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School Family and Community Connections - Components of a Comprehensive Program of Partnerships, How Partnerships Link to Other Aspects of Successful Schools

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The goal of positive and productive family and community involvement is on every school improvement list, but few schools have implemented comprehensive programs of partnership. Research suggests that this goal is an important one to reach because families and communities contribute to children's learning, development, and school success at every grade level.

Studies are accumulating that show that well-designed programs of partnership are important for helping all families support their children's education in elementary, middle, and high schools. That is, if schools plan and implement comprehensive programs of partnership, then many more families respond, including those who would not become involved on their own.

Three questions need to be addressed to help educators move from believing in the importance of family and community involvement to conducting effective programs of partnership:

  1. What is a comprehensive program of school, family, and community partnerships?
  2. How do family and community partnerships link to other aspects of successful schools?
  3. How can all schools develop and sustain productive programs of partnerships?

Components of a Comprehensive Program of Partnerships

A framework of six types of involvement guides schools in establishing full and productive programs of school-family-community partnerships. This section summarizes the six types of involvement and discusses a few sample practices that are being implemented in schools across the country that are working to improve and increase family and community connections. Also noted are some of the challenges that all schools must overcome to create successful partnerships, along with examples of results that can be expected from each type of involvement for students, families, and educators.

Comprehensive programs of partnerships include activities for all six types of involvement. Because there are many activities to choose from, elementary, middle, and high schools can tailor their programs of partnerships by selecting activities that match specific school goals and the interests and needs of students and families.

Type 1–Parenting. Type 1 activities are conducted to help families strengthen parenting skills, understand child and adolescent development, and set home conditions to support learning at each school level. Type 1 activities also enable families to provide information to schools so that educators understand families' backgrounds, cultures, and goals for their children.

Sample practices. Among Type 1 activities, elementary, middle, and high schools may conduct workshops for parents; provide short, clear summaries of important information on parenting; and organize opportunities for parents to exchange ideas with other parents, educators, and community experts on topics of child and adolescent development. Topics may include health, nutrition, discipline, guidance, peer pressure, preventing drug abuse, and planning for the future. Type 1 activities also provide families with information on what to expect and how to prepare for students' transitions from pre-school to elementary school, elementary to middle school, and middle to high school. Additional topics for successful parenting may concern family roles and responsibilities in student attendance, college planning, and other topics that are important for student success in school. Schools also may offer parents General Educational Development (GED) programs, family support sessions, family computer classes, and other learning and social opportunities for parents and for students. To ensure that families provide valuable information to the schools, teachers may ask parents at the start of each school year or periodically to share insights about their children's strengths, talents, interests, needs, and goals.

Challenges. One challenge for successful Type 1 activities is to get information from workshops to parents who cannot come to meetings and workshops at the school building. This may be done with videos, tape recordings, summaries, newsletters, cable broadcasts, phone calls, and other print and nonprint communications. Another Type 1 challenge is to design procedures that enable all families to share information easily and as needed about their children with teachers, counselors, and others.

Results expected. If useful information flows to and from families about child and adolescent development, parents will increase their confidence about parenting, students will be more aware of parents' continuing guidance, and teachers will better understand their students' families. For example, if practices are targeted to help families send their children to school every day and on time, then student attendance will improve and lateness will decrease. If families are part of their children's transitions to elementary, middle, and high school, then more students will adjust well to their new schools, and more parents will remain involved across the grades.

Type 2–Communicating. Type 2 activities increase school-to-home and home-to-school communications about school programs and student progress through notices, memos, conferences, report cards, newsletters, telephone calls, e-mail and computerized messages, the Internet, open houses, and other traditional and innovative communications.

Sample practices. Among many Type 2 activities, elementary, middle, and high schools may provide parents with clear information on each teacher's criteria for report card grades; how to interpret interim progress reports; and, as necessary, how to work with students to improve grades or behavior. Type 2 activities include parent-teacher conferences; parent-teacher-student conferences; or student-led conferences with parents and teachers. Student involvement in conferences helps youngsters take personal responsibility for learning. Activities may be designed to improve school and student newsletters by including student work, a feature column for parents' questions, calendars of important events, and parent response forms. Many schools are beginning to use e-mail, voice mail, and websites to encourage two-way communication between families and teachers, counselors, and administrators.

