by Jackie Hennessey
They gathered for campfire stories. They climbed a mountain. They even went fishing.
And it all happened inside a school building after hours.
During “Camping with Curriculum Night,” teachers, staff, and parent volunteers transformed Henry Heights Elementary School in Lake Charles, La, into a bustling, lively campground, with more than 150 students and 100 parents setting off to different campsites for an array of reading and math activities.
No, there was no fire, but the stories were real. The “mountain” in question was a series of math problems solved by students and parents working together. And the fishing trip involved angling for prefixes, suffixes and roots to build and understand new words, according to Henry Heights teacher Stephanie Landry.
Other community groups joined in the adventure, too. The Calcasieu Parish Library set up a tent so students and families could sign up for library cards and read together. “Parents gained a better sense of what their children are learning in class and gathered ideas for engaging in similar activities at home,” Landry said.
The event was so popular, “Camping with Curriculum nights are popping up at schools throughout the district,” said Loree Smith, family engagement coordinator for the Calcasieu Parish School Board.
Calcasieu is one of about 60 districts and organizations from 23 states, Washington D.C., as well as Ireland and Scotland, that belong to the National Network of Partnership Schools (NNPS). For 22 years, this 600-school network, part of the Johns Hopkins School of Education’s Center for Social Organization of Schools, has been at the forefront of research, program development, and dissemination in family and community partnerships.
“In any good school there’ll be reading and math and other academic programs; there will be time for tests and assessment,” said Joyce Epstein, NNPS director and School of Education (SOE) professor. “What we’ve learned over the years from our research and from other research around the country is that family and community engagement is an equal and essential component of a good school organization.”
Building an Action Plan to Engage Families
One key focus is finding creative ways to engage all families of students, from preschool through 12th grade—especially those who have historically been harder to reach, such as fathers, immigrant parents, and parents of children who are struggling in school or chronically absent. “We want all families to feel welcome and to be encouraged to become a strong partner in their child’s education,” Epstein said.
Researchers and facilitators at the university’s Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships work with NNPS members to study outcomes of the partnerships and to develop tools and materials to improve policy and practice.
Schools in this NNPS initiative develop a family-engagement action plan across six different areas—parenting, communicating, volunteering, learning at home, decision-making, and collaborating with the community—that link to specific academic, behavioral, and community service goals in their district’s school improvement plan.
What NNPS research has shown is that when schools have strong family and community partnerships, attendance rates improve. That, in turn, leads to improved achievement outcomes in reading, math, and science, according to Steve Sheldon, SOE associate professor of education and NNPS director of research.
“When schools start looking at family and community engagement in a programmatic and very strategic manner, they’re going to be able to engage more families,” he said. “Students are going to approach school in a more positive way so they’ll attend school on a more regular basis, and achieve better outcomes.”
Sheldon and Epstein found that attendance improved by two to three percentage points in schools where active family and community engagement programs were in place.
“Chronically absent students are really our most vulnerable students,” Sheldon said. “The coordinated programmatic approach to family and community engagement boosts the kind of student outcomes likely to keep students in school through 12th grade.”
Working Effectively with School Populations
Their research also shows that more families participate in their child’s education when the principal and district back the program through a collaborative team of teachers, administrators, family and community members that reflect the diversity of the school’s population.
With family and community engagement built into its master’s and PhD courses and certificate program, Epstein calls SOE one of very few schools of education in the country training the next generation of teacher-leaders in family and community engagement.
Yolanda Abel, SOE associate professor of teaching and learning, begins each leadership or parent engagement class asking her graduate students—many of whom are Baltimore City public school teachers working to become administrators or school leaders—about their own parents’ involvement in their education.
“Most of our students are fairly affluent and white, and they might have had stay-at-home moms, or parents who were very active in the PTA,” Abel said. “We talk about what they’d like engagement to look like from their students’ families and, for the most part, it’s what they experienced themselves. By using the framework of six strategies of family engagement, we can be more expansive about the ways we think and feel about engagement. It’s worthwhile to really grapple with this.”
In her research on African-American father engagement, Abel has found that fathers engage in home-based activities, such as reading to a child or going to the library, but some tend not to go to the school “because they don’t feel invited or welcome.” Abel said it is incumbent upon schools and the next generation of leaders to be creative when it comes to reaching out to all parents. She pointed to a special workshop held at a Baltimore City elementary school, where cosmetology students from a vocational-technical high school volunteered to teach fathers how to braid their elementary-school daughters’ hair.
“While you might not think this has anything to do with academics, you have an opportunity to talk and chat with a father in the school, and he has an opportunity later to bond with his child in a different way,” Abel said. “All of those things go into subtle aspects of parent engagement that can pay off later in more a structured setting with academic grades and test scores.”
Exchanging New Ideas for Collaboration
The School of Education holds in-service family and community engagement programs and conferences for educators from around the country and provides continued support. Each year, NNPS publishes Promising Partnership Practices, a collection of 75 ideas from partner schools and districts and names award winners to foster what Epstein calls “a rich exchange of ideas.”
At Ruth Livingston Elementary School in Pasco, Wash., for example, engineers from a local firm taught students how to create hoop gliders and worked with them on other engineering challenges designed for families to engage with at home.
Often, what goes on in math, science, or reading classes can feel like a mystery to families. To find ways to “dial down” homework stress, Epstein collaborated with teachers and curriculum leaders in schools, districts, and state departments of education to design the Teachers Involve Parents in Schoolwork (TIPS) interactive homework process. TIPS affords teachers a wealth of resources and sample activities to tap into, while creating a platform for students teach their parents the concepts they have been working on in school.
“TIPS offers a nice insight into what kids are doing in school,” said Sheldon. “From a pedagogical standpoint, it’s a very powerful way of doing homework. You never learn anything quite as well as when you try to teach it to someone else.” In a recent study, schools that used TIPS showed higher achievement in math, language arts and science than those where homework was done “business as usual.”
“Drawing in hard-to-reach families means making sure that schools are welcoming places,” said Smith, who joined NNPS in 2005. “We were looking for something that could give us some tools, guidelines, and organization to help us develop a family and community engagement program,” she said. “That’s exactly what the Partnership gave us.”
Calcasieu Parish faculty and staff now use a range of methods to communicate with parents, including social media, passing out fliers at the car drop-off line, and “encouraging educators to go to local community centers to talk with parents and to establish relationships with local churches.”
The district is also piloting a school and community leadership seminar for parents who typically haven’t been involved in the school, and it has changed the dynamic of the parent-teacher conference so that the conference is run by the student. With the teacher as facilitator, “students present their work to their parents, and they show where they are growing and where they need to grow,” Smith said. “That’s been so powerful.”
After working closely with NNPS for more than a dozen years, Smith called the partnership an “anchor” for her school district. “I can pick up the phone at any time and ask questions and people at our schools know they can, too.”