A r c h i v e d I n f o r m a t i o n
Family Involvement in Children's Education - October 1997
Successful Local Approaches (continued)
Restructuring Schools to Support Family Involvement
Developing a successful school-family partnership must be a whole school endeavor, not the work of a single person or program. Traditional school organization and practices, especially in secondary schools, often discourage family members from becoming involved. For example, survey data show that parents of older children are less likely to attend a school event or volunteer at their child's school than parents of younger children. Sixty-one percent of principals of Title I elementary schools report that most or all of their parents attend regularly scheduled parent-teacher conferences, compared with 22 percent of principals of Title I middle schools (U.S. Department of Education, 1997).
To create a welcoming environment for parents, one that enlists their support in helping their children achieve, schools sometimes adopt changes that make them more personal and inviting places. Schools can reorganize, dividing into schools-within-schools, or adopting block scheduling (which includes longer class periods), for example, to promote closer interaction between teachers and students and, by extension, between teachers and families. Schools can solicit parental input to help make decisions on curriculum, course scheduling, assessment, and budget matters. Traditional parent participation events can be redefined to create more meaningful ways to welcome and involve parents in school life. Whatever steps schools take to develop close partnerships with families on behalf of students' learning, schools that are most successful are prepared to reconsider all of their established methods of doing business and to restructure in ways that will make them less hierarchical, more personal, and more accessible to parents. Restructuring schools to create a more personalized environment for students and their families is an especially important issue for secondary schools, where parents face special barriers to becoming involved and where parent involvement does in fact drop off significantly.
Designing Parent Involvement Around Family Needs
For many successful schools, the first step in the restructuring process is to assess families' interests and needs. By asking parents to share their interests, needs, ideas, and goals for family involvement on an ongoing basis, families and staff members can work together to make family involvement a centerpiece of school reform. By contrast, families that hesitate to become involved in schools often complain that administrators and teachers develop parent involvement strategies based on what they think parents want and need, and not on what parents say they want and need.
Several programs highlighted in this report address this concern by conducting needs assessments through parent surveys, focus groups, or door-to-door neighborhood walks to gather ideas from parents about how best to promote family involvement.
- Staff members at the district-sponsored Buffalo Parent Center develop and plan their services based on surveys and information gathered from monthly "town meetings" where parents voice concerns and suggestions.
- As already noted, Roosevelt High School conducted a Walk for Success event, where teams of faculty, parents, and other community members walked door-to-door to talk with parents about their needs and gather ideas about how to improve the school.
Parents as Partners in Schoolwide Restructuring
Successful schools include parents as active partners in the school restructuring process. Rather than the traditional hierarchical relationship between families and schools, where school staff make unilateral decisions, successful parent involvement approaches work to develop parents as leaders and equal partners in the schooling process. One way to do this is to create organizational structures for parent participation, such as parent and volunteer committees. Parents can also serve on other school decision-making committees, such as site-based management councils and school improvement teams. As members of these committees, parents can, for example, share ideas and help make decisions on school policies related to the budget, teacher and principal hiring, schoolwide plans, and parent involvement activities. Together, parents and staff members develop school reform initiatives to facilitate closer student, teacher, and parent relations and to increase student achievement.
Several schools profiled for this report have developed creative ways to involve parents in school decision-making:
- Parents at Roosevelt High School serve on "ore teams'' to address school reform issues. Recently, parents played an active role in curriculum reform by helping secure a waiver from the Texas Education Agency to implement block scheduling, a plan they anticipated would improve both student attendance and achievement. (While both have risen recently, this may be due to many factors.) Core team parents also work closely with the community to assess family needs and strengths and to develop an action agenda for the school. A school organizer for the Alliance Schools Initiative in Texas said, "The most challenging aspect of getting parents involved is to help them understand that they don't always need to be at school for a particular problem, but they can also be part of a constituency that develops a broad-based plan to improve the school." This message is apparently getting through to Roosevelt parents; while approximately 10 parents attended the first PTA meeting in 1993, about 200 attended the first meeting in 1996.