Challenges. One challenge for successful Type 2 activities is to make communications clear and understandable for all families, including parents who have less formal education or who do not read English well, so that all families can understand and respond to the information they receive. Other Type 2 challenges are to know which families are and are not receiving and understanding the communications in order to design ways to reach all families; develop effective two-way channels of communication so that families can easily contact and respond to educators; and make sure that students understand their roles as couriers and interpreters in facilitating school and family connections.

Results expected. If communications are clear and useful, and if two-way channels are easily accessed, then school-to-home and home-to-school interactions will increase; more families will understand school programs, follow their children's progress, guide students to maintain or improve their grades, and attend parent-teacher conferences. Specifically, if computerized phone lines are used to communicate information about homework, more families will know more about their children's daily assignments. If newsletters include respond-andreply forms, more families will send ideas, questions, and comments to teachers and administrators about school programs and activities.

Type 3–Volunteering. Type 3 activities are designed to improve recruitment, training, and schedules to involve parents and others as volunteers and as audiences at the school or in other locations to support students and school programs.

Sample practices. Among many Type 3 activities, schools may collect information on family members' talents, occupations, interests, and availability to serve as volunteers. These important human resources may help enrich students' subject classes; improve career explorations; serve as language translators; monitor attendance and call parents of absent students; conduct "parent patrols" and "morning greeters" to increase school safety; and organize and improve activities such as clothing and uniform exchanges, school stores, and fairs. Schools may organize volunteers to serve as home-room parents, neighborhood representatives, and sports and club contacts and may establish telephone trees to help parents communicate with each other about school programs and events. Schools may establish a corps of volunteers to offer a "wel-come wagon" of information about the school to students and families who enroll during the school year. Schools also may create opportunities for mentors, coaches, tutors, and leaders of after-school programs to ensure that students have experiences that build and expand their skills and talents and that keep them safe and supervised after school. Some Type 3 activities may be conducted in a parent room or family center at the school where parents obtain information, conduct volunteer work, and meet with other parents.

Challenges. Challenges for successful Type 3 activities are to recruit volunteers widely so that parents and other family members feel welcome; make hours flexible for parents and other volunteers who work during the school day; provide needed training; and enable volunteers to contribute productively to the school, classroom, and after-school programs. Volunteers will be better integrated in school programs if there is a coordinator who is responsible for matching volunteers' available times and skills with the needs of teachers, administrators, and students. Another Type 3 challenge is to change the definition of "volunteer" to mean anyone who supports school goals or students' learning at any time and in any place. This includes parents and family members who voluntarily come to school as audiences for students' sports events, assemblies, and musical or drama presentations, and for other events that support students' work. It also includes volunteers who work for the school at home, through their businesses, or in the community. A related challenge is to help students understand how volunteers help their school and to encourage students to interact with volunteers who can assist them with their work and activities.

Results expected. If tasks are well designed, and if schedules and locations for volunteers are varied, more parents, family members, and others in the community will assist elementary, middle, and high schools and support students as members of audiences. More families will feel comfortable with the school and staff; more students will talk and interact with varied adults; and more teachers will be aware of and use the time, talents, and resources of parents and others in the community to improve school programs and activities. Specifically, if volunteers serve as attendance monitors, more families will assist students to improve attendance. If volunteers conduct a "hall patrol" or are active in other locations, school safety will increase and student behavior problems will decrease because of a better student–adult ratio. If volunteers are well-trained as tutors in particular subjects, student tutees will improve their skills in those subjects; and if volunteers discuss careers, students will be more aware of their options for the future.

Type 4–Learning at home. Type 4 activities involve families with their children in academic learning activities at home that are coordinated with students' classwork and that contribute to student success in school. These include interactive homework, goal-setting for academic subjects, and other curricular-linked activities and decisions about courses and programs.

