

A successful component of the national network's model is that it is flexible and can be manipulated to work for any building, says McCollum.

In Pasco, Longfellow Elementary School holds monthly "Student Recognition Assemblies" where parents and honor students with worthy character traits are invited by teachers.

At the McLoughlin Middle School, a "Reading Partners" event last fall brought parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles to school to read with students. At Pasco High School, the ATP invited parents to their children's classes on "Poetry/Short Story Coffee Night" to learn to write what their children wrote as part of a plan to involve parents.

Throughout the year, ATPs send flyers, newsletters and other materials, sometimes in Spanish and English, about activities to parents. Teams monitor progress, assessing strengths and weaknesses and documenting results, and learn how to make them better, McCollum says. School and district coordinators must complete surveys at year's end to evaluate progress. Upon returning the surveys, NNPS pays the renewal fees for a year.

"When we entered this program, every school already did things that involved parents, but now they do things that are a lot more directed," says McCollum. Emerson Elementary School in Pasco, for example, has replaced its fall open house with "curriculum fairs" held each trimester in the school gym. The Emerson ATP sets up booths that parents can visit to learn from teachers what their kids will be doing in math, reading and science in the next trimester, McCollum explains. "It's a different type of atmosphere, and they've had great turnouts," she says. "They give parents ideas they can work with to help their kids at home."

How to Get Started

Hill heard about the NNPS program at a state conference for elected school board members and sent a team of Pasco administrators to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore in 2005 to learn more. "Sometimes superintendents come up with these great ideas and you can see by staff members' faces what they are thinking 'oh, no, here we go again.' I sent them to Baltimore with every question a naysayer might ask. When they got back, they had a clear picture of how we could do it here. They were just so excited," Hill says.

The district acted quickly to join the network and create partnerships. By the end of the 2004-2005 school year, they had put together an ATP at a trial elementary school. When schools opened in the fall, ATPs were in all 16 schools.

"Sometimes superintendents come up with these great ideas and you can see by staff  members' faces what they are thinking-'oh, no, here we go again.'"-Saundra Hill, superintendent of schools, Pasco (Wash.) School District

At Saint Paul, Dorman was the driving force behind bringing NNPS to the district. Earlier, as a school principal in another district in the state, he had his school join the network.

"It seemed to be just what we needed," he says. When he joined the Saint Paul district staff in 1998 as manager for family and community involvement, he saw no formal community involvement program. For example, if a school had an ice cream social, organizers would ask if a district office staff member could help serve the ice cream, or if they had certificates to give the volunteers, he recalls.

"It didn't feel like there was a whole lot of value in it," he says. "There was no sense of how a few people at the district office could facilitate family and community partnerships" at all the district's schools. So in 1998, the Saint Paul district joined the network, leaving the decision to participate to principals. About 50 schools participate today. "I told the principals, 'If you join this network, you will get a lot more help from our office because we will be organized to provide help based on this model," he says.

District Leadership Requirement

NNPS requires that districts create or identify an office, department or program of school, family and community partnerships and allocate an annual budget for staff salaries and program activities. In Pasco, McCollum and Lorraine Landon, who coordinates the district's parent education center, are co-coordinators of the partnership, which is part of the district's student achievement department. They attend ATP meetings and school events, often sharing information about one school's activities with teams at other schools so teams can learn what works and what doesn't. And some schools are beginning to work together on activities. Two elementary schools and a middle school planned a Cinco de Mayo function. "It was a fun thing to see them start to work together and share ideas," McCollum adds.

By contrast, Joe Munnich, who succeeded Dorman in running the Saint Paul district program, is the only staff member overseeing partnerships in 50 schools. The original six members were cut. "Those are the realities of budget cuts, which just seem to pop up everywhere," Epstein says.

Munnich says he works with action teams at some schools but cannot attend all meetings or oversee all activities.

According to NNPS, the average budget for school partnership programs is about $4,000. But for large districts, staff and program costs average about $85,000. Many partnerships tap funds such as federal Title I grants earmarked for parental involvement programs and foundations.

Epstein says that while participation in NNPS is school-based and voluntary, written policies on effective partnership programs are helpful, which the Saint Paul School Board adopted in 2002. It states that the board believes a family's involvement in its child's education in pre-K12 has a positive impact on the student's success and gives each school responsibility for developing a program. Dorman and Munnich hope that a district wide strategic planning process under the new superintendent Meria Carstarphen who joined last year will restore leadership and administrative structure to the program. Meanwhile, Munnich runs it from a new district office of community relations, in part identifying what key activities need to be done.

Weak Spots

In both Pasco and Saint Paul, partnership coordinators see other weak spots that need reinforcement. "A lot of teams would like to have more community involvement from businesspeople, nonprofits and other groups," McCollum says.

A local grocery store manager is on the Maya Angelou Elementary School ATP. Last year, he corralled volunteers from his store staff and nearby businesses to read to students on Dr. Seuss Day. And members of a nonprofit community action committee sit on ATPs at two other schools.

Training also is a vital element of partnership programs. NNPS members are invited to a fall leadership development conference every year. New district leaders are invited to a leadership institute to prepare. "Over time, schools have turnover on their teams, so it's important to continue to offer training," Dorman says.

Despite the Saint Paul district's staffing problems, two elementary schools Cherokee Heights and Phalen Lake won NNPS partnership awards last year.

Cherokee Heights was honored for strengthening and sustaining its program even while transitioning to new grade configurations from serving grades 4-6 to serving grades pre-K6. Phalen Lake exuded quality in leadership, teamwork, action plans, and progress over time. Each school received $500 from NNPS to apply to parental involvement. And before budget cuts began to take their toll, Saint Paul also won NNPS district awards.

Only in its second year, Pasco has no awards, but "the progress we have seen in our high-poverty schools has really been impressive," says Hill. Twelve schools participated in an essay contest this year, compared to five schools the first year.

Although she cannot link them to the impact of the partnerships, Pasco students' scores on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning have been impressive, Hill adds. WASL scores for fourth-graders in one school jumped from 40 percent in 2004-2005 to 67 percent in 2005-2006, the partnership's first year. And seventh-graders' writing scores in another school increased from 40 to 52 percent the same period. "We're a small part of the world," Hill says, "but we're working hard on this."

Alan Dessoff is a freelance writer based in Maryland.