Eight primary themes emerged from our conversations. We found that as students, parents, family members, and the community participate in education reform, these partnerships change both the school and those who participate in the reform process. In this section, we detail these eight themes and discuss the key approaches our sites used to address these themes.
It is during the middle grades that parents and other family members often look to the school for help in dealing with personal and educational choices, and adolescent behavior. Some parents and families feel that the middle grade years are a time when their influence over their children wanes substantially. This loss of control over a child's personal choices often leads to conflict between parents and other family members and the adolescent. Some parents and families do not experience such personal conflict; even these families have concerns around finding a balance between independence and autonomy for the adolescent, and helping their child make appropriate educational choices.
Students express a desire to be independent, yet the commonly held belief that adolescents do not want their parents and families to be involved in their education was not supported in our fieldwork. Most of the adolescents we talked with wanted personal contact with, and support from, an adult. They most often viewed the involvement of their parents and families as being for the good of a larger group of students, for example, their class or grade level, rather than personally beneficial. Although they wanted their parents and families to be involved, many times they qualified how they wanted the involvement to look. Students are aware that the choices they are making have serious personal consequences. Educational choices are more important to older middle grade students who are beginning to explore career options than to younger adolescents.
Community members and business leaders often view the middle grades as a more "visible" time for adolescents. During the middle grades, parents and families begin to allow children to go to public places, for example, shopping centers or malls, either alone or in small groups. The middle grades are also a time when the community begins to see the adolescent population as consumers, with the ability to make independent decisions about purchasing goods and services. Community and business leaders expressed a desire to be involved in partnerships with schools that allow students to experience the "real world of work" and the responsibilities of participating in community life.
Most often schools have the primary responsibility for planning, design, and implementation of specific programs dealing with the needs of adolescents and their families. For example, all of our sites were moving toward "middle school concepts and philosophy." We observed small group interactions (often referred to as "families"), integrated curriculum, and team teaching. These strategies appeared to provide a "bridge" between elementary school and more fragmented approaches of secondary schools by allowing for more independence and greater choices in curriculum. At the same time, these strategies provided structure and individual attention needed by middle grade students. In two of our sites the Effective Parenting Information for Children (EPIC) program was adopted. EPIC provides workshops for parent and families that deal with issues specifically related to adolescence. Family Reading, Family Math, Family Science and district-created programs such as Saturday Academies and the Parent Institute provided opportunities for middle grade families to interact and become actively involved as advocates for their children.
In both Fort Worth, TX, and Louisville, KY, partnerships were formed between the school district and the business community. In Fort Worth the Vital Link program creates mini-internships for middle grade students in area businesses. Louisville's Job Shadowing Program allows middle grade students to "shadow" an employee and discuss job duties, responsibilities, and requirements. Both students and employers reported increased respect and understanding. In Lamoni, IA, and Georgetown, SC students and community members have frequent opportunities to interact through school-community sponsored fairs, exhibitions, and student performances.
In interviews with parents we found that they wanted to remain connected to their children's lives. They often discussed both personal and educational choices with their children. Frequently, middle grade parents involved their children in discussions where decisions were made that affected the entire family.
At the same time that adolescents experience physical and emotional changes, the structure of middle grade education changes. Students move from an elementary school, with one teacher as the single point of contact for parents and family members, to a middle grade configuration with as many as seven teachers. Younger middle grade students spoke about feeling disoriented and/or overwhelmed; however, as middle grade schooling becomes more routine, these feelings of fragmentation are of less concern. To compound these organizational changes, we found some teachers who, like their secondary counterparts, were more focused on the subject they taught, rather than academic success of the children. Middle grade parents indicated in some cases, that they spent an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to communicate with the school. Middle grade schools also increase both curricular and extra-curricular choices for students, their parents, and families. Many of the middle grade parents with whom we spoke, who themselves may be educationally disadvantaged, reported that the increasing complexity of the middle grade curriculum made it difficult to understand what their child was learning at school, or to help them at home.
Changes during adolescence, and changes in the organization and curriculum of middle grade schools pose formidable challenges for partnerships. We also found that they simultaneously created opportunities for parent and family partnerships with the schools. Schools find new ways to communicate with parents and families and transform organizational and curricular challenges into opportunities for new and unique partnerships. Parents and families find new roles in middle grade schools and, as advocates, accept greater responsibilities, not only for their own children, but also for children throughout the school.
We found that these promising programs viewed parents and family members as a valuable resource, for both curricular and extracurricular support. We observed parents serving as volunteers, as tutors, and as mentors. Teachers reported that they frequently used parents as curricular resources; often parents were asked to serve as discussants on particular topics in which they had expertise.