- Turnbull Learning Academy involves parents on decision-making committees such as the parent leadership committee and the school-site council. Parents on the school-site council help develop the school improvement plan, a process that includes planning new programs and reviewing existing programs as well as the school budget. After scheduling a vote to determine whether parents were interested, parent leadership at Turnbull developed a proposal for a voluntary school uniform policy. An overwhelming majority of parents voted in favor of the policy, which the school board approved in the spring of 1995.
- At Atenville Elementary, parents stressed to parent leaders and school staff on a community-wide steering committee that they were concerned about the difficult transition for students as they moved from elementary schools to seventh grade at the local high school. As a result, a subcommittee on transitions was added to the community-wide school improvement steering committee. The subcommittee recommended block scheduling, similar to the scheduling that students encounter in high school, for fourth- through sixth-graders. The proposal was accepted and students now receive instruction in three blocks: (1) language arts, (2) math, and (3) social studies and science. All state-required subjects are integrated into these three areas.
New Uses of School Space
Schools can take simple steps to make parents feel welcome. For example, hanging a welcome sign or posting a parent volunteer in the entrance hall to welcome visitors, sign them in, and direct them to classrooms or the office makes a much more comforting first impression than the ubiquitous sign instructing visitors to "report to the office." Similarly, many parents express uneasiness over the elaborate security measures schools use to combat violence and drugs. Schools could consider creating alternative entrances for parents where security measures are less obtrusive.
Several schools have taken additional steps to make their schools physically welcoming for parents. They have turned unused classrooms into on-site family or parent centers, giving parents a space in which to convene for parent-teacher meetings, borrow books and other learning materials, hold workshops, conduct volunteer activities, or simply have coffee and lunch with other parents and school staff.
- South Delta Elementary's parent resource center is open every school day and contains curriculum supplies, copier and laminating machines, and work tables so that parents have the tools they need to help teachers prepare lessons and activities.
- As of the 1996-97 school year, Ferguson Elementary school is structured into four kindergarten through grade 5 learning communities, each of which occupies its own space and benefits from the support of a parent support teacher or community leader. Each community leader is responsible for supporting the curriculum, instruction, and discipline within a learning community. In addition, Ferguson's parent center, which is located in an empty classroom on the second floor of the school, welcomes parents each school day. The center offers parents resources such as information on parenting skills, listings of job opportunities, and information about available programs for parents at the local library and at nearby community centers. An average of six or seven parents visit the parent center each day. The center is staffed in the mornings by a paid parent who operates a lending library of educational materials such as "big book'' story books and accompanying audiotapes and activity guides that parents can use with their children at home. Temple University provides training and support for the parent who staffs the center.
Moving Beyond Traditional School-Family Activities
Listening to parents and working with them to build family involvement often leads to innovative, meaningful participation activities that extend beyond the traditional back-to-school nights and bake sales. For example, Buhrer Elementary's Block Parent Meetings take school events to families who live far away from school, enabling them to become informed about school issues and stay in touch with teachers, principals, and other parents. Ferguson Elementary's Parents Make a Difference conference offers parents an opportunity to form ties with teachers and other parents, take a close look at classroom life, and attend workshops on student learning. Roosevelt High School's Walk for Success program takes teachers and other school staff out into the surrounding neighborhoods to talk with parents and begin to develop meaningful parent-school partnerships. Other examples of events that bring parents, students, and teachers closer together include:
- At Cane Run Elementary, parents accompany school staff on out-of-town retreats to discuss curriculum planning, assessment, and other educational issues. Teachers say that the retreats provide an opportunity to "educate parents on views from inside the school looking out, rather than outside looking in.'' Teachers and parents also have a chance to gain a better understanding of each other's perspectives. These types of activities may have contributed to the growing Cane Run PTA membership, which has increased from 60 to 700 since 1990.
- In response to its high rate of poverty and mobility among migrant workers, beginning with the 1996-97 academic year, Rodney B. Cox Elementary School became a full-service school, providing dental care, counseling, and health care to students and their families. A new building where some of these services will be available was recently completed on the school's campus. Additional services will be available by referral. Parents participated in the design of the building, which houses the nurse and the health paraprofessional, the dentist, a parent involvement office, and migrant student recruiters. The building provides a kitchen for students and adults to use. School leaders hope that offering these health and social services to families will allow students to concentrate more effectively on achieving success in school.
[Providing Information and Training to Parents and School Staff]
[Bridging School-Family Differences]