Sample practices. Among many Type 4 activities, elementary, middle, and high schools may provide information to students and to parents about the skills needed to pass each class, course, or grade level and about each teacher's homework policies. Schools also may implement activities that can help families encourage, praise, guide, and monitor their children's work by using interactive homework strategies; student-teacher-family contracts for long-term projects; summer home-learning packets; student-led at-home conferences with parents on portfolios or folders of writing samples or work in other subjects; goal-setting activities for improving or maintaining good report card grades in all subjects; and other approaches that keep students and families talking about schoolwork at home. Family fun and learning nights are often used as a starting point to help parents and students focus on curricular-related topics and family interactions. These meetings require parents to come to the school building. A systematic approach to increasing academic conversations at home is found in the Teachers Involve Parents in Schoolwork (TIPS) interactive homework for the elementary and middle grades.

Challenges. One challenge for successful Type 4 activities is to implement a regular schedule of interactive homework that requires students to take responsibility for discussing important things they are learning, interviewing family members, recording reactions, and sharing their work and ideas at home. Another Type 4 challenge is to create a schedule of activities that involve families regularly and systematically with students on short-term and long-term goal-setting for attendance, achievement, behavior, talent development, and plans for college or careers.

Results expected. If Type 4 activities are well designed and implemented, student homework completion, report card grades, and test scores in specific subjects will improve; and more families will know what their children are learning in class and how to monitor, support, and discuss homework. More students should complete required course credits, select advanced courses, and take college entrance tests. Students and teachers will be more aware of families' interest in students' work.

Type 5–Decision-making. Type 5 activities include families in developing schools' mission statements and in designing, reviewing, and improving school policies that affect children and families. Family members become active participants on school improvement teams, committees, PTA/PTO or other parent organizations, Title I and other councils, and advocacy groups.

Sample practices. Among Type 5 activities, elementary, middle, and high schools may organize and maintain an active parent association and include family representatives on all committees for school improvement (e.g., curriculum, safety, supplies and equipment, partnerships, fund-raising, postsecondary college planning, career development). In particular, along with teachers, administrators, students, and others from the community, parents must be members of the "Action Team for Partnerships," which plans and conducts family and community involvement activities linked to school improvement goals. Schools may offer parents and teachers training in leadership, decision-making, policy advocacy, and collaboration. Type 5 activities help to identify and provide information desired by families about school policies, course offerings, student placements and groups, special services, tests and assessments, annual test results for students, and annual evaluations of school programs.

Challenges. One challenge for successful Type 5 activities in all schools is to ensure that leadership roles are filled by parent representatives from all of the major race and ethnic groups, socioeconomic groups, and neighborhoods that are present in the school. A related challenge is to help parent leaders serve as effective representatives by obtaining information from and providing information to all parents about school issues and decisions. At the high school level, a particular challenge is to include student representatives along with parents in decisionmaking groups and in leadership positions. An ongoing challenge is to help parents, teachers, and students who serve on an Action Team for Partnerships or other committees learn to trust, respect, and listen to each other as they collaborate to reach common goals for school improvement.

Results expected. If Type 5 activities are well implemented in elementary, middle, and high schools, more families will have input into decisions that affect the quality of their children's education; students will increase their awareness that families and students have a say in school policies; and teachers will increase their understanding of family perspectives on policies and programs for improving the school.

Type 6–Collaborating with the community. Type 6 activities draw upon and coordinate the work and resources of community businesses; cultural, civic, and religious organizations; senior citizen groups; colleges and universities; governmental agencies; and other associations in order to strengthen school programs, family practices, and student learning and development. Other Type 6 activities enable students, staff, and families to contribute their services to the community.

Sample practices. Among many Type 6 activities, elementary, middle, and high schools may inform students and families about the availability of community programs and resources, such as after-school recreation, tutorial programs, health services, cultural events, service opportunities, and summer programs. This includes the need to assist students and families to gain access to community resources and programs. Some schools work with local businesses to organize "gold card" discounts as incentives for students to improve attendance and report card grades. Collaborations with community businesses, groups, and agencies also strengthen the other five types of involvement. Examples include enhancing Type 1 activities by conducting parent education workshops for families at community or business locations; increasing Type 2 activities by communicating about school events on the local radio or television stations, and at churches, clinics, and supermarkets; soliciting volunteers from businesses and the community to strengthen Type 3 activities; enriching Type 4 activities by offering students learning opportunities with artists, scientists, writers, mathematicians, and others whose careers link to the school curriculum; and including community members on Type 5 decision-making councils and committees.

