A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Studies of Education Reform: Parent and Community Involvement in Education - 1995


Reforming Schools,
Transforming Partnerships


The Eight Themes

During our site visits, we listened to the voices of students, parents, family members, community members, and business leaders as they spoke about middle grade partnerships. Their stories form a work in progress; each of the sites experienced both successes and challenges. None felt that the task of middle grade reform was complete.

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.

The critical nature of the middle grades

Although the middle years are often characterized as a period of transition, most of the middle grade practitioners we talked with indicated that the middle grades are much more than a simple transition from elementary school to high school. Many teachers talked about dispelling the myth that the middle grades were simply a "holding pattern" for students. In fact most talked about the middle grades as a "watershed" in education. Teachers and administrators felt that they could influence a full range of students' choices and decisions (e.g., peer groups, gang membership, drug/alcohol use, curriculum and course choices) more during the middle grades than at any other time.

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.

Key Approaches:

Challenges can create opportunities for involvement

The middle grades are a time of physical and emotional changes for adolescents. Students report that communication with their parents changes. There is less verbal communication about how they feel, and about school in general. Mood swings often dictate the frequency and intensity of communication. Teachers spoke of the "adolescent growth spurt" and its effects on student self-concept and self-esteem; teachers seem to adopt an attitude of "patient waiting" for communication between themselves and their students. Parents of middle grade students report feelings of frustration in communicating with their children; the change from willing and frequent communication to reticent, and in some cases, non-existent, communication is often abrupt.

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.

Key approaches:


A recurrent theme throughout our site visits was that personal relationships are the core of the partnerships that are formed in the middle grades. These relationships strengthen the partnerships as schools interact with parents, families and communities.

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.

Key approaches:

Shared responsibility and decision making

During the middle grades, relationships change between children and parents and families, between students and teachers, and between young people and their communities. The middle grades are also a time when responsibilities and decision making change, not only for middle grade students, but also for school personnel, parents and families, and the community at large. Home, school, and community are the places where middle grade students learn and are actively involved. Students expressed that they desired independence and wanted more control over the decisions that they make. At the same time, we found that they were not always cognizant of the relationship between their decision making and the attendant consequences of those decisions.

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.

Key approaches


A key factor in the successful schools and programs that we visited was leadership. All of the middle grade principals viewed themselves as instructional leaders within their schools and as leaders in their communities. In large, urban school settings, principals manage large school facilities, direct the total instructional and operational programs of their schools, and supervise a professional and support staff in excess of 75 people. Additionally, they find time to serve on community committees, coordinate efforts to raise funds to support school programs, and develop partnerships with selected area businesses.

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.

Key approaches:

Support systems

Active partnerships between middle grade schools and parents, families and communities require a system of support to sustain them. The most frequently mentioned supports were financial resources, human resources, professional development, and the ability and authority to make decisions.

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.

Key approaches:

Connections to the curriculum

Sites participating in reform efforts recognize the core role of curriculum and instruction. In the majority of our sites, the strategies to connect middle grade parents and family members generally remains the responsibility of individual teachers. As students enter the middle grades, parents and families lose the single point of contact about what a child is learning that they had in the elementary grades. As we pointed out earlier, connections to the curriculum may be harder to maintain in the middle grades due to the increasing complexity of the curriculum, the difficulty some parents have in dealing with this complexity, and their child's need for more autonomy.

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.

Key approaches:

Connections to the community

In our sites, successful partnerships were characterized by a strong connection with the community. School leaders and their staff understood that as geographic boundaries broaden at the middle grades (often through a feeder school concept, desegregation order, or schools-of-choice), so did the responsibilities broaden to understand the community. This is especially true in areas where diverse, multiethnic, and multiracial school populations bring unique strengths. In more successful partnerships, the idea of a "melting pot" - where all students assimilate to the standards dictated by the principal's and teacher's culture, race and class - has been replaced by a celebration of the diversity that students, parents and families, and the community bring to the school. We found that all participants in the partnership benefitted when there was a desire and commitment to understand each other. Schools also tended to mirror the unbanicity or rurality of their communities. Economic and social concerns of the community became school concerns and vice versa. The nature of community involvement was tempered by this factor. Where multiple large businesses thrived, community involvement was more "corporate;" where rural agrarian businesses prevailed, community involvement was more familial. In any case, community commitment could be strong, and communities felt that the schools belonged to them. In these cases, they took more responsibility for the school's well being as they defined it.

Key approaches:


School districts and schools are learning lessons daily that can help to inform others involved in the reform process. From the beginning, we believed that the sites we chose would contribute to these lessons. We believed that the stories from these sites would provide rich descriptions of the role of school, family, and community partnerships in education reform. Our beliefs were confirmed as we talked with those on the "front lines" of middle grade reform.

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.

[Cross Site Analysis: Reforming Schools, Transforming Partnerships (part 1 of 2)] [Table of Contents] [Assessment of the Outcomes of the Reforms]