As we mentioned earlier, schools often create homeroom "families" - small groups of students assigned to one professional or paraprofessional in the school. Not only are academic challenges discussed, but also issues that affect students personally. In several schools we visited, teams of teachers shared responsibility for student welfare, often "sharing" these students throughout their middle grade careers.
Although many of the parents in the sites we visited were educationally disadvantaged, they expressed a desire to help heir children academically. A common practice in our sites was to provide training for parents in strategies to support school efforts. For parents who lacked academic skills, this most often translated into workshops on how to monitor home activities, how to show a child that the work they are doing in school is valuable, how to communicate with a middle grade child, and how to serve as an advocate for their children, and other children in the school.
Many of the parents and family members with whom we spoke expressed a desire to further their own education. Schools routinely provide Adult Basic Education (ABE) and General Educational Development (GED) courses for adults. Most schools conduct these programs after school, on weekends, or during school holidays at times that are convenient for working parents.
Schools are an ideal context for developing and fostering strong relationships. Students report that their middle grade teachers and school personnel are interested in them -- both as students, and as growing and maturing young people. Parents are most comfortable in forming partnerships with the school when there has been personal, one-on-one contact with someone from the school (a teacher, parent liaison or others) or with other middle grade parents and family members. Teachers told us that their work is most rewarding when they have time to help students on an individual basis.
As middle grade students become more visible in the community, there are opportunities for those who feel less connected to the school -- older citizens and business owners, for example -- to become supportive of the work of the school. In some communities, property and business owners fear for their safety; when school, family, and community partnerships are nurtured, fears are lessened.
In several of our sites, court-ordered desegregation resulted in school populations that were not representative of the community in which the school was located. Race, culture and ethnicity conflicts were more prevalent in these schools. In these cases, respondents reported that relationships were more difficult to establish and maintain, although none viewed the situation as without promise.
Communication with parents and families occurred most often through written notices, telephone contact or school/family conferences. Schools often require family/teacher communication at least one time during a semester. Teachers said that they tried to communicate positive messages as well as messages about student misbehavior or academic problems. In Louisville, the Superintendent mandated family/school conferences based on his belief that conferences are a critical tool for keeping families informed, and maintaining strong partnerships between teachers and families.
Across sites we found that additional personnel, whose primary responsibility was family involvement, had greater impact on school/family partnerships than in those sites where building relationships was the sole responsibility of the teacher. For example, Community School District No. 3 in New York City hired two home/school liaisons. These paraprofessionals are well-respected in their communities and provide a direct link to the schools for families who might otherwise not be involved. In other districts and schools we found teachers organized in teams. In these cases each teacher had a reduced number of parents and families to contact. The teaming pattern provided opportunities for teachers to establish and maintain closer relationships with the families.
The community members we interviewed felt that middle grade students were a valuable resource to their communities. Local business owners who interacted with middle grade students reported that their attitudes and beliefs about adolescents and schools had improved. In Lamoni, Iowa, for example, students interact with the business community in setting up a "real" business. Using community members as resources students design a product for resale, contact the local bank for a loan to support their business, and sell their product throughout the community.
Prior to the middle grades, parents and families have been in control of most of the decisions for their children, including their choice of friends, the school(s) they attend, and often how they dress and act in public. As middle grade students express a desire for more independence and begin to assert themselves, parents feel a loss of control. Finding the "delicate balance," as one parent put it, is sometimes stressful for parents.
Responsibility and decision making in the middle grades are not limited to the personal arena, but extend to the areas of curriculum and instruction as well. What should be taught and how it is taught was viewed by the majority of our respondents as a shared responsibility. Decision making, in the case of curriculum and instruction, involves multiple teachers, additional school personnel such as counselors and service agency personnel, community and business members, parents and families, and the students.
In the middle grade schools we visited, a constant challenge was to coordinate information and efforts around all players to create a whole picture of the student. Each of our respondents, in some way, expressed that they know only a part of each student's life, but few said that they know the "total" child. These partnerships can help to construct a picture of the entire scope of middle grade student needs and inform the decisions made by each participant.
Although we found examples of decision making by parents, families, teachers, and students regarding curriculum and instruction, it was most evident in the sites that we visited in the restructuring focus area. Each of the sites that were restructuring their schools, that is changing their organizational pattern toward a middle grade configuration, used multiple sources of input in designing programs, selecting curriculum, and shaping instruction. In all cases these changes were neither easy, nor was the transition a smooth one. However, each site recognized the intrinsic value of gaining the perspective and the participation of everyone who would be affected by changes in the organizational structure, curriculum, and instructional delivery.