Challenges. One challenge for successful Type 6 activities is to solve problems associated with community-school collaborations, such as "turf" problems of who is responsible for funding, leading, and supervising cooperative activities. The initial enthusiasm and decisions for school-community partnerships must be followed by actions that sustain productive collaborations over the long term. Another Type 6 challenge is to recognize and link students' valuable learning experiences in the community to the school curricula, including lessons that build on students' nonschool skills and talents, their club and volunteer work, and, in high school, their part-time jobs. A major challenge is to inform and involve families in community-related activities that students conduct. Related challenges are to help students understand how community partners help their school and to engage students, themselves, as volunteers and in service-learning in their own schools, in other schools, and in the community.

Results expected. Well-implemented Type 6 activities will increase the knowledge that families, students, and schools have about the resources and programs in their community that could help them reach important goals. Well-designed community connections will increase student access to and participation in community programs. Coordinated community services could help many students and their families prevent health, social, and educational problems or solve problems before they become too serious. Type 6 activities also should support and enrich school curricular and extracurricular programs.

Summary. The six types of involvement create a comprehensive program of partnerships in elementary, middle, and high schools, but the implementation challenges for each type of involvement must be met in order for programs to be effective. The quality of the design and content of the involvement activities directly affect the expected results. Not every practice that involves families will result in higher student achievement test scores. Rather, practices for each type of involvement can be selected to help students, families, and teachers reach specific goals and results. The examples above include only a few of hundreds of suggestions that can help elementary, middle, and high schools develop strong programs of partnerships.

How Partnerships Link to Other Aspects of Successful Schools

Good schools have qualified and talented teachers and administrators, high expectations that all students will succeed, rigorous curricula, engaging instruction, responsive and useful tests and assessments, strong guidance for every student, and effective school, family, and community partnerships. In good schools, these elements combine to promote students' learning and to create a school climate that is welcoming, safe, caring, stimulating, and joyful for all students, educators, and families.

All of the elements of successful schools are interconnected. It is particularly important for educators to understand that partnerships are not extra, separate, or different from the "real work" of a school, but that they contribute to the quality of a school's program and to student success. Two examples help clarify the links of family and community involvement to the success students experience in schools' academic and guidance programs.

Family and community involvement may contribute to the quality of schools' academic programs and student learning. National and local surveys indicate that students and their families have very high aspirations for success in school and in life. Fully 98 percent of a national sample of eighth-grade students planned to graduate from high school, and 82 percent planned at least some postsecondary schooling, with over 70 percent aiming to complete college. Tenth-and twelfth-grade students had similar high ambitions. In order to help students reach their aspirations, educators and families must work better together to help students: succeed at every grade level, pass the courses they need to complete high school, and initiate actions to attend college. Schools, with families' support, also must provide some students with extra help and more time to learn in coaching classes, extra-help courses, summer school, and tutoring, mentoring, and other responsive programs.

Families need good information about their children's curriculum each year; the teachers' instructional approaches; extra help available to students; and the nature of tests and assessments in order to be able to discuss important academic topics with their children at home. Families also need to understand how their children are progressing in each subject, how to help students set and meet learning goals, and how to work with students to solve major problems that threaten course or grade-level failure. Some elementary, middle, and high schools create individual student educational plans and conferences with all students and parents.

Many schools use new and varied teaching strategies that are unfamiliar to most families. These may include group activities, problem-solving processes, prewriting techniques, student-as-historian methods, interactive homework, and other innovative approaches to promote learning. Families and others in the community also need to know about major tests, report card criteria, and other state and local standards that schools use to determine students' progress and pathways through school. Some schools' Action Teams for Partnerships design daytime or evening workshops for parents to learn about and try items on new performance-based assessments.

With clear information about all aspects of schools' academic programs, more families could guide their children's decisions about courses, homework completion, studying for tests, and taking steps toward college or work. If classroom teachers, students, and parents communicate clearly and frequently about students' academic programs, progress, and needs, more students will succeed at high levels and fulfill their own and their families' high expectations.

