How Community Schools Can Transform Parent Involvement for the Better
While politicians pit parents against schools, educators are finding a way to make parent involvement integral to what the school does.
Both common sense and research seem to conclude that parent involvement matters a lot for student success and even for improving schools in general. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s analysis of parent involvement and education success in 2017, “Good cooperation between schools, homes, and the communities can lead to academic achievement for students, as well as to reforms in education.”
Despite these findings, policy leaders and politicians have often given false impressions of what parent involvement should look like, or they’ve taken stances that pit parents’ interests against schools and teachers.
Fortunately, educators that are implementing a school improvement strategy, commonly called community schools, are clarifying how schools should go about inviting parents into a collaborative process that benefits not only student learning but also the functioning and effectiveness of schools. The community schools approach, while achieving different outcomes in different places, has at its core a commitment to address the holistic needs, rather than strictly the academic needs, of students and families and to make schools essential hubs of services and activities for their surrounding communities.
The hope among community school advocates is that as the approach catches on in more states and school districts, it may also address widespread misapprehensions of how parents and schools can work together.
During the “reform” years of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama Administrations, parents were urged to focus on their children’s standardized test scores as the truest indicators of academic progress, rather than trusting what they might be seeing and hearing from schools and teachers.
As Bush’s famous “is our children learning” gaffe seemed to suggest, parents should not trust what teachers and schools—or even their own personal observations—were telling them about their children’s education but should, instead, call for more data from standardized tests to reveal how much children are learning.
Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan went so far as to say schools had been “lying to children and parents” about student learning. Duncan chastised parents who questioned the need for more academic testing and standards for being largely “white suburban moms who—all of a sudden—their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”
Under former President Donald Trump, the message on parent involvement in education transformed from data zealotry to consumer activism.
Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos bashed public schools for being a “monopoly” that needed to be broken up by offering parents vouchers that they could use to leave public schools and pay for their children’s private school tuition.
That idea has now caught on in many states that are creating universal voucher systems.
Yet, defining parents’ roles in their children’s education as being data sleuths or consumer vigilantes seems limiting to say the least.
Parents don’t see their children’s scores on standardized tests until it’s too late to actually do anything about it. And if consumerism were the best analogy for the parental role in education, then that would presuppose that parents on the lowest levels of the income range are stuck with the equivalent of fast food while wealthier families get to enjoy gourmet dining.
In contrast, the community schools approach to parent involvement is to recast parents’ involvement in schools, not as skeptics or consumers, but as collaborators. Schools that follow the community schools strategy take intentional steps to ensure that parent involvement is not just encouraged, but also helps guide school policies and programs. According to a Community Schools Playbook developed by the Partnership of the Future of Learning, “Partnering with families and community members on the front end of the community schools implementation process is critical to developing a full understanding of the strengths and challenges of the community and determining the appropriate mix of [a school’s] services, supports, and opportunities.”
Key to the community schools approach, according to the Playbook, is for schools to first conduct an assessment of parents’ needs and interests and the assets parents have access to in the community. These initial assessments “provide insight into the root causes of issues facing the community,” the Playbook states, and help identify promising opportunities for parents and schools to collaborate for the benefit of students and the community surrounding the school.
It’s important that this collaboration is a two-way street between parents and the school, community school advocates argue, because families learn how to be more supportive of student learning, both inside and outside of the classroom. The school also learns what families need to support their children’s learning efforts and deepens its engagement with the community at large.
So what does this approach actually look like when it’s being implemented?
One state that has embraced the community schools approach is Maryland, where the strategy is embedded in a law under the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future Act, which passed in 2020 and was enacted in 2021 by an override of the governor’s veto.
According to the Maryland State Education Association, the Blueprint, among many things, “convert[s] nearly one-third of Maryland schools into community schools,where a school-based coordinator will help determine a school’s specific needs, such as academic and language supports, nutrition and medical, dental and mental health care.”
As I reported for Our Schools, some early adopters of the community schools approach in Maryland are making parent involvement an important pillar in their approach. At Wheaton Woods Elementary School in Rockville, now in its fourth year as a community school, I spoke with principal Daman Harris who said, “What we want is for parent involvement to just be the floor. We want families in meetings actually determining priorities and making decisions.”
Harris added that since the school adopted the community schools approach, he has seen a change in parent attitudes about the school: “Our families have come to understand that this is their building, and now they want more. They’ve gone from having concerns about whether their child was being loved to asking more about their children’s academics.”
According to Daysi Castro, the school’s community school coordinator (called a liaison in her district), the school has poured new energy and resources into engaging families more deeply in the operations of the school and collaborating with them on providing access to new programs and services.
Castro conducted listening sessions that involved asking parents to tell her and her colleagues about the hopes and dreams they have for their children and what the school could do to engage parents more deeply. Wheaton Woods staff held these sessions both during and after school and on weekends, and conducted them in both Spanish and English, for each grade level.
One family need that quickly jumped to the fore, Castro explained, was childcare. Childcare can be as expensive as a mortgage, and parents were sacrificing hours that could be spent working because of the costs. Also, parents who worked multiple jobs to cover the costs of childcare often had little time to assist their children with homework.
Based on the input of these listening sessions, Wheaton Woods educators put together a wide variety of afterschool programs, including an Excel Beyond the Bell program that is the result of a partnership with the local community organization Action in Montgomery.
The school also collaborates with the Children’s Opportunity Fund, a local charity, to bring soccer, art, and Spanish language classes to students, along with the opportunity to participate in school clubs for homework and cooking classes.
Other partnerships offer parents driving classes, English language classes, and food safety classes. The county recreation department collaborates with Wheaton Woods to offer afterschool activities as well.
“When you’re listening to families’ needs and responding to them with these programs, they get excited,” Castro said. “When parents come to me and say, ‘Thank you, my child wants to come to school because of what’s going on after school,’ I know we are doing something right.”
Tiffany Allen is a parent who can attest to the level of involvement she has in Wheaton Woods.
Teachers, administrators, and staff go out of their way to get to really know parents and involve them in school committees and events, she told me. The school is constantly reaching out to parents with surveys, volunteer opportunities, and invitations to participate in committees.
Many of the parents are first-year immigrants, some likely without documentation, Allen said. Because of this, the school brings in experts who offer legal services as well as English language classes for adults.
Meetings and communications are carried out in multiple languages, she said. The school is largely Spanish-speaking, and there is a significant Ethiopian population as well. “There’s always someone at the school available to speak to you in your own language,” Allen said.
The school’s initiation of its multiple afterschool activities is especially important to her because both she and her husband work full time. “When parents are invited to get involved and they see that their involvement can make a difference, that’s what makes more parents want to get involved,” she added.