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Building a Strong Community Partnership

When it comes to creating effective school-family-community partnerships, take some advice from vete

You'd be hard pressed to find a school district that leaves improving test scores, budgeting for new technology or developing the curriculum to chance. But too many schools do exactly that with parental and community involvement, arguably as important to student success as any of those above activities. It takes work, though, to get past the once-a-year bake sale and some fundraising calls to local businesses.

Joyce Epstein, research professor of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University, has an answer. As founder and director of the National Network of Partnership Schools, Epstein has spent more than a decade promoting her model of effective school-family-community partnerships, and the network now includes more than 100 districts and more than 1,000 schools. The network's Six Types of Involvement (see sidebar) provides specific ideas on how parents and community members can best impact student performance at schools, going beyond typical PTA-type activities.

"There's nothing new under the sun, so a lot of this thinking was part of the effective schools movement in the 1970s and the comprehensive school movement in the 1980s. The difference is that this is very structured. We provide a lot of support to build the programs in a way that says this is a way to organize the schools," Epstein says.

Put Students First

The bedrock of the Epstein parent-community-school partnership is a focus on student achievement. After identifying what goals the group will target-anything from raising math comprehension to bettering attendance rates-all programs, activities and projects should serve those objectives. It's nice to have parents feel more comfortable in the school, or have local stores support the football team. But considering the depth of resources that parental and community involvement can bring to a school, it's a mistake to pass on the opportunity to harness this energy to provide a better education.

An added bonus is that student achievement is a purpose that everyone can rally around. "When you go to ask businesses for help with the school, for example, you don't have to just say, 'Can you help because you're part of the community?' You can say the school is working hard to increasing reading scores, can you help us reach that goal? Business partners are much more likely to be involved when the goal is so clear," Epstein notes.

Create a Structure

The network's program includes activities and roles for both the district and for individual schools. At either level, to move beyond the ad hoc nature of most parent involvement efforts, the first steps are to create an official body to handle the work and to write a specific plan, with clear objectives, roles and deadlines. As important, provide administrative support to staff the project at the district level.

Once the work has begun, stay organized. In Illinois' Naperville Community School District, the 23-member core team for the School-Family-Community Partnership meets every month and uses a committee structure to keep its meetings focused and productive. The team includes parents, school board members, school staff, principals, business representatives and members of the central office (including the superintendent). "In the core team, we have district leadership sitting there and talking about ideas, and that means a lot," says Nina Menis, the director of community relations for the district. Not only does a clear structure keep things moving smoothly, it also sends the message that the work is important and valued.

Expand Your Idea of Involvement

Some of the types of involvement in the Epstein model might be surprising (helping parents with child-rearing?) or even a bit scary (including families in school governance?). "Schools are used to thinking about this topic only in terms of bodies in the building. This is different," Epstein says. Plan for just two to four big events a year that pull in the whole school community (book night, open house, potluck dinners, etc.) and spend the extra energy on other kinds of impact.

For more than a decade, for example, a parent legislative committee at the Anoka-Hennepin Independent School District 11 outside of Minneapolis has worked with the district to learn about budget issues before every legislative session, then met with the local state representatives to advocate for school support. "The team is recognized as reliable, fact-based and non-partisan," says Linda Rodgers, the parent involvement coordinator for the district. "It's a real asset for us." The district also has a central lending library of books, DVDs and tapes on topics like child development and educational topics for parents, as well as offering parenting classes, and pulls in tens of thousands of hours of volunteer work each year, thanks in large part to a part-time volunteer service coordinator in every one of the district's 43 schools.

Aim for a Wider Collaboration

Also expand your idea of who participates in school activities beyond the usual loyal, involved moms. What about fathers? Working parents? Immigrants who aren't conversant in English? Make outreach to all these constituents a part of your plans. Ensure that decisions made at onsite meetings are conveyed back to all interested parents with written memos (in multiple languages, if need be). Some districts videotape workshops, so parents who couldn't attend can still see the results via a DVD or streaming video. And the school or district Web site is a natural way to ensure that anyone who wants to be a part of the partnership can participate.

Let Local Schools Find Their Way

Schools should be able to choose themselves, however, which of the six types of involvement to pursue, depending on their own situation and resources. Some districts gather results throughout the year at the schools and create a model of best practices for other schools to replicate, even organizing workshops to help. The idea is to provide support and encouragement for local ideas to flourish-while also being clear that community involvement is a non-negotiable goal.

Support Parents and Community Partners

Everybody needs a hand getting used to something new, and parents and community partners are no different. "We need to educate parents about what kind of involvement we want and about the issues. They don't work at the district or in the education world. They have so much to offer, so it's part of our job to help them be very knowledgeable when creating their plans," says Adie Simmons, the family and community partnership manager in the Seattle Public Schools. In Seattle, the community and parent representatives in a district advisory council pledged two hours twice a month for meetings, workshops and presentations about the issues facing the local schools for a year.

Build Relationships

As important as plans and structure are, it's as vital to pay attention to human relations. Simmons notes that by the time her advisory committee's twice-monthly trainings were through, the community and parent representatives and superintendent and other district personnel had gotten to know each other well, an invaluable asset when working together on often contentious issues. "Now they're like one big family," she says.

Making a one-to-one connection is also important to make parents and members of the community feel welcome in the schools. "The personal relationship is central," says Rodgers. "It's not about sending out a piece of paper and asking people to volunteer. Pick up the phone to check their pulse or extend an invitation to participate in an activity. Making a phone call, that's a very potent, powerful act."

"You can't avoid conflict. In our diverse, very large urban district where groups of parents have very different concerns that comes with the territory." - Adie Simmons, family and community partnership manager, Seattle Public Schools

Prepare for Some Controversy

No matter how much you plan or how well you've reached out, sometimes the discussion may get rocky. "You can't avoid conflict. In our diverse, very large urban district where groups of parents have very different concerns that comes with the territory," Simmons admits. But if you're ready for disagreement, it doesn't have to upend your program.

Fair, consistent rules, a clear agenda and a good facilitator go a long way to keeping tempers down. At the end of the day, if you've been even-handed and really listened to all sides, even the losers on an issue will usually feel that the process worked-especially if it's clear from the start that everybody won't be happy with every choice the partnership makes.

"For a long time, parent and community involvement was seen as an external thing. Hopefully, the trend is to start seeing it as a systemic piece of what educators do in best practice, not as something the PTA does somewhere else," Simmons says. "Kids come with families. You can't ignore that."

Carl Vogel is a Chicago-based writer.