School-Family Partnerships as a Tool for Equity

Studies have shown that parental involvement in education is one of the most important factors contributing to student success in school, regardless of socioeconomic status (Fraser, Garg, 2014). Yet, low-income parents are statistically less involved in their children’s education than other demographics (Raftery et. al, 2012). Many people write-off low-income parents’ perceived lack of support for their child’s education as a symptom of the “dysfunction of ghetto families” leading them to neither care about education nor encourage their children to work hard (Tough, 2008). However, in a study of just under 1,000 parents of different income levels, 97% of low-income parents agreed with the following statements: “I want to spend time helping my children get the best education,” “I should make sure that my children do their homework,” “I want teachers to send more information home about classroom learning activities,” and “I cooperate with my children’s teachers” (Chavkin, Williams, 2015). Low-income parents have the desire to contribute to their children’s education; however, due to specific barriers and challenges, low-income families are often not equipped with the resources, knowledge, or connections to support their child’s education in the same ways that middle to upper class families can. It is thus the responsibility of schools to create school-family partnerships to close the gap in family involvement.

Research has shown that the strongest predictors of family engagement at home and school are the school programs and teacher practices that encourage and guide family’s engagement (Wood, Carson). In 2001, The No Child Left Behind Act first acknowledged the importance of family involvement by mandating that schools engage parents in “regular, two-way, and meaningful communication involving student academic learning and other school activities” (Christenson, Reschly, Wylie, 2012). However, because each school and district has distinct student populations and resource constraints, implementation has been challenging and has had varying levels of success. School-family partnerships are particularly vital for schools with significant populations of low-income students, not only because they experience daunting opportunity gaps and their families deal with additional barriers to involvement, but also because such partnerships can help to close achievement gaps and benefit the entire surrounding community. The question is, what are the best methods with which to engage families in education? Inquiry into the different types of parental involvement and their efficacies, the challenges to fostering involvement, and an examination of three case studies of innovative programs reveal that school-family partnerships based on an understanding of families, strong communication, and resources for families are effective tools for promoting equity in schools and low-income communities.

Attempts to involve parents in education are driven by the understanding that students do not exist in a vacuum, and that the role of families cannot be ignored in the development of students’ educational performance, engagement, and self-efficacy. Parental involvement is associated with a whole host of positive effects, including higher GPA and standardized test scores, improved attendance at school, greater rates of high school graduation, and a more positive perception of school (Christenson, Reschly, Wylie, 2012). Parents’ involvement with school also positively influences student’s overall psychological well-being (Dogan, 2015), one’s “self-schema,” or beliefs about oneself (Fraser, Garg, 2014), and one’s self-efficacy and motivation to learn (Bassi, Fave, Steca, 2014) which are all positively correlated with academic performance (Dogan, 2015).

There are many ways in which parents influence their children’s education, ranging from parenting style to participating in school advocacy. In current research on the parental influence on schooling, researchers delineate methods of involvement in a multitude of ways. One of the most widely accepted and comprehensive frameworks for parental involvement was posited by Joyce Epstein of Johns Hopkins University, who divided involvement into six levels: 1) Parenting: creating home environments that support children as students, 2) School-home communication: maintaining contact with teachers through, for example, phone calls, report cards, and parent-teacher conferences, 3) Parent involvement at school: volunteering and attending school events, 4) Creating learning activities at home, 5) School decision-making: participating in school governance and committees, and 6) Collaborating with community stakeholders such as businesses and social agencies. (Epstein, 2002).

In comparison to other models of involvement, Epstein’s conglomerates many levels of parental influence into her first type of involvement, “Parenting,” which, in reality, consists of more than simply creating home environments conducive to education. The categorizations created by several other researchers can augment her framework. Shernoff and Bempechat designate “parenting style” as a specific form of parental involvement in education (Bempechat, Shernoff, 2012), and it can be nestled nicely under the parenting category. Research has shown that youth whose parents practice “authoritative parenting” (showing affection, monitoring children’s everyday lives, and encouraging children to develop a sense of autonomy) are likely to be more engaged in school, spend more time on homework, and earn higher grades and test scores (Benner, 2014). Parenting-style is integral the influence of parenting on education.

