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November 1, 1996
Vol. 54
No. 3

Building Family Partnerships That Last

Belonging to a national network of schools has helped three Baltimore schools to involve families and communities in a variety of ways—from promoting learning at home to encouraging volunteers at school.

Educators recognize the need for comprehensive, permanent programs of partnership with their families and communities. In Baltimore City alone, 49 schools are working with The National Network of Partnership-2000 Schools at Johns Hopkins University toward just such a goal. To learn how they are coming along, I interviewed administrators, teachers, and parents at six schools that have already achieved a great deal of success. The following are descriptions of school-family-community partnership activities at three of these schools.

Ingredients for Success

The three schools attribute much of their success to (1) action teams, (2) a framework of six types of involvement (Epstein 1995, Epstein et al. 1996), and (3) the assistance of full-time project facilitators, who guide and support each school's action team. As members of Partnership-2000, each school first created an Action Team for School-Family-Community Partnerships, a committee of parents, teachers, administrators, and community members who work to cultivate and maintain strong connections between schools, families, and communities. Each member serves as chair or cochair of one of six committees, representing six types of involvement: (1) parenting, (2) communicating, (3) volunteering, (4) learning at home, (5) decision making, and (6) collaborating with the community (Epstein 1995). According to the schools, action teams ensure that work is distributed among many people, greatly reducing both an individual's workload and the possibility of burnout.
The schools featured in this article—Farring, James Mosher, and Cross Country Elementary Schools—illustrate how schools with differing populations and needs can experience similar success in building strong partnerships.

Commitment to School and Home

Maree G. Farring Elementary School is located in a predominantly white, heavily industrialized area of Baltimore City. The school serves approximately 500 students in grades pre-K–5. More than 90 percent of the students are white, non-Hispanic. In 1995, about 58 percent of these students received free or reduced-price lunches, and about 15 percent received special education services. The school has a relatively high mobility rate, with approximately 12 percent of students entering the school and 24 percent leaving the school during the 1994-95 school year. I interviewed the action team chair and a parent member.
Although Farring works on each of the six types of involvement mentioned previously, the teams there have focused on volunteering and learning at home. For the latter, the action team subcommittees on parenting, volunteering, and home learning combined their efforts to assist families in helping children with reading and math. During workshops, families receive survival kits containing rulers, crayons, scissors, and tape. Workshops also introduce families to TIPS (Teachers Involve Parents in Schoolwork), an interactive homework process that increases the involvement of families in their children's schoolwork (Epstein and Salinas 1995). Information from the workshops is summarized in the school's monthly newsletter for families who cannot attend the school meetings.
Farring's action team has also focused on increasing the number of school volunteers, hoping more families will become familiar with the school's daily operation and curriculum and will share that knowledge and understanding with other families.
One challenge of running a volunteer program is providing all families with opportunities to help out, not just those who can come to the school. To the many parents who are employed during the school day, Farring offers opportunities to volunteer off-site. For example, one parent may make school buttons at home, while another might buy needed supplies for the school.
The action team documented the school's increase in volunteers through sign-in sheets. Parent volunteers sign their names and the times that they arrive and leave. In addition to tracking, sign-in sheets allow Farring to recognize and celebrate its parent volunteers.
The action team has been vital to the success of Farring's partnership program. According to the chairperson of the action team:We try to share responsibility. I tell them, "This is a team and as a team, if one person on the team fails then all of us fail." I don't say I, I, I; it's we, we, we. We help each other. We have to.
Increased volunteerism has benefited faculty, students, and families at Farring. A number of parents who started volunteering have also enrolled in the school's GED program, and a few have entered college—one is majoring in education. The parent member of the action team attributes these accomplishments to the increased self-confidence experienced by many volunteering parents.
Volunteerism has also improved communication between parents and teachers. The parents understand more of what teachers experience, and the teachers know that parents care and are willing to help. The action team chair notes that only after becoming involved in the partnership program did she realize the importance of parental participation. She states: "Once upon a time, it was Keep Parents Out.' Now it's, Come on In!'"
According to those I spoke with, the whole school has benefited from the Partnership program. All teachers are involved with one of the six action team subcommittees. The parent member of the action team notes that student reaction seems positive as well, and the team is planning a formal assessment of their opinions.

