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April 1, 2008
Vol. 50
No. 4

Tapping Parent and Community Support to Improve Student Learning

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Rather than limiting parents to traditional practices—such as having them monitor homework or volunteer to chaperone field trips—a growing number of teachers and administrators are harnessing the energy and expertise that parents and community members can bring to school-improvement efforts.
The concept of "parental involvement" is evolving in U.S. schools. For example, a group of teachers in Boston, Mass., turn to community activists to help them secure money for sorely needed textbooks; parents in New Haven, Conn., have a voice in determining the district's policies on out-of-school suspensions; and low-income parents in Los Angeles, Calif., can attend workshops and experience student-centered instruction, which inspires them to then actively advocate for such instruction in their children's schools. Throughout the nation, parents, educators, and community members are working together to boost student achievement.

A New Approach in New Haven

Certainly, the mandates for parental involvement contained in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act have spurred many schools to better employ the contributions of parents and community members. NCLB has helped educators think more broadly, suggests Patti Avallone, Title I supervisor for New Haven Public Schools. "We can't call it 'parental involvement' anymore, because it's not just what parents do but also what the community and school can do to bolster student achievement," she says. "No one can do it alone."
New Haven's Community Engagement Team is one result of the district's response to NCLB requirements. To seek input from a broader range of stakeholders, the 16-member team includes representatives from parent groups, higher education, and community agencies, as well as teachers, administrators, and central office personnel. The team meets every month to look at issues and help determine how to address those concerns, says Avallone. Now in its second year, the team has become "a very important, viable force," which most recently helped shape a student suspension policy, now up for review by the district's board of education.
Parents, teachers, and students work together to set and achieve goals that lead to student success. "Each school comes up with a mission," Avallone explains. Teachers and administrators "talk to kids and ask them to pledge to do five or six things that will help ensure success for all students." Parents must make a similar list, and the resulting, agreed-upon accord, Avallone states, represents "a goal and quest for excellence" that is then distributed to all stakeholders.

Advocating for All Students

In New Haven, as parents and community members learn how they can best help schools create optimal learning environments, they must also adopt the mind-set that they will be working to enhance learning conditions for all students—not just their own sons or daughters, says Avallone.
The emphasis on all is important "because it frames education reform as a collective endeavor," says John Rogers, education professor at University of California, Los Angeles. When all stakeholders unite their efforts, it communicates the message that the whole community has a responsibility to advocate for better schools, Rogers states.
Dennis Shirley, education professor at Boston College, agrees. "What happens in so many schools is that there is a league of parents that comes in and does the volunteering," which, in turn, secures the benefits for their children, first and foremost. In many cases, poor, working-class parents aren't part of that long-established parent group. The hopes they have for their children's education won't be realized, Shirley explains, unless they have a coalition of people who have "a broader understanding of the public good"—those who know that their well-being is connected to the well-being of others.
Both Shirley and Rogers have written extensively about community organizing for urban school reform. The approach is effective, these scholars suggest, because it is rooted in democratic principles. "I think that we sometimes forget that one of the primary purposes of school is democracy, and when we do remember a school's democratic purposes, we think of it only in terms of the education of young people," says Rogers. "Schools can also play a valuable role in helping parents exercise their civic voices."
In Los Angeles, Calif., for example, members of a grassroots parent advocacy group—Parent U-Turn—understand that a more informed public is a more empowered public. Rogers describes Mary Johnson, Parent U-Turn's president and director, as an activist whose modus operandi is fueled by the premise that there is "strength in knowing." Having access to schools—while important—is not enough, Johnson recognizes. Parent power lies in being able to gather and distribute information as well. Parent U-Turn, therefore, regularly conducts surveys of parents and youth. The group then "uses this information to go back to a principal or district office [personnel] and say, 'We need to reassess what we're doing.' [Parent U-Turn] builds a case for different policy," Rogers explains.
For educators and parents alike, accepting community groups as potential allies in school reform is an evolutionary process. "Recalcitrant principals, unsupportive teachers, and parents who have competing interests" are real challenges that take time to overcome, Shirley cautions. He explains that community advocates cannot be wholly effective working from the outside. "Community organizers need to understand the culture of the school," says Shirley. And, just as parents and community members may need to be educated in how they can advocate for the betterment of schools, educators may need to learn how to establish proactive relationships with different education stakeholder groups.
Rogers agrees. "Principals need to reach out to people and organizations that help build the sense that we're all in this together," he says. "I encourage principals to be the people who facilitate conversations with parents and community members, to say: 'Let's talk about the challenges and determine the best solutions.'"

Giving Parents a Little R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

Using "public power" to ensure all students receive a quality education is a promising trend, says Rogers. Still, he adds, such collective action will not replace traditional forms of parental involvement; rather, it will enhance them. "When people view each other with respect, it all improves."
Respect is the cornerstone of Gerald Gary's relationship with parents. Gary, principal at Jackson School in Camden, S.C., knows "how important parents are to student achievement." The elementary school principal wrote his dissertation on parental involvement and has published the book If They All Had First Class Parents on the subject. He also shared his successful strategies with educators at ASCD's 2008 Annual Conference and Exhibit Show. "If you look at all the great schools, the common denominator is that they all have actively involved parents," says Gary, who maintains that there are simple things educators can do to involve parents in their schools.
Jackson School, for example, hosts a Happy New Year party when the school year begins. Goal setting is the theme at this annual bash: "Teachers set goals, students set goals, and parents set goals," Gary says. Moreover, he adds, "students know they start the year with a clean slate." Previous struggles with academics or behavior are left behind. Students begin anew and they are held to the same high expectations and given the same learning opportunities as other students, regardless of past performance.
To increase parental engagement, Gary remains flexible when scheduling conferences with busy parents. "This is a high-poverty school and a lot of the parents work two or three jobs," says Gary. These parents may find it difficult to get out in the evenings, so Gary works to find an agreeable meeting time. "If they can't come at 7 p.m., they may be able to come the next morning," he says. And, if parents need to bring their children with them, the school can provide child care.
The many efforts to promote parental involvement have paid off. Last year, Jackson School was one of South Carolina's Palmetto Silver award winners. The award is given to schools that have high levels of student academic achievement, as well as to schools that dramatically improve performance from one year to another. According to Gary, Jackson School scored "below average" on the 2006 school report card. Parent and community volunteers then got involved and worked with individual students to help them meet specific learning goals, which were based on formative assessment results. Jackson School's improvement rating increased from "below average" to "good" on the next report card. The evidence is irrefutable, Gary asserts. "The correlation between parental involvement and achievement is there."

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