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
Maine School Administration District #3:
A Geographically Dispersed, Rural District Draws Parents into Schools
The parent involvement programs in Maine's School Administration District (SAD) #3 focus on drawing parents into the schools, providing them and their children with interactive learning experiences, and involving parents as well as teachers in curricular and instructional planning. Thanks to the efforts of involved administrators, teachers, community members, and a special projects director who works in the district's central office, the district has won grants to supplement Title I funding and support training for teachers and parents in experiential learning and other ways to participate in their children's education. Through these activities, teachers have become more comfortable with bringing others into their classrooms, and many no longer believe that they alone are the "keepers of the knowledge." The district found that, once teachers accept the idea of having other adults in the classroom, they actively seek out parents.
Geographic isolation is a significant barrier to developing parental involvement programs in this rural, primarily agricultural region of eastern Maine, which is known for its dairy products and blueberry farms. The district covers an area of 400 square miles and includes 11 small towns, of which Unity is the largest with a population of 11,000. There are six elementary schools, one junior high, and one high school. Some towns traditionally support strong parent-teacher organizations, but others, which are experiencing an influx of new residents from larger cities, struggle to develop a sense of community. There is also a small but growing migrant population that comes to the area during blueberry and apple picking seasons.
The student population is 99 percent white, and approximately 50 percent are eligible for free and reduced price lunches. All but two of the district's schools have implemented schoolwide programs.
Breaking Down Barriers to Family Involvement in Schools
To improve home-school relations, the district and school staff try to address (1) the difficulties of parent involvement in a geographically dispersed, rural district, and (2) the perception held by many parents that older students do not require as much parent involvement in their education as younger students do. In addition, they wanted to address teachers' reluctance to involve parents in classroom and school activities. To promote student learning as a shared responsibility, the district has implemented outreach strategies aimed at relieving families' physical isolation from schools and bringing parents and staff together for reasons of information, training, and decision-making.
Overcoming Time and Resource Constraints
In SAD #3, several communication strategies address barriers posed by the long distances between homes and schools and by the limited time that busy parents have for communicating with school staff.
High-tech home-school communications. By combining the resources provided through a series of grants (including a Nynex-Public Utilities Commission grant), the district created a hub site for telephones and computers at the high school. Unitel, a local telephone company, contributed materials to establish all schools as communications links so that parents can visit any school to contact the one their children attend.
This computer/telephone hub also receives support through a state-funded project called Waldo's Window, which improves communications between people in districts and isolated towns. Parents with home computers will be able to communicate with schools, and those without computers will be able to log in at school sites. In the 5 district towns that have no schools, parents will be able to log on at designated offices, which will serve as community computer access points.
Time and resources for working parents to focus on education. At parents' suggestion, district staff offer Potluck Nights as a way to encourage school-family communication between teachers and families despite their busy schedules. Originating at the junior high school as a way for older students, parents, and teachers to decide how best to meet students' educational needs, these casual dinners make it convenient for parents to attend evening meetings and events without interrupting dinner schedules, providing an informal setting for interaction among parents, teachers, and students. According to the district volunteer coordinator, these dinners foster the kind of informal communication that can be otherwise difficult to achieve. Teachers and parents are both encouraged to bring their families (child care is provided if needed), a strategy that has led to higher attendance rates.
Finding time for teachers. In addition, the district employs a home-school coordinator who, upon request, can support families and relieve some of the time demands placed on teachers by working with students who need extra support to succeed in school.
Providing Information and Training to Parents and School Staff
The district reaches out to parents in several ways, including a quarterly newsletter that provides information about how families can help students with their homework and district-sponsored activities that offer family learning workshops. Some of these activities take place at a local conference center, and others take place at 1 or more of the district's eight schools. All of the district's workshops are offered to parents. Workshops have also been offered to parents and other community members who have been particularly interested in learning to browse the district's Web site by using the Waldo's Window community access computers.
Training that brings families and teachers together. The district sponsors community workshops at Camp Kieve, a leadership training institute that attracts teachers from throughout the Northeastern United States and Canada. Workshops have included:
- Leadership Decisions Institute, an annual week long retreat for all seventh-grade students that focuses on experiential learning activities designed to teach life skills and decision-making strategies. Parents and community members join teachers and administrators for a workshop on parenting skills where parents learn what their children are studying and what projects they will participate in at the camp. Last year more than 20 participants attended this workshop, and more than 200 parents attended an evening follow-up session.
- Retreats for parents and teachers, which focus on increasing community and parent involvement. The day-long retreats for parents feature discussions led by teachers and students. One recent retreat focused on conflict resolution and on solving communication problems between parents and adolescents. Attendance averages 20 to 30 participants.
Along with the Camp Kieve activities, the district sponsors other training that not only brings families and teachers together but also provides opportunities for learning at home:
- Community Day is an annual community-wide outreach and training effort. It seeks to bring families and community members together with teachers and school staff to participate in team-building activities, set educational goals, and devise strategies for accomplishing these goals. As a result of one recent Community Day, the town of Liberty initiated a plan to open a community library. Open to the general public, the Community Day activities are advertised through direct mailings, spots on a local cable station, newspaper advertisements, and local grassroots networking.
This year, a local businessman, who owns the Moosehead-Belfast train line, has donated two train runs to the project. Up to 300 people can ride on each train run and participate in project activities. At stops along the trip, Camp Kieve trainers will lead community-building workshops on the train, and representatives of the Beacon Project (a Statewide Systemic Initiative effort supported by the National Science Foundation) will provide math and science workshops intended to develop community awareness about the state's new math and science framework and its performance standards, known as Learning Results.