Across sites, the use of school/family conferences to disseminate information about coursework and student progress was a common practice. It appears that a trend to involve the student in school/family conferences is emerging. In several sites conferences take the form of a "portfolio night", where students have the main responsibility for showcasing their work and explaining both the strengths and weaknesses of their performance. In other sites, students attend a more traditional conference with their parents and are allowed to provide input and participate in the discussions around progress.
Some parents reported that the school "bombarded" them with information about student progress and behavior, programs, activities, and opportunities for involvement. Generally, however, we found that middle grade schools made an effort to coordinate information, especially when the information was coming from teachers. In some cases, one teacher or staff member was responsible for communicating with a family; in other cases, teams of teachers would discuss what information needed to be sent to a family and would rotate the responsibility of contacting the parents or family members.
We found that leaders in school districts and schools were the primary persons who set the tone for parent, family, and community involvement. In our conversations with them, they were able to articulate their vision for their schools, and expressed deeply held beliefs about partnerships between themselves, their schools, and their constituents. Most school leaders believed that it was their responsibility to provide a context to empower partnerships. Many spoke about their roles as "orchestrator" of partnerships; these leaders felt that they were in a joint relationship and were able to delegate responsibility to others. At the same time, strong leaders also have "their fingers on the pulse" of their school, and parent, family and community concerns.
When we asked teachers, parents, and family members about partnerships, most pointed to the role of a school district or school leader as being critical. Although we found that many people were involved in most of the partnerships we observed, the leader was usually credited with having a primary and essential role in establishing and sustaining the partnerships.
In addition to the leadership in schools and schools districts, we also found that community members, business leaders - who may also be middle grade family members -- can also function in leadership roles. Throughout our site visits we found instances where community and business leaders had major responsibilities in school decision making and reform efforts. In two cases community leadership was primarily responsible for restructuring district schools into middle grades configurations. In one instance the involvement of community members led to curriculum reform.
In both middle grade schools and at the district level, leaders were acutely aware of their relations with the community. Leaders often spoke of "public relations", and indicated that their involvement with the community was a factor that contributed positively toward public perception of the school and/or district. School/district leaders are frequently members in multiple civic and business organizations; affiliations with religious groups were a strong community connection, especially in rural areas. The contacts that leaders make through these community, business, and religious organizations are seen as an ongoing support for their schools.
Where parent, family, and community involvement was most successful, we found that the leader had a vision of involvement; the vision was clearly articulated to the staff, to parents, families, and the community; parent, family, and community involvement was planned; and care was taken to provide the necessary resources to accomplish the plan.
Community members across sites reported that they had benefitted from being involved in middle grade reform. However, as well as being beneficiaries, we found that the concern of the larger community for the education and well-being of students can lead to the initiation of reform efforts. For example, in Ft. Worth, TX, although the Superintendent had a plan for involving the community in reform efforts, the community demanded change. Kentucky's statewide reform efforts were the result of community concern about inequities in funding, management, and educational opportunities.
Parents and family members that we interviewed indicated that they are also involved in civic, business, and religious organizations. Through these organizations parents and families often advocate for middle grade schools. A general feeling among the parents with whom we spoke was that middle grade students and schools need "positive p. r.", as one respondent put it.
Financial resources. We found a wide range in the amount of fiscal support available for middle grade partnerships. In some cases, financial resources were budgeted as a line item in a school district budget. These resources were usually allocated to parent involvement programs, administered by a director or program coordinator. In other cases, individual school budgets contained resources that were allocated to parent/family involvement activities, and were administered by the principal or a school-level professional whose responsibilities include interaction with parents and families. As a total part of a school district or school budget, the amounts allocated were usually minimal. We believe that financial resources may signal a commitment to middle grade partnerships, more so than an actual necessity to sustain them. However, our respondents made clear the fact that partnerships could not be sustained in the total absence of funding. As one coordinator put it, "You can operate a program on a little money, but you can't operate one without any money."
Human resources. Middle grade teachers are confronted with the demands of large class size and multiple subject areas to teach. Many of them told us that contacting parents for academic and disciplinary reasons was extremely time consuming. These demands force teachers to spend less time on school/family partnership efforts than they would like. Across sites, we found that the most successful partnerships were established and maintained when personnel were assigned to deal specifically with parent and family needs and concerns. Parents told us that they were more likely to have contact with the school when a home/school liaison or coordinator was employed at their child's school. Successful partnerships recognize the increasing demands on teachers, parents, and families and provide additional human response to support their partnerships.