Pops on Patrol

James Mosher Elementary School serves about 450 students in grades pre-K–5. About 99 percent of these students are African American. In 1995, about 78 percent of the students received free or reduced-price lunches, and about 10 percent received special education services. The mobility rate is lower than that of most Baltimore City elementary schools, with about 9 percent of students entering and about 15 percent withdrawing during the 1994-95 school year. I talked with the cochairs of the action team, both of whom are employed by the school as parent liaisons. We spoke in the school's bright, cheerful, and very active Parent Room.
As cochairs, the parent liaisons are essential members of the school's five-member action team. The action team also includes two teachers and the assistant principal. Mosher has always had active parental involvement, but since joining the National Network of Partnership-2000 Schools (see accompanying box), it has improved and expanded its program. According to the cochairs, ideas and work are now shared more equitably in the school, and the support of the project facilitator, as well as monthly "cluster" meetings with other nearby elementary and middle schools, provides more resources.
Mosher also uses the framework of six types of involvement. As a result, the school has many family and community activities that make it more pleasant, productive, and secure. For example, Mosher started a volunteer project called "Pops on Patrol," with six grandfathers and grandmothers patrolling the school every morning and afternoon. Two years later it's still going strong.
The "Pops" wear hats and vests so that they can be easily identified, and their presence sends a strong message to the students about the importance of schooling, safety, and punctuality. The children love the project. When one volunteer was out with pneumonia, the students frequently came to the office to inquire about him and ask when he would be back.
The cochairs said grandparents were chosen because they serve as important examples for some of the younger parents, and they also tend to have more free time. One cochair of the action team states, "At James Mosher, family includes grandparents, aunts, babysitters, grandmothers' sisters, uncles, stepfathers—we don't stop until we get someone who cares about the well-being of each child."
The action team learned that reaching the families of all students takes commitment and hard work. One effective strategy has been home visits, made easier by Mosher's long history in the community. This means there is always someone available to help them contact a hard-to-reach parent. According to one action team cochair:Even the younger guys that you see on the corner have gone through this building. When they see us coming, they say, "They're coming from the school, ya'll quit your cursing and get out of the way." I've yet to have a bad response from knocking on a door.
The other cochair adds that, in some instances, home visits are absolutely necessary to communicate with families:A little boy in one of our special ed classes was having problems. We couldn't contact the mother by phone, so I walked to their house. His mother just opened right up to us. She had just moved to the area. She knew her son was in special ed and was having some behavioral problems, but she really welcomed us and listened to what we had to say. She didn't have a phone, so a phone call wouldn't have done it for her. Now she's a parent volunteer.
The action team at Mosher has also coordinated special events to encourage fathers to become more involved at the school, such as father-son breakfasts and Man-to-Man workshops. The latter event is for all males—grandfathers, fathers, uncles, and others. The school invites guest speakers from the community and provides home-cooked food. Issues related to school and community involvement are discussed.
The action team is diligent about communicating with all families, not just those who come to the school. Accordingly, summary sheets of all school events are available in the school's Parent Room, and summaries also appear in the school's monthly newsletter, which includes a tear-off sheet on which parents can write comments or questions. The newsletter also contains a monthly lunch menu because parents want to know what their children were eating.
Even with considerable success, Mosher has faced challenges in developing its partnership program. The cochairs have found that working with people of different and sometimes conflicting personalities and attitudes has been one of the biggest challenges. However, they agree that if children remain the central focus of school-family-community partnerships, conflicts can be overcome through open and respectful communication.