Family and community involvement may contribute to the quality of schools' guidance programs and students' attitudes and behavior. School guidance and support services are stronger and serve students better if educators, students, and families are well connected. Students need to know that their guidance counselors and teachers understand and appreciate their families' cultures, hopes, and dreams. As students proceed through the grades, they struggle to balance their love for their family, need for guidance, and need for greater independence. Educators and parents can help students see that these seemingly contradictory pressures can coexist.

Guidance counselors, school social workers, and school psychologists in elementary, middle, and high schools should meet with students' families and serve as key contacts for parents to call if questions arise about students' academic progress, behavior, peer relations, or interactions with teachers. In some middle and high schools, guidance counselors are members of interdisciplinary teams of teachers who meet with parents and students on a regular schedule. In all schools, guidance counselors could contact parents before students are at serious risk of failing courses because of absence, attitudes, classwork, or homework in order to devise collaborative approaches to help students succeed in school.

Families need to know about the formal and informal guidance programs at their children's schools. This includes knowing the names, phone or voice-mail numbers, and e-mail addresses of their children's teachers, counselors, advocates, and administrators in order to reach them with questions about their children's progress or problems. This is particularly important at times of transition when students move into elementary school, or from elementary to middle or middle to high school. With good information, parents and other family partners become and remain more involved in their children's education, and more of them can assist students to adjust successfully to their new schools.

When students, guidance counselors, teachers, and parents communicate well about students' social and emotional development and special needs, more students are likely to succeed each year and stay in school.

How Schools Can Develop and Sustain a Productive Partnership Program

Many schools are demonstrating how to design, implement, and sustain strong programs of school, family, and community partnerships. These schools are using the framework of six types of involvement to ensure that families are well informed about and engaged in their children's education at school and at home. They are using the research base summarized above, and they are being supported and assisted by school principals, district administrators and key staff, state leaders, and others.

In well-designed partnership programs, each school forms an Action Team for Partnerships consisting of teachers, parents, administrators, and others. Each team writes an annual action plan for partnerships, implements and oversees activities, maintains an adequate budget, evaluates the quality of partnerships, and improves plans and activities from year to year. In excellent programs, activities to involve families and community partners are linked to school improvement goals to produce the kinds of results described above. For example, family and community involvement activities may be selected to increase the support that all students receive at home, at school, and in the community to help students improve reading skills, math scores, attendance, behavior, and other indicators of school success. To aid this process, the National Network of Partnership Schools at Johns Hopkins University provides research-based guidelines, training, and ongoing assistance and professional development to schools, districts, and states that want to establish and sustain effective partnership programs.

Many research studies have helped answer the three questions posed at the beginning of this entry. By drawing on the growing research base, educators, parents, and community leaders can work together, think about, talk about, and take action to develop comprehensive programs of school, family, and community partnerships in their schools. Annual plans should include family and community involvement activities that support school improvement goals and that contribute to the success of elementary, middle, and high school academic programs and guidance services for all students. This can be done with new and useful research-based tools, materials, and networks to establish and continually improve programs and practices of partnerships.

Despite important advances since the 1980s in research and in practice on school, family, and community partnerships, there still are many questions that must be addressed to inform and productively involve all families in their children's education. Studies are needed at all grade levels to identify which family and community involvement activities significantly improve students' reading, math, and other skills and attitudes; and which involvement activities are particularly helpful to families and students at times of transitions to new schools. There are important questions to address on how to reach families with diverse cultural and language backgrounds, and how to integrate all families to create a strong, supportive school community. Also needed is more knowledge about how to involve fathers more effectively in their children's education; how community resources can be tapped to assist students, families, and school programs; and how to increase students' understanding of their roles and responsibilities in facilitating partnership activities that link home, school, and community.

Notably, this field of study has successfully linked research results to the development of educational policy and school practice. As new questions about school, family, and community partnerships are systematically addressed, knowledge will accumulate that should continue to improve the connections of home, school, and community to benefit students.

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INTERNET RESOURCE

NATIONAL NETWORK OF PARTNERSHIP SCHOOLS. 2002. "Teachers Involve Parents in Schoolwork."

<www.partnershipschools.org>.

JOYCE L. EPSTEIN

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