- Individual schools hold an open house-spaghetti dinner, in which families and school staff share what children are learning with one another. For example, in the most recent open house, teachers and students performed skits and conducted lessons to teach community residents about the school's new peer mediation and conflict resolution program.
- The district designed a parent-student Internet workshop to introduce families and other community members to the Internet; about 25 community members were trained by students.
- One of the district's most popular professional development programs, entitled Critical Skills Education By Design, is available through Antioch College to teachers, administrators, parents and community members. More than 80 percent of the K12 teachers and 100 percent of district administrators have attended one of these workshops, which are based on research indicating that students learn best in experiential, problem-based, collaborative environments and that they need to practice hands-on activities in both school and non-school settings, such as the home.
- Several schools in the district host Family Math/Science Nights. These workshops, modeled after the program developed by the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California, allow children and parents to explore interesting math or science activities, such as games that families can subsequently play at home. The program typically attracts 75 to 100 parents.
Volunteer preparation. For the past two years, a district volunteer coordinator has directed parent volunteer activities. As part of her job, she recruits volunteer coordinators for each school, and these individuals--typically parents--survey parents and teachers, distribute volunteer handbooks, and coordinate the yearly volunteer activities and schedules. To support individual school volunteer efforts, the district hosts an evening program for parents at the beginning of each year to inform them of volunteer activities available at each school. This also serves as an orientation workshop at each school--also at the beginning of each year--to teach parents how to become involved in their children's school and education. This year, the district volunteer coordinator plans to bring all of the coordinators together to compile a districtwide volunteer manual.
Finally, the coordinator organizes an annual teacher workshop entitled Building Effective Relationships with Volunteers to provide participants with ideas and skills for viewing parents as a resource.
Restructuring Schools to Support Family Involvement
Because many teachers in SAD #3 are accustomed to working independently, they find it difficult to open their classrooms and solicit input from parents. This reluctance on the part of teachers reinforces the traditional beliefs held by many parents; namely, that schools provide few opportunities for parents to get involved. Some of the above-mentioned workshops, which bring parents and teachers together, are breaking down these attitudinal barriers, and other efforts, such as including parents in district and school decision-making, are also building stronger school-family partnerships throughout the district.
Parents participate in decision-making at the district level and the individual school level. The district's special projects director encourages parents to help with school projects, seek funding, and offer their opinions on district activities. For example, parents at Unity Elementary worked with the special projects director and other school staff to rewrite and revamp report cards for students in grades 4-6.
Also, SAD #3 involves parents in the planning and implementation of Title I activities. The district invited parents from each school to participate in the year-long effort to write the plan for implementing Title I and other federal programs, which will include parents' feedback on developing new forms for reporting students' academic progress.
The district's five-year Title I plan also pledges to facilitate a community-oriented approach for educating children system wide. The plan promotes the philosophy that all elements of the community must work hand-in-hand to educate children and that these programs are most effective when they are based on a mutual consensus around common needs.
Tapping External Supports for School-Family Partnerships
SAD #3 not only provides support for individual schools but also raises funds to support parent involvement activities. Some examples of the funding sources for the activities described above include:
- The Rural Leadership Initiative, a $500,000 grant from the Kellogg Foundation, is a three-year grant that supports activities that build community spirit, cultivates community involvement, and enhances the potential for leadership among school staff and members of the community. This grant supports the experiential learning activities and the related parental involvement programs at Camp Kieve. A grant from the L.L. Bean Company through the Maine Development Foundation also contributes to these programs.
- A Noyce Grant (sponsored by local philanthropist Roberta Noyce) supports professional development activities that help teachers make the transition from lecture-based teaching to a more interactive, hands-on approach. Funding for Critical Skills Education workshops comes from the district through Noyce grants and National Science Foundation funds.
- Federal Reflective Practice Grants have funded activities in the district for years. Home-school coordinators, who are funded through federal dollars, work with students who need extra services.
- Maine's Statewide Systemic Initiative provides schools with Beacon grants (funded by the National Science Foundation) targeted at improving mathematics and science education, an arrangement that can include parent involvement activities. Monroe School, for example, used a Beacon grant for a garden building project that involved parents as well as teachers and students.
Evidence of Success
By first encouraging collaboration among parents and teachers and then by supporting events, such as potluck dinners, that provide teachers and parents with opportunities to interact more informally, the district has increased the number of teachers who encourage parental involvement. As the district's special projects director notes, although teachers previously had very little contact with parents, now many call parents and invite them into their classrooms.
"I've seen a great shift in SAD #3 as teachers move from [the role of] keepers of the knowledge to the realization that it's okay to have other adults in their rooms and to access their knowledge. As the teachers' comfort levels increase, they open their doors and reduce their isolation and make parents feel welcome. Now teachers even call parents to encourage them to come into their classrooms." |
District special projects coordinator, Maine SAD #3
In addition, in her two years as the district volunteer coordinator for Maine's SAD #3, she has seen the number of active volunteer programs at district schools grow from two to all eight campuses. And although the district has only recently begun to track participation in school-sponsored events, some indicators show gains in attendance. For example, increasing numbers of parents and teachers have attended each successive potluck dinner. Although 60 parents attended the first dinner of 1995-96, and 40 stayed for a meeting on communication strategies, 75 parents attended the second dinner, with 42 attending a post-meeting on teacher-student needs and resources, and 95 parents attended the third potluck dinner, with 70 staying on for an adult-teen dialogue session facilitated by staff from Camp Kieve. Finally, all schools now have on-site volunteer coordinators who serve as liaisons to the district coordinator and are dedicated to helping meet the needs of teachers and families in their schools.
[Hueco Elementary School]
[Parent Resource Center]