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How Do You Know if You Are Open to Partnership?

By Anne T. Henderson, Karen L. Mapp [Guest Article]

Bake Sale BookIn most districts and schools throughout the country, educators will readily agree that families must be involved in their children's education and that home-school partnerships are vitally important. With such overwhelming agreement, why can't we find real partnerships in every school? The reality is that educators and parents have many beliefs, attitudes, and fears about each other that hinder their coming together to promote children's education.

So the answer to "Are family-school partnerships important?" tends to be "Yes, but . . . "

Before we can create strong and effective partnerships with families, we have to believe not only that it's important but also that it can be done-and that we can do it. That means it's necessary for school staff to hold a set of positive beliefs about family engagement.

From our conversations with district leaders, principals, teachers, and other school staff, we have identified four core beliefs that serve as the foundation for the work of engaging families. In partnership schools, these beliefs infuse every aspect of the school. Ilene Carver, a teacher at Orchard Gardens School in Boston (a K-8 school), expresses them all when she says:

How do we get families involved? The most important thing is our mindset. First, we have to absolutely believe in our souls that families want to support their children and that this support or partnership can make a significant difference in a child's educational experience. Second, we need to prioritize reaching out to families. Often this requires personal phone calls and sometimes even home visits. Many family members have experienced horrendous treatment in the schools, as students and/ or as parents.

When teachers reach out with the goal of building partnerships based on mutual respect and common purpose, families will respond.

Core Belief 1: All Parents Have Dreams for Their Children and Want the Best for Them

It is vital for educators to understand that the families who send their children to them each day want their children to succeed in school and in life. Yes, families may say or do things that lead us to wonder if they respect the importance of education. But these actions and behaviors often are triggered by other stressful factors in parents' lives.

In her book The Essential Conversation, sociologist Sara Lawrence Lightfoot writes, "I believe that all parents hold big expectations for the role that schools will play in the life chances of their children. They all harbor a large wish list of dreams and aspirations for their youngsters. All families care deeply about their children's education and hope that their progeny will be happier, more productive, and more successful than they have been in their lives."(1)

Unfortunately, the verdict that "parents don't care about their children's education" often falls on parents of color, immigrant parents, or families from poor communities. The many reasons for this misunderstanding of families' desires and beliefs are discussed further in Chapter 6,"Addressing Differences."

Roni Silverstein, an assistant principal in Montgomery County, Maryland, a diverse suburb, says, "The belief that minority parents don't care couldn't be farther from the truth. When you talk to them you realize that our American schools are the answer to their dreams. What they had to go through to get their children here is remarkable. Many of them work two or three jobs to stay here. They have the American dream in their hearts. If anything, they care more."

What about parents who really don't want to be involved? There are some parents who are so overwhelmed with personal problems that they don't have any energy left for their children's education. In that case, we recommend finding another person in the child's life who can act as a parent. This can be another family member (over 4 million children are being raised by grandparents) or a close family friend or neighbor. If you can't find such a person, turn to a community organization that is active in the family's neighborhood or that provides mentors, such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters.

This first core belief is the most important of the four. Assuming that all families want the best for their children is the first step in cultivating and maintaining strong partnerships. One way to change attitudes is to lay out experiences and information that contradict those attitudes.

Core Belief 2: All Parents Have the Capacity to Support Their Children's Learning

Regardless of how little formal education they may have or what language they speak, all parents can contribute to their children's learning. Parents' knowledge, talents, and experiences in life give them plenty of capacity for assisting their children with school skills-but school staff may need to help parents understand and use that capacity. All parents have "funds of knowledge" about their children and the community that should be respected and tapped by school staff.(2)

The expression "Parents are their children's first teachers" is so widely used it has become a cliché. But it is true. We should view and treat parents as the experts that they are.

Still, many parents do not appear to be involved, at least at school. What goes through parents' minds as they consider whether to become involved-or hold back? For starters, they need to feel that they have something to offer, and that they would be welcome if they came.