In addition to Shernoff and Bempechat’s contribution to the parenting category, researchers Hill and Tyson offer up a third component, “academic socialization:” communicating parental expectations for education and the value and relevance of schoolwork, fostering aspirations, and developing learning and studying strategies (Hill, Tyson, 2009). It can be understood as the transmission of the skills and habits necessary to succeed in school. Academic socialization can also be assimilated into the “Parenting” category, as a parent’s example and guidance for their children has a large impact on their educational performance (Bassi, Fave, Steca, 2014). In sum, Epstein’s first level of involvement, “Parenting,” can encompass not only the home-environment, but also parenting-style and academic socialization.

Out of these methods of parental involvement, some make a larger positive impact on student performance than others. Hill and Tyson’s research divided parental influence into academic socialization, “home-based strategies,” such as communication with teachers, help with homework, and learning activities, and “school-based strategies,” or events held at school. Their study revealed that although their three types of involvement all positively correlated with academic performance, academic socialization was the most influential. More important than communication with teachers, creating a learning environment at home, and participation in school events or governance, was transmitting the skills and habits necessary to participate and succeed in school. School-based strategies such as school events and volunteering came second in importance, just before home-based strategies such as school-home communication. However, “help with homework” negatively correlated with academic performance. Hill and Tyson explained that this may be due to excessive parental pressure and interference, confusion between the teacher’s and parent’s methods, or the fact that parents may help with homework after their child has demonstrated poor performance (Hill, Tyson, 2009). While all forms of involvement besides homework-help are important and beneficial, the knowledge that academic socialization holds the most influence over a student’s academic success indicates that school-family partnership programs should aim to share techniques with parents for helping their children navigate and succeed in school.

While the research clearly shows that parental involvement positively influences academic performance, schools and families, especially those in poor or working-class communities, face significant challenges to involvement. Researchers have found that teachers from schools with high proportions of low-income and minority students described weaker relationships with parents than teachers from schools with few minority and low-income students (Raftery et. al, 2012). There are a whole host of reasons why low-income parents are, on the whole, less involved in their children’s education than wealthier and more highly educated parents. Financial barriers such as inflexible work hours, cost of or access to transportation, and cost of childcare prevent parents from attending school events and parent-teacher conferences. For many immigrants, non-English speakers, and ESL parents, the language barrier makes it nearly impossible to communicate with teachers (Raftery et. al, 2012). Some parents may doubt their abilities to participate in their child’s education because of a lack of formal education or a lack of understanding of the school system or curriculum, leading them to defer responsibility to educators. Additionally, lack of access to social capital and social networks prevents parents from taking action on behalf of their children (Wood, Carson). Tensions between parents and teachers also inhibit school-family relationships (Project Appleseed, 2016). For instance, because of a history of bias and racial discrimination, African-American parents sometimes do not trust their children’s teachers to treat their children equally with others (Hill, Tyson, 2009). Finally, a lack of comfort, and an intimidating or unwelcoming school atmosphere leads many parents to avoid coming to their child’s school entirely (Project Appleseed, 2016). These challenges to involvement disproportionately affect low-income and minority parents, and even one of these barriers can impede parents from becoming more involved in their child’s education.

On the teacher and school side of the equation, there exist significant barriers to creating involvement as well. For one, a large bureaucracy makes it difficult to create and implement programming to involve parents. Smaller schools report higher levels of involvement, possibly because teachers have more time to communicate and maintain relationships with every parent. Additionally, a lack of resources, experienced by many schools located in districts with low property taxes, inhibits the ability of schools to acquire materials for parents, funding for events, or training and professional development for teachers so that they can effectively engage with families (Bempechat, Shernoff, 2012).

Surprisingly, one of the largest factors that affects parental involvement is the teachers’ perception of and attitude toward their students’ parents. Some teachers are skeptical of involving parents because they fear that they will cause extra stress, be too time consuming, and may undermine their professional status as educators (Raftery et. al, 2012).  Other teachers may believe that certain parents are not equipped to help their children, while some may not understand parents because of differences in ethnic culture, class culture, or parenting styles. The authoritative parenting style is the valued method in child development in the U.S. education system, and it is most often associated with middle-class families, giving them an advantage over working-class students and families in the schooling system (Tough, 2008).

