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

Ferguson Elementary School:

Restructuring an Inner-City School to Support Family Involvement
School District of Philadelphia
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


Ferguson Elementary School gets parents involved in their children's education by offering them a variety of opportunities through which they can improve their parenting and teaching skills and participate in school decision-making. When the Philadelphia public schools moved to site-based management in 1990, a group of Ferguson teachers formed a Parent Involvement Committee to assess community needs and explore strategies for involving parents in their children's education. With input from parents, the committee developed a parent involvement program, which is coordinated by a Title I program support teacher and a full-time school-community coordinator. A parent center established with the help of Temple University serves as the headquarters for parent involvement activities, which include a Parent Network for fostering home-school communication, workshops on parenting and supporting learning at home, support groups for parents and grandparents, and adult education classes. Program success is measured by the growing number of students reading at or above grade level, a reduction in the number of referrals for discipline problems, and gains in student attendance.


Located in inner-city North Philadelphia, Ferguson Elementary School has implemented a schoolwide program serving 750 low-income students in pre-kindergarten through grade five. The school population is about 75 percent African American and 25 percent Hispanic. All students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, and 98 percent come from families with incomes below the federal poverty line. Most children attending Ferguson live in public housing projects, subsidized housing, or row homes in the immediate neighborhood. To create a more personalized atmosphere for students in this large school, Ferguson will begin the 1996-97 school year by organizing students into four K-5 learning communities.

Breaking Down Barriers to Family Involvement in Schools

The principal and staff at Ferguson Elementary School made several changes to encourage parent involvement, many of which addressed the lack of time for staff and families to communicate with one another, a lack of information and training about the best ways to support family involvement, and the need to restructure the school to make it a more inviting place.

Overcoming Time and Resource Constraints

Finding time for working parents. Finding the time for parents and teachers to communicate with one another challenges attempts to bring the two together. Ferguson's Title I program support teacher also serves as the parent involvement program coordinator, and in this capacity, she supervises volunteers, facilitates the parent support groups, and arranges parent workshops and classes. One change she has implemented addresses parents' time constraints. In the past, most parent involvement activities at Ferguson took place during the school day, while many parents were at work. In response to parents' requests, the school now offers more workshops and parent classes on weekends and in the evenings, and it also provides child care services during the parent sessions.

To reach out to parents, Ferguson teachers take the time to meet parents in the school yard each morning before the school day begins. Teachers also use a daily 45-minute planning period to meet with or to call parents. The principal encourages teachers to contact parents when their children are performing well, rather than just when they are performing poorly. Further, teachers are encouraged to go out into the community and visit parents at home to welcome them into the school during three community outreach days each year. Usually, the principal, the parent involvement coordinator, the school-community coordinator, four parents, four students, and four or five teachers participate in these outreach events.

Finding time for teachers. Ferguson's school-community coordinator serves as a critical link between school and home, relieving some of the administrative burden placed on teachers. The coordinator's primary responsibility is to make home visits to families whom teachers have targeted for special attention. Teachers can request a visit for any reason, but most respond to changes in a student's behavior, attendance, or academic progress. In addition to making five or six home visits a day, the school-community coordinator also helps teachers arrange parent-teacher conferences.

Providing Information and Training to Parents and School Staff

Ferguson parents can participate in a variety of activities that provide them with the information and training they need to build an effective home-school partnership. These activities include:

The Parent Network. A core group of ten parents operates the Parent Network, an outreach strategy that helps ensure ongoing home-school communication. Through the network, parents contact other parents in the school to share information on upcoming school activities and events. Besides distributing informational fliers and monthly newsletters, the network makes two telephone calls to all parents in the school before any school activity that they are asked to attend. On at least three weekends each year, the Parent Network, teachers, the school-community coordinator, and students also conduct door-to-door family outreach to invite parents to the school.

Training parents to support student learning. Ferguson offers a variety of workshops and training opportunities for parents to learn more about how to help their children with schoolwork at home. Last year, the school offered Saturday morning workshops to help parents become active partners in teaching their children the school curriculum. Workshop topics include strategies to motivate the beginning reader, techniques to increase reading comprehension, and hands-on math activities. Between 100 to 150 parents attended the two Saturday morning workshops held at the end of the 1995-96 school year.

Ferguson also hosts an annual Parents Make a Difference conference. This two-day event invites parents into their children's classrooms to observe and learn new techniques for helping their children succeed in school. While eating a box lunch provided by the school, parents hear talks given by guest speakers from the community, such as authors of children's books. During the conference, parents also participate in workshops conducted by the guest speakers on such topics as how to read to your child in ways to increase their enjoyment and interest in reading. More than 300 parents participated in last year's conference.

A parent support group meets weekly in the parent room during the school day. The group sponsors workshops on parenting skills about six times a year. Workshops topics have included controlling anger, practicing assertive discipline, and preventing child abuse. The school psychologist, the school nurse, the parent involvement coordinator, and community resource people conduct the workshops. A grandparents' support group was also formed that meets three times a year; workshops focus on issues of specific concern to grandparents who are raising their grandchildren, including procedures for gaining child custody.