Professional development. Teachers often work in settings that are culturally and racially diverse, and economically different from their own circumstances. Middle grade practitioners emphasized the necessity of professional development activities in an effort to more fully understand their students and parents/families. The successful partnerships we observed provided multiple opportunities for professional development, often allowing parents, families, and community members to interact directly with school personnel on issues of concern. In some cases, parents and families were involved in both planning and delivering professional development activities.
Ability and authority to make decisions. Teachers are the "frontline workers" with parents and families. They make decisions on a daily basis that affect the lives of students and their parents/families. Often, they are the single point of contact with a student's family. Teachers indicated that a necessary support for successful partnerships with families was the ability and authority to make decisions that can connect parents/families with services that are provided by the school and/or the community.
Across sites we found that one of the strongest supports for involvement was professional development for school/district staff. Through these programs and activities, teachers and support staff learn about programs, promising practices, and practical strategies that can be used to establish and maintain school/family partnerships.
In successful programs, frontline workers make decisions that affect students and their parents. More importantly, however, "the system does not get in the way", as one teacher told us. While connections to services for families are more plentiful in large urban settings, access and the ability to obtain these services can be complicated. We found that teachers, when empowered to make decisions and carry them out, were able to navigate the social service system, and connect families with service providers.
Teachers, as frontline workers with students and their families, require support from their colleagues, the school, and the district. We found that schools provide teachers with additional planning time, create flexible scheduling and team teaching opportunities, and provide social and emotional support when needed to empower teachers.
However, the parents we interviewed generally understood that their roles had changed from "helper" to one of "monitor and advocate." Parents found that they could remain connected to what their child was learning by attending school/family conferences, talking directly with the teacher(s), frequently monitoring home learning activities, and providing an atmosphere at home where it was understood that what was happening in school was valued and important. It became less necessary to offer help to their children on specific skills.
A key link to the curriculum is through home learning tasks. As we interviewed parents, family members, students, and teachers we found that the most frequently mention characteristic of a home learning task was "meaningful." When a home learning task was seen as meaningless, students and parents reported lower completion rates, and higher incidence of complaints about home learning activities, in general. Teachers felt that mandated homework policies violated the idea of meaningful home learning tasks, pointing out that "giving homework for the sake of homework is not meaningful at all."
Not only do successful school/family partnerships provide families with the materials for conducting home learning tasks, they also demonstrate how materials are to be used at home with students. These demonstrations may involve home learning kits, individual skill development materials, or instructions on how to use a take-home computer.
We found that the majority of schools in our sites used integrated, thematic, interesting curriculum, and active cooperative learning approaches. These pedagogical tools build on what is known about how middle grade students learn.
Parents frequently expressed doubts about their own skill abilities in relation to the home learning tasks that students were assigned. However, the majority of parents also spoke to us about how "important" it is for their child to succeed and get an education. Many times parents and family members told us that they tried to provide a place for home learning tasks, set aside a "special" time for doing homework, and monitored both learning activities and other, less essential activities (e.g., television viewing) within the home.
Strong programs are built on the accurate assessment of the strengths and needs of a particular community. In our site visits we found that schools conducted needs assessments and periodic formative evaluations of programs in order to make any needed changes. Although all sites were participating in some kind of school reform and shared some common characteristics, each of the communities are unique. The recognition and celebration of the uniqueness and diversity of the communities in which these schools/districts is located sets these successful programs apart. For example, in Beck Middle School, Georgetown, SC, "pocket communities" of various cultural and ethnic diversity are highlighted in the middle grade curriculum, and in activities in which all students participate.
We found that strong partnerships between schools and communities were fostered through active participation in school-related activities. Consistently, the more frequently the nine sites took advantage of community resources, the stronger and more positive the response by the community to the school, its programs, and activities.
Another cornerstone of school and community partnerships is communication. We found that schools used multiple sources for communicating with the public: through brochures, flyers, newsletters, articles in neighborhood newspapers, and "word of mouth". However, the most common method of communication was through the local news media -- either citywide newspapers or television coverage. While not all of our informants were satisfied with the type of coverage given to schools/districts (for example less positive student behavior being given front page coverage, versus "good news" being relegated to back sections of the paper), none disputed the ability of the news media as a powerful tool for communicating necessary information about schools to the public.
The eight themes presented here are simple and obvious, yet they are highly complex. The approaches of school districts and middle grade schools to these themes involved new ways of thinking about middle grade students, their parents and families, and the communities in which they live, work and interact. As such, they teach us all.