The combination of challenges to involvement experienced by parents and schools creates very difficult conditions for school-family partnerships to exist, especially in low-income districts. However, some programs across the country are getting it right. The following case studies of Harlem Children’s Zone, Clark Elementary School, and D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) are exemplars of successful student-family partnership programs that go beyond the checklist items of parent-teacher conferences and open houses and that have had great success in servicing communities of low-income students and families in order to improve student outcomes.

The Harlem Children’s Zone, founded in 1997 by educator Geoffrey Canada, takes a holistic approach to education and provides comprehensive supports for students and families in Central Harlem from birth to college to “break the cycle of generational poverty.” Today, the impressive program encompasses three early childhood programs, seven public elementary schools, two K-12 Promise Academy charter schools, and a plethora of after-school programs. As an example of academic socialization, two of the early childhood programs, called, “The Baby College,” and, “The Three-Year-Journey,” include parent education components to give expectant and current parents of infants and toddlers an understanding of child development so that they can make sure their children will be well-prepared for elementary school (Harlem Children’s Zone, 2015).

Additionally, with the ideology that, to revitalize a neighborhood and create lasting change, the residential community must be part of the educational process, HCZ runs a whopping seven community centers and three family and community programs. The community centers provide afterschool programming for students, and for adults, they run fitness classes, put on performances, organize meetings for local leaders to discuss community issues, hold social events to strengthen community relationships, and host classes for health, nutrition, and preparation for GED exams. Furthermore, through their family and community programs, HCZ works hand in hand with the community through door-to-door visits, community meetings, and outreach to ensure that they are addressing the community’s real needs. Then, they provide resources to fill those needs: they assist with personal, financial, and legal issues, hold employment workshops, facilitate access to government resources, and establish supports for families whose children are in danger of foster-care placement (Harlem Children’s Zone, 2015).

With seemingly every feature possible needed to revitalize a neighborhood and support student development and success, HCZ is the goliath of school-based community programs. They have had tremendous success: in 2015, they served 27,000 children and adults, and their students had a 93% college acceptance rate (Harlem Children’s Zone, 2015). A recent evaluation of the impact of the HCZ project revealed that students had significantly reduced the black-white achievement gap through gains in math and language arts (Bempechat, Shernoff, 2012). Yet, having received millions of dollars in private funding to finance the social endeavor, HCZ’s programs are not easily replicable for district public schools who are constrained by limited funds and resources. In spite of this, districts and individual schools can still learn from HCZ’s core principles: deeply understanding the community and their needs, creating a warm, welcoming environment, and providing resources for and educating the community so that they will support HCZ and experience improved overall well-being. Though a seemingly unattainable standard, the Harlem Children’s Zone models the power of school-family partnerships, demonstrates how they can be used as a tool for equity, and shows the possibilities for schools as community hubs.

Another example of successful outreach to families was found through Jane Graves Smith’s case study of a public elementary in the Pacific Northwest, to which she gave the pseudonym, “Clark Elementary.” 99% of the 182 Clark Elementary students were eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, qualifying the school to receive Title I funds and requiring them to implement efforts to involve parents. In an independent study, Smith conducted interviews of parents and teachers, observed school events, and examined school documents to investigate the impact of their parent-involvement programs (Smith, 2006).

Clark educators reported that they had done their research on their community and gained an “in-depth knowledge of needs and strengths of school families.” The teachers and administrators had held meetings with community stakeholders and social services agencies to understand the circumstances that members of the community face. They found that many parents of their students were unemployed and had limited knowledge of English (Smith, 2006). Additionally, the teachers studied the work of Ruby Payne, who researches the cultural and behavioral norms of people living in generational poverty. Founder of the “Aha Process,” Payne advocates that understanding of families reduces the tendency to blame them, and she recommends teaching students from poverty the “hidden rules of the middle-class” so that they may be better prepared to succeed in a society that values middle-class norms (Payne, 2013). Teachers at Clark indicated that once they knew more about the population that they served, they had a greater appreciation for their students’ parents. A deeper understanding of the school’s families helped teachers to have a better attitude toward and perception of the parents, which formed the basis for forging strong relationships (Smith, 2006).