In their important studies, Kathleen Hoover-Dempsey and Howard Sandler found that three key concepts influence the choices parents make about being involved in their children's education:

  1. How parents develop their job description as a parent. (Researchers call this "role construction.") What parents think they're supposed to do to help their children and what their family and friends say about what's important and acceptable deeply affect what parents decide to do. Will they decide to be active and involved, passive and deferential, or angry and critical? Their cultural background and surroundings strongly influence this decision.

  2. How confident parents feel about their ability to help their children. (Researchers call this "efficacy.") Parents are more likely to become involved if they feel that:

    • They have the skills and knowledge needed to help their children
    • Their children can learn what they have to share and teach
    • They can find other sources of skill or knowledge if needed
    • What they do will make a positive difference in their children's learning

  3. Whether parents feel invited-both by their children and by the school. This "sense of invitation" is strongly influenced by signals that parents receive from their children and school staff. These signals let parents know what their children and teachers want and expect. Their children's age and how well they're doing in school also have an impact.(5) In her current research, Hoover-Dempsey notes that of the three factors, invitation is very often the most important.

    In other words, we know that parents are more motivated to support their children's learning when they receive clear invitations and support from teachers and other school staff to be engaged, are confident about their ability to help their children, and are clear about what they should do to support their child's learning.

    Obviously, school staff can have a big impact on these considerations, especially on making parents feel invited and welcome. In Chapter 4,"Developing Relationships," we discuss how schools can put out the welcome mat, honor families' strengths and interests, and explain clearly how they can help their children.

Core Belief 3: Parents and School Staff Should Be Equal Partners

The relationships between school staff and parents are commonly built on a lopsided power base. Parents often see school staff as the "professionals," who have the power to assign children to their teachers, dole out discipline, make the rules, and control access to desirable programs. As a result, parents may feel that they are supposed to help their children at home and come to the school only when asked. This seems to be more likely when parents come from different racial, ethnic, or class backgrounds than those of school staff.

Lopsided power relationships between educators and parents are played out in various ways. For example, teachers may feel they are expected to give parents specific directions about how to work with their children. The principal may feel the need to be seen as "in charge" and not as "giving in" to parents. Parents may react by staying away or not responding to the school's requests for volunteers.

We suggest that power should be shared. Every person who is interested in supporting children's development should have equal status, value, and responsibility. That means starting from the premise that everyone has something to offer, and that everyone should get something positive out of the relationship. In contrast to lopsided power relationships, Richard Elmore, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, suggests a principle of reciprocity.

Every increase in pressure on schools for accountability for student performance should be accompanied by an equal investment in increasing the knowledge and skills of teachers, administrators, students, and their families, for learning about how to meet these new expectations.(3)

This means that people shouldn't be expected to do something well- or, worse, be punished for not doing it well-if they haven't been properly prepared. A school should not be labeled as "failing" if teachers haven't been offered high-quality professional development. If students haven't been taught effectively, or parents shown how to support learning at home, they can't be considered "failures" either. In a reciprocal system, they have a right to demand access to high-quality learning opportunities in return for being held accountable. In other words, their accountability will increase as their capacity is strengthened.

This chart contrasts what school staff might say about different topics, depending on whether the relationships in their school are lopsided or mutual.

TopicLopsided Relationships Mutual Relationships
ACADEMIC SUPPORT "Have your children follow my directions about their homework and other assignments.""Here are some ways to monitor your children's homework and build their skills. Tell us what else you do to help your children."
PARENT
SUPPORT

"Train your children to respect and obey school staff at all times.""Let's work together to develop a code of conduct and promote appropriate behavior."
STATUS"We are the professionals; don't question our decisions.""Share your knowledge, skills, and culture with our students. Please let us know when you can come to class."
PARTICIPATION"Parents are welcome at school during designated times and events.""You are welcome anytime! Please let us know what you want to know more about and when you can come to workshops and other activities that interest you."

Core Belief 4: The Responsibility for Building Partnerships Between School and Home Rests Primarily with School Staff, Especially School Leaders

To create a climate and culture that supports partnership with parents, strong leadership is essential from both the principal and teachers. The principal plays the key role, but teachers also have to step up as advocates for family involvement. Leadership from both sets the tone for all school staff.