100 Percent

Cross Country Elementary School serves about 800 students in grades pre-K–5, with more than 90 percent of those students African American. In 1995, about 50 percent of these students received free or reduced-price lunches, and about 8 percent received special education services. The mobility rate is low, with about 5 percent entering and about 12 percent withdrawing during the 1994-95 school year. I spoke with the principal, who is a member of the school's action team, and the team's chair, a community volunteer.
This past year, the action team focused on communications, following frequent complaints from parents. The team now produces a monthly newsletter that includes summaries of workshops, a calendar of school events, the cafeteria menu, and messages from the principal, the action team chair, and the PTA. The school hosts a contest called the "One Hundred Percent Club," encouraging children to take the newsletter home and to return the tear-off sheet with a parent's signature, question, or comment. Classes with 100 percent returns win pizza parties, are announced over the intercom, and are recognized in the next newsletter.
The school's overall tear-off return rate is up to 70 percent. The principal and action-team chair state that the tear-off return campaign initially met resistance from teachers, but with constant encouragement from the principal all teachers are now involved.
The action team also sends the school newsletter to community agencies and local politicians, the school superintendent, and others to inform the larger community about Cross Country's partnership efforts.
To encourage volunteerism at the school, Cross Country developed a Staff Volunteer Needs Form on which a teacher can write what help is needed. The volunteer takes the form and reports to the appropriate teacher, signing in on the teacher's volunteer sheet. The action team chair collects each teacher's sheet at the end of the month for tracking purposes.
The action team also encourages volunteers to help out at home or in the community. These volunteers are included in the school's semiannual volunteer appreciation brunch, where they are given certificates and small gifts that are provided by Cross Country's business partner. This community partner also provides trophies for the boys' basketball team, items needed for fund-raisers, and materials for the Parent Room.
The action team started the Parent Room as a place where families can go to find information on child development and other issues of interest. Parents are encouraged to bring materials to share with other families. Cross Country makes its Parent Room as inviting as possible by maintaining an open-door policy. Once parents are at the school, however, the principal is likely to ask them to volunteer.
According to the action team chair, the ideas generated by the framework of six types of involvement, the school's commitment to developing strong partnerships, and the staff's dedication to keeping students the central focus of all activities are key to building an effective partnership program. The principal adds that a shared vision is essential and that the response to the school's program has been positive:I've been here for three years, the first two as assistant principal and the last year as principal. In the past two years, there had been repeated complaints that the school was not communicating. I really got tired of it and vowed that no one would be able to say that they didn't know what was going on here. So our team sat down and designed the newsletter, and . . . the parents love it. It has really improved communication between the school and the community.The Cross Country definition of family does not stop at the mother or father. The school looks to guardians, grandparents, or whoever acts as family for the child. The principal and action team chair contend that since creating this atmosphere of trust at the school, the children are calmer, clearer about what is expected of them, and more excited about learning.

Making Partnerships Work

  1. Partnerships are a shared responsibility. All three schools show how action teams, consisting of teachers, family members, administrators, and community members, can promote effective partnerships.
  2. Partnerships take time. The schools featured here have been a part of the National Network of Partnership-2000 Schools for only one year. They have made good starts, but have much work to do before partnerships are fully integrated in their schools. However, other schools have shown that with time, institutionalization of school-family-community partnerships will occur (Sanders 1996).
  3. Partnerships reach out to all family members. James Mosher and Cross Country have broad definitions of family, helping to make partnerships work for all of their students.
  4. Partnerships improve incrementally. Each school has begun to develop effective partnerships. To reach the families of all students, however, the schools must continue to engage in thoughtful planning, implementation, evaluation, and improvement processes.
  5. Partnerships are important throughout the grades. As each school expands its partnership program, it will address the special needs of children and families at each grade level. For example, these schools might implement practices to make the transition to kindergarten and to middle school smoother for students and families (Sanders 1996).
  6. Partnerships need students. Each school shows how vitally important students are to strong, comprehensive partnership programs. Not only are students responsible for such tasks as taking newsletters home and returning tear-off sheets to school, but they are the very reason for creating these partnerships.
  7. Partnerships include the community. Cross Country and James Mosher use business partners and community connections to improve their schools.
  8. Partnerships include the hard-to-reach. All three schools show that even the hardest-to-reach families (such as families with two working parents, or families without phones) can be reached with the right strategies.
  9. Partnerships link to the curriculum and student learning. Farring's TIPS program, GED program, and family learning survival kit show how partnerships can enhance students' learning and the ability of families to assist in that learning.
  10. Partnerships follow the six types of involvement. Each school featured shows how important it is, when attempting to develop strong connections with all families, to meet the challenges for successful implementation that accompany each type of involvement.
Baltimore's schools are part of The National Network of Partnership-2000 Schools, open to schools, districts, and states that are committed to developing comprehensive, permanent programs of school-family-community partnerships. The work in Baltimore shows that, with the right ingredients and time, every school can develop programs of partnership that enable schools, families, and communities to better educate today's youth.

Epstein, J. L. (1995). "School/Family/Community Partnerships: Caring for the Children We Share." Phi Delta Kappan 76, 9: 701-712.

Epstein, J. L., L. Coates, K. C. Salinas, M. G. Sanders, and B. Simon. (1996). Partnership-2000 Schools Manual: Improving School-Family-Community Connections. Baltimore: Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk, Johns Hopkins University.

Epstein, J. L., and K. C. Salinas. (1995). TIPS, Teachers Involve Parents in Schoolwork, Manual for Teachers (Elementary and Middle Grades). Baltimore: Center on Families, Communities, Schools and Children's Learning, Johns Hopkins University.

Sanders M. G. (1996). "Action Teams in Action: Interviews and Observations in Three Schools in the Baltimore School-Family-Community Partnership Program." Journal of Education for Students Placed At Risk 1, 3: 249-262.

Mavis G. Sanders has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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