An integral part of their parental involvement efforts and improvement of school culture was the Family Resource Center. Staffed by a Family Liaison and a Family Services Coordinator, the center connected families to government agency resources, supplied free clothing, acted as a food bank, provided computer access, gave parents ideas for learning activities, and served as a children’s library. The center also hosted literacy classes, community conferences, and family nights. The Family Resource Center directly served parents’ needs, gave them a reason to come to the school, and created a welcoming environment in which families felt comfortable. Coming to school became more routine for parents and made it easier for teachers to meet with them to talk about their child or simply get to know them.

Since implementing parental involvement initiatives, Clark teachers and parents have cited very positive effects. Students showed improved motivation, completed their homework more often, and had higher self-esteem, while parents reported feeling a sense of community and talking more often with their children about the future and accomplishing their goals. Though the study lacked concrete, numerical data, the reflections of parents and teachers suggest that parents were more likely to come to the school and be involved with their child’s education, and that children felt more supported in school. The positive outcomes of Clark Elementary’s family involvement efforts demonstrate the importance of understanding and seeking input from the community, offering services to families, and involving community stakeholders in the process. Clark Elementary’s programs show that the closer the bond between students, their families, and the community, the better the foundation for student success in school and the more the community benefitted.

Though the Clark case study shows the success of a family involvement program in one district public school, what are the implications for pursuing family involvement on a bigger stage? The Washington, D.C. public school system is a great example of what a large-scale, district-wide effort for increasing family involvement can accomplish. During the 2013-2014 school year, Johns Hopkins University conducted a study of twelve schools with 4,700 students that had taken part in the DCPS family engagement program. The large majority of students were African American or Hispanic and came from low-income families (Chandler, 2015). The program was implemented by D.C.’s Office of Family and Public Engagement (OFPE) in partnership with the Flamboyan Foundation, a private educational foundation which works with school districts and trains educators (Flamboyan, 2016). The goals of the family engagement program were to build trust between the families and schools and to “make parents partners in their children’s academic growth and performance” (Chandler, 2015).

The three key features of the program were phone calls to home, materials for parents with strategies to support learning, and home visits (DCPS, 2011). Teachers at the twelve DCPS schools made phone calls to families to deliver bad and good news in order to form positive relationships and routine communication with parents. In addition, OFPE collaborated with the Office of Teaching and Learning to synthesize grade-specific, parent curriculum guides to help parents in understanding what their children were learning, assisting their children with meeting learning goals, and navigating the college process. Furthermore, through a DCPS-hosted competition, a group of students developed an app called, “DCPS Parent Guide,” which contains curriculum information, school deadlines, and learning activities. The guide materials aided parents in the academic socialization process, giving them opportunities to discuss what their children were learning and to support their child’s learning process (DCPS, 2016).

As for home visits, over half of the students’ families received visits from teachers over the course of the year, and their academic outcomes were compared to those who did not receive home visits. The study revealed that the students whose families were visited were absent 2.7 fewer days on average than students who had not received home visits, which resulted in a 24% reduction in absences. Additionally, the students in the home-visit pool were 1.55 times more likely to score at the proficient level on a reading comprehension test (Chandler, 2015). The quantitative data from the Johns Hopkins study proves that efforts to create partnerships with schools and families has a positive impact on student learning. D.C.’s efforts to forge connections with parents and to inform them about curriculum and learning strategies demonstrate the possibilities for innovative, district-wide family involvement initiatives.

The three case studies presented demonstrate a variety of ways and situations in which educators committed to school-family partnerships can make a difference in the education and well-being of low-income students, families, and communities. The Harlem Children’s Zone has worked intimately with community members to provide quality programs, classes, and resources that better the community and assist parents with navigating child development and schooling, and they have fostered a positive sense of community throughout all of their programs. On a scale that is orders of magnitude smaller, Clark Elementary also formed its parent engagement programs on the basis of the community’s input and needs. They offered resources to improve students’ home and family situations, gave parents opportunities to engage with their children, and created a welcoming community based on mutual understanding.  D.C. Public Schools showed the importance of establishing communication with parents through phone calls and home visits, and they modeled an innovative approach to getting parents engaged with curriculum.

