Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

A Bright Future for Family and Community Engagement?

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On a webinar yesterday hosted by the National Education Association’s (NEA) Priority Schools Campaign, Anne Henderson* offered a hopeful vision for the future of family and community engagement in public education. She predicted that the time is coming where schools really understand that engaging families and communities is a core strategy for school improvement. It will no longer be considered an extra, something to address after we’ve taken care of academic issues. In other words, it will be an integral piece of the puzzle.

Research from the past thirty years certainly supports this vision. And so do countless individual stories. On that same webinar, representatives from Oklahoma’s Putnam City West High School shared how family and community engagement lead to academic gains at their school.

Putnam City West serves a rapidly changing student population. In 2004, 10% of the student body was Hispanic. This year, 25% is. Thirteen percent of students are English Language Learners (ELLs), and they have a rapidly growing population of new ELLs (from 24 students to 70 over the past few years). And their free and reduced price lunch population has jumped from 50% to 80%.

Back in 2007, school staff wanted to get serious about closing their achievement gaps, particularly those involving the growing Hispanic population. How did they start? By convening a series of community conversations.

The conversations were facilitated by local community members (trained by the NEA and Ohio Education Association). They revealed that parents did not feel welcome at the school; needed information in Spanish about how the school works; wanted more bilingual staff; wanted more information about college admissions; and wanted improvements to the ELL program.

After hearing from the parents, the school launched “Compadres in Education,” an outreach program targeting Hispanic families. The school now hosts quarterly Hispanic Family Nights, each focusing on a specific topic (including the FASFA, graduation requirements, immigration issues, parenting teens and more) and conducted in Spanish as well as English. They’ve also hired more bilingual staff and provided high-quality professional development on educating ELL students (developing skills that transfer to all students). The school now provides all school communication in both English and Spanish and offers sheltered classes in core subjects for ninth and tenth grade ELLs.

The school credits the conversations, and what came out of them, with academic improvement. Back in 2009, just 64% of Hispanic students passed their Algebra II End of Instruction exam; in 2011, 95% did. Seventy-two percent passed their English III exam in 2009; 96% did in 2011. There were also gains in the percentage of Hispanic students passing Algebra I and Biology I exams. And the pass rate on the English Proficiency Exam is up – 24% of Putnam City West students taking the test passed in 2011, well above the district goal of 16% and the highest in the district. The school has been so pleased that they are going to replicate the program for other student groups.

This is just one example of how engaging families and communities leads to school improvement. There are countless others. Over on Edutopia, I recently wrote about two more – Cincinnati’s Community Learning Centers, which have been in place about a decade and seen great results, and the Reconnecting McDowell initiative in West Virginia, which is just getting started and has positive early indicators.

With so many schools and districts working on improving their engagement efforts, I share Henderson’s optimism that educators really understand the importance of engaging families and the communities in school improvement as key partners in the process. However, I am a bit concerned that policymakers don’t.

The policies discussed at the federal and state level still tend to focus almost entirely on issues like tying teacher evaluation and pay to standardized test scores and opening more “high-quality” charter schools (though there isn’t much discussion about how to ensure that new charter schools are high-quality). While politicians don’t deny the importance of family and community engagement, they don’t seem to view it as vital, either. They still seem to view it as an “extra,” outside the main work of improving a school.

If schools recognize the importance of family and community engagement, but policymakers don’t, will we ever be able to really harness its potential in helping our nation’s schools improve?


*Anne Henderson is a senior consultant to the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, and co-author of A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family, and Community Connections on Student Achievement and Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family-School Partnerships. She was the lead author on the 2011 NEA Priority Schools Campaign report Family-School-Community Partnerships 2.0: Collaborative Strategies to Advance Student Learning.


Image by CrazyPhunk (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

It sounds as if there are

It sounds as if there are several great things happening here. There are things that we need to keep in mind though. It is important for parents and communities to be involved in schools but, for some parents it is impossible.


Parents becoming involved in counting not only helps the school but it helps the students as well because they don't feel so alone.

Parent engagement is not

Parent engagement is not limited to parents being "involved in the school", rather it encompasses everything parents do at home to support their child's learning and development.

It also encompasses all the ways that schools systematically listen to families (even those who cannot be "on campus") and then respond to their needs. This includes developing ways to deliberately identify their cultural and individual strengths, celebrate them, and incorporate them into the classroom curriculum. This requires reciprocity. It requires schools to lead with their ears by "listening".

It is a missed opportunity to try and treat only the "academic part" of a child--they are part of their family and they are part of their culture. It is best to find ways to leverage their individual and cultural strengths and features to motivate and strengthen their learning and create more powerful learners and human beings.