That lopsided power dynamic we were just discussing also plays out here. Many families see schools as powerful and forbidding institutions. Reaching out to parents is easier for educators than "reaching in" to teachers and other staff is for parents. The principal and teachers must take the first step, especially when parents already feel intimidated by school staff. Certainly, there is a responsibility on both sides, and parents must continue to connect with teachers and other school staff on behalf of their children.

Everyone who works in the school, especially the principal, must "walk the walk," not just "talk the talk," of mutual partnership. This means exhibiting a real passion for partnership.

Of course, school staff must feel confident that they can generate the leadership necessary to carry out these partnership initiatives. The Hoover-Dempsey and Sandler research about what motivates parents applies to educators as well. Teachers will be more eager to engage families when they receive clear invitations and support from their colleagues, are confident about their ability to work with parents, and are clear that it's their responsibility to help families support their child's learning.

For example, Rick Dufour, an educator and expert on professional development, describes an activity with school staff in which he asked teachers to come up with ideas to improve student achievement in their school. The first list that teachers generated included things such as more money, fewer tests, and better-motivated students-all controlled by forces outside the school. He calls this "looking out the window."

Dufour told the staff that he could endorse most items on their list. But he suggested another list that he wanted them to consider for improving student achievement. This list of proposals he called "looking in the mirror." Compare the two lists.

Looking out the windowLooking in the mirror
  • More financial support from the state

  • Smaller class size and more planning

  • More staff to assist students-teacher aides, counselors, social workers


  • More-supportive parents

  • No more state testing

  • Fewer mandates from central office

  • Higher salaries and support for teachers to attend professional workshops or graduate courses


  • Students with a stronger work ethic and reduced sense of entitlement


  • More current textbooks and instructional materials
  • Clear, focused academic goals for every student

  • Close, timely monitoring of each student's learning to identify problem areas

  • Extra support for struggling students

  • Strong partnerships with parents based on frequent two-way communication

  • A collaborative culture- teachers work in teams to help each other improve student achievement

  • Understanding that it's the school's job to ensure that students learn, and are not just taught

  • Expecting that all students can learn at high levels

  • A safe, orderly school with clear, consistently enforced guidelines for student behavior and a powerful culture of mutual respect

The "looking out the window" wish list requires someone else to take action. In contrast, the "looking in a mirror" proposals call for leadership within a school and taking the responsibility for getting the job done.(4)

Conclusion: Barriers to Achieving the Beliefs

What are the barriers to achieving these beliefs? When the faculty and other staff are from a different cultural and social background than students and their families, fears and feelings that people carry may prevent them from embracing these beliefs:

  • Fear of being called "racist" or insensitive
  • Worry about losing power and control
  • Fear of unfriendly oversight or micromanagement of classrooms
  • Concerns about physical safety
  • Fear of being misunderstood
  • Feeling inadequate to deal with conflict and controversy
  • Low confidence in parents' knowledge and judgment
  • Clinging to "safe" and traditional types of family involvement

Cathy David, who has been a teacher, principal, and administrator in Alexandria, Virginia, a diverse urban school district, has considerable experience with these issues. She advises principals to give teachers and other staff a safe space to talk about their fears and concerns, then to deal decisively with each one.

David tells this story: "The Parent Advisory Committee at my school proposed opening the computer lab from six to eight one night a week. When I took the idea to the faculty, they reacted negatively: ‘We can't do this, it won't work. They'll break the computers and mess up the software.'

"I decided to meet with my team leaders to address the objections one by one.

Teacher said: I said:
"The parents and kids will break the computers."

"They'll mess up the software."


"The children will roam the halls and go into our classrooms unsupervised."


"Equipment might get stolen or misused."

"The PTA has agreed to replace any computers that are broken."

"They can't really damage the software. Besides, we have lots of copies and it's free."

"We really should lock our doors when we leave for the night anyhow."

"The PTA and PAC members will monitor the room to make sure everything is done properly."

"Once the objections were dealt with, the faculty agreed to a threemonth trial. It worked just fine," David said.