Although any school would love to adopt the exact strategies practiced by the three programs in the case studies, the three programs possessed certain advantages that reveal limitations for other schools that hope to increase family involvement. One advantage was funding: HCZ had millions of dollars of private philanthropic donations, and Clark Elementary received Title I funding which jump-started their efforts. In all three case studies, school staff members were either hired specifically for family engagement roles or trained for family outreach. At Clark Elementary, they hired two additional staff members for the resource center and trained all of their teachers to understand their students’ backgrounds. Research has shown that to implement complex family engagement programs, educators must be trained to skillfully implement programming (Bempechat, Shernoff, 2012). Unfortunately, the majority of schools servicing low-income communities do not have the funds to support complex programs nor attain teacher training.

In spite of the financial barriers barring many schools from implementing complex school-family partnership programs, schools everywhere can learn lessons from the research on parental influence and from the successful practices in the three case studies. Drawing from the research and case studies, it all boils down to three main pillars–the first of which is understanding the community. Educators should be aware of the situations of their students and families so that they can approach families with greater humility and appreciation, as teachers at Clark Elementary learned. As HCZ exemplified, the programming and initiatives should be responsive to the community’s needs in order to have the biggest impact on the families and students. Understanding for families will create “a zone of community,” characterized by mutual respect and trust and in which families feel comfortable and willing to come to school, to continuously participate in schooling, and to interact with educators (Bempechat, Shernoff, 2012).

The second pillar of family involvement is establishing frequent communication with parents. DCPS confirmed the power of communication through their phone calls and home visits carried out across the district. Compared to parent-teacher conferences and open houses, both methods of communication have low barriers for parents since they do not have to commute to the school, and the timing for each is flexible. Phone calls are an easy way to communicate with parents and do not require much time or money. If used to deliver all types of news, not just the bad news, phone calls can help parents and teachers to form strong relationships to continuously support students. And, if endowed with the time and money to train teachers, home visits are a great option for gaining understanding and trust of families, learning more about specific students’ home situations, and decreasing burdens for parents. Frequent communication makes students accountable, makes teachers more aware, and keeps parents in the loop about their child’s education and what they can do to support them.

The third pillar of family involvement is providing resources for families.  As shown by the research, the greatest impact that parents can have on their child’s education is through academic socialization; therefore, schools should first focus on providing resources that help parents understand what they can do to help their children succeed in school. The curriculum guides of DCPS, Clark Elementary’s parent conferences and workshops, and HCZ’s parent and community classes are great examples of programs that contribute to parents’ knowledge about raising their children to thrive in school. Schools should approach parent education programs with respect for parents, their culture, and their parenting styles, and they should acknowledge that each parent is an expert on their own child. Further, if schools can secure enough resources to provide more than workshops and learning resources, they should consider servicing the broader needs of families and the community as HCZ and Clark Elementary do. With community support programs, schools would be able to create a strong net of support around their students and families, thus not only combating inequity and the effects of poverty for students, but also strengthening the community at large.

Regardless of socioeconomic status, family involvement in education has been proven to be one of the most important factors in determining students’ success: improving test scores, attendance, rates of high school graduation, and engagement in school (Christenson, Reschly, Wylie, 2012).  Since certain families, especially those that are poor or working class, do not have the resources or knowledge to best help their children succeed, it is the duty of schools to equip parents for supporting student learning. In the basic three-pillars model, schools should foster and maintain positive relationships and communication with families, develop resources that inform parents of ways that they can support their child’s education, and do so with a thorough understanding of their community so that they can tailor programs to families’ specific needs. Most schools should be able to stimulate valuable school-family partnerships by following the three outlined components; however, research evidence and model programs suggest that to fully support students, engage their families, and benefit the community, schools must do more than check off isolated steps from a list; they must develop comprehensive programs that consist of sustained collaboration between schools, families, teachers, communities, and districts (CA handbook).  To accomplish this, school-family partnerships and parental involvement must become more of a priority at the district, state, and national level. As of 2010, thirty-nine states and D.C. had passed laws calling for the implementation of family engagement policies (Wood, Carson). However, broader commitment to school-family partnerships is needed if schools are to ever become effective tools for combatting social inequity.

Written for EDST 110: Foundations in Education Studies, with Lizzie Carroll

Reference List

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