The school supports many parent-training opportunities. Three training sessions for parents and community members in the Community Assistants program are provided; this program provides stipends to parents and other community members to volunteer to work for ten weeks as classroom aides. The Parent Network receives training from the Title I teacher every month on school policies and activities, information they then share with other parents. Ferguson also helps parents increase their own skills by offering workshops during the school day on topics such as accessing community resources or writing a resume; these workshops, which are usually taught by the parent involvement coordinator, are held at least five times a year and are attended by 50 to 60 parents.

Training for staff and parents working together. During the 1995-96 school year, all first-grade teachers received training from Temple University to improve parent involvement. First-grade teachers, Temple trainers, and parents first met to discuss how the school should and could involve parents. Then all first-grade teachers met with Temple trainers to discuss priorities, chief among them being how to get parents to support learning at home and reinforce what students learn at school. Two of the first-grade teachers, along with Temple staff, then offered parents a series of five two-hour workshops on how to help children with reading and math at home. Parents learned, for example, how to use a list of common words to help children make sentences, learn grammar, and sharpen their reading skills; they also learned how to use a"number line" manipulative to help children practice adding and subtracting. Each year, parents who have completed this training help train the parents of new first-grade students.

Restructuring Schools to Support Family Involvement

To support family involvement, Ferguson has reshaped its school program in several ways. It has created a more personalized and inviting environment by implementing both "schools within a school" and a parent center. They established a Parent Involvement Committee (PIC) during the school's transition to site-based decision making, and parent volunteering now includes parents in the classroom to support student achievement.

"We want the same things for the children. By making the parents feel more comfortable, we're able to get their support in helping their children to achieve."

Principal, Ferguson Elementary School

A more personalized and inviting school. As of the 1996–97 school year, the 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 audio tapes 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.

Giving structure to parent decision-making through the PIC. Parents at Ferguson play an active role in school decision-making. Six parents (one for each grade level) sit on the school leadership team that is charged with making decisions on everything from funding to curriculum. In addition, all parents at the school are invited to participate on the PIC, which meets at least twice a month. The PIC was formed in 1990 when a group of teachers involved in the school's move to site-based management wanted to assess community needs and explore strategies for involving parents in their children's education. The PIC determines all parent involvement activities for the coming month, based on parent needs and input from sources such as the Parent Network. Five teachers and two paraprofessionals that serve on the committee are usually joined by three or four parents.

Parent volunteering to support student achievement. Ferguson strongly encourages parents to get involved in their children's classrooms. Through the school's Community Assistants program, stipends and training are available for parents and other community members who commit to serve as classroom aides every morning for ten weeks. Community assistant duties include working with small groups of students, tutoring students one-on-one, preparing bulletin boards, and assisting teachers with copying and making telephone calls. The parent involvement coordinator trains the assistants to do their jobs. There are three ten-week cycles of community assistants per year, with ten assistants serving during each cycle. Most community assistants continue to serve after they have fulfilled their commitment. About 50 parents volunteer as classroom aides each week.

"Every parent has something they can offer, they just need to hear someone say that we need you.'"

Teacher, Ferguson Elementary School

To encourage parent involvement, Ferguson offers both parents and teachers incentives for parent participation in school activities. Parents often receive school supplies or prizes such as tee-shirts for their participation in workshops, and teachers are given pizza parties, popcorn parties, and banners outside their classrooms in recognition of high parent turn-out at workshops.

Tapping External Supports for School-Family Partnerships

In addition to its Title I support, several community members support Ferguson's parent involvement program. Temple University supports Ferguson on many levels, including:

The Philadelphia Gas Works utility company also supports the parent involvement program at Ferguson through donations of food and other supplies that parent center staff can distribute to families in need.

Evidence of Success

Ferguson measures program success by monitoring student achievement, student disciplinary referrals, and parent involvement in activities and workshops. Ferguson's parent involvement program appears to have had positive effects on students. The number of first-grade students reading at or above grade level has increased from 5 percent in June 1993 to 37 percent in June 1996. Student discipline has also improved, with the number of disciplinary referrals dropping steadily over the past few years, from 586 in 1993 to 267 in 1996. Average daily attendance is also up to about 90 percent, compared with about 80 percent when the parent involvement program began. Although it is impossible to attribute these improvements solely to the parent involvement program at Ferguson, school officials believe that helping parents become more involved has played a significant role in bringing these changes about.

Parent involvement in school activities has also increased. The 1995-96 fall Open House drew 350 parents, compared with fewer than 30 parents in 1989. Roughly 50 parents volunteer as classroom aides each week. Between 100 and 150 parents participated in the Saturday workshops offered during the spring of 1996, and more than 300 parents participated in last year's Parents Make a Difference conference. In addition, 25 parents received certificates of continuing education from Temple University last year, and one former community assistant is now earning her teaching credential at La Salle University. Another former assistant has been hired as the school-community coordinator at another school in Philadelphia, and four are currently working at Ferguson as full-time classroom aides.

"I have a better and clearer understanding of what my children need to do in school because of my involvement, and I'm better able to help them."

Parent, Ferguson Elementary School


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