Getting Started

As you read through this book, you may wonder, "Who is going to do all this?" We suggest that you appoint an action team. It's too big a job for one person, and it can't be delegated to the parent coordinator. A partnership initiative needs to be owned by all the partners, according to Dr. Joyce Epstein, the founder of the National Network for Partnership Schools and director of the National Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University. One of Epstein's major contributions to this field is the concept of the action team for partnerships. Epstein told us: "Our studies indicate that it is important to have a ‘partnership team' of teachers, parents, and administrators who work together to make sure that school, family, and community partnership are well designed, well integrated, and goal oriented." (For more information about resources to support action teams, including Epstein's definitive guide, see Chapter 10.)

The action team is a working group of a school council or school improvement team. It has the responsibility to plan and continually improve family and community involvement. "This makes a difference, our studies show, in what gets done, how much outreach there is, which parents become involved (who otherwise would be excluded), and how involvement affects students," notes Epstein. The team should include teachers, administrators, parents and other family members, and, at the secondary level, students. Epstein's guide, School, Family and Community Partnerships: Your Handbook for Action, is an excellent resource for action teams.(5)

Here are some things that action teams do:

  1. Listen to families, teachers, other staff, and community members to identify ideas, needs, and priorities. The Fortress School- Partnership School framework in Chapter 2, the School Climate Survey in Chapter 11, and the checklists at the end of each chapter can also be used to flag areas that need attention.

  2. Organize into committees, based on the priorities you set. Epstein recommends creating a standing committee for each of her six types of involvement: parenting, communicating, volunteering, learning at home, decision making, and collaborating with the community.

  3. Develop a one-year action plan that covers each area you will work on, create a budget, and identify sources of funding.

  4. Meet regularly (at least monthly) as a whole team and establish goals and guidelines for teamwork. How will you communicate? What decision-making process will you use? When will you allow time to discuss issues and solve problems?

  5. Gather ideas and plan programs and activities.

  6. Publicize activities and team meetings. Include all families and the school

Throughout the book, we refer to action teams or parent involvement committees, because we consider them essential for doing this work. Of course, individual teachers, administrators, parent leaders, other school staff, school council members, community leaders, and others can pick and choose ideas from this book. Developing the systemic action to transform a school requires a dedicated team working over the long term. In the following chapters, we will provide your team with strategies to overcome fears and create effective practices that support children's learning. The next chapter deals with the issue of trust, which underlies all productive relationships, and outlines a process to bring families and school staff together.

References

1. Sara Lawrence Lightfoot, The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn from Each Other (New York: Random House, 2003), 109.

2. Luis Moll, C. Amanti, D. Neffi, and N. Gonzalez, "Funds of Knowledge for Teaching: Using a Qualitative Approach to Connect Home and Classrooms," Theory into Practice 31, no. 2 (1992): 132-41.

3. Richard F. Elmore, "The Politics of Education Reform," Issues in Science and Technology, fall 1997, 13.

4. Rick Dufour, "Leading Edge: Are You Looking Out the Window or in a Mirror?" Journal of Staff Development 25, no. 3 (2004).

5. Joyce L. Epstein, Mavis G. Sanders, Beth S. Simon, Karen Clark Salinas, Natalie Rodriguez Jansorn, and Frances L. Van Voorhis, School, Family and Community Partnerships: Your Handbook for Action, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2002), 86-87.

© 2006 by Anne T. Henderson, Karen L. Mapp, Vivian R. Johnson, and Don Davies. This excerpt originally appears in Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family-School Partnerships (The New Press, 2007). Published with the permission of The New Press and available at good book stores everywhere.

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Posted on April 15, 2010 by Anne T. Henderson, Karen L. Mapp [Guest Article]

As a leading author about the relationship between families and schools, Anne has written many articles and books, including "A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family, and Community Connections on Student Achievement" (2002).

A researcher and practioner in the areas of educational leadership and educational partnerships among schools, families, and community members, Karen is the author of "Making the Connection between Families and Schools," (1997) and coauthored "A New Save of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family and Community Connections on Student Achievement" (2002) with Anne Henderson.

 

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