The 10th School

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Visit 10 schools randomly in the United States and you will discover in nine of them that most teachers and administrators still hold parents at arm's length. You'll see many of the tried-and-true forms of parent involvement--an open house in the fall, two or three short parent conferences a year, parents attending student performances and sports events, some teachers calling parents when a child is misbehaving, an annual multicultural fair, a parent association that raises money, and a business partner that donates equipment. But you'll observe few if any parents or community representatives actively involved in the school's efforts to make changes in curriculum, teaching, student rules, homework policies, or scheduling.

In the 10th school, though, you are likely to see a different way of doing things, one in which collaboration between teachers and administrators and the families and communities the school serves has become commonplace. You'll still see the traditional parent-involvement events and activities, but will note many new ways in which the school and families and community are working together and to help each other and to improve the school.

Why have some schools been able to break through the talk and act to make partnerships with families and community agencies and residents a part of their culture, while most of their counterparts continue with traditional and low levels of parent and community involvement? I believe I have some answers to that question, drawn from six years of studies by 25 researchers in six universities for the federally funded Center on Families, Communities, Schools, and Children's Learning, which I co-direct. The following factors that seem to differentiate these "10th schools" from their counterparts in all segments of public education also reflect what I have witnessed in 23 years with the Institute for Responsive Education and its scores of studies and projects in and around public schools:

  • Principal and teacher leadership. When you see real and comprehensive collaboration, you can usually find a principal and at least some teachers who were willing to lead and take risks. In the 10th school, they have grasped the meaning of the concept of shared responsibility for children's learning and well-being. They have learned that the school alone simply can't do the job of helping all children succeed. They understand that partnership means that the school exchanges information, services, support, and benefits with its families and communities. This is the concept I call reciprocity.

    In the 10th school it is usually the principal who reached out and took the first steps toward better communication and collaboration both with families and with several community agencies and groups, not waiting for parents or community agencies to take the initiative.

  • Diverse opportunities. The 10th school provides a varied menu of opportunities for participation, geared to the diverse needs of families and their children and to the particular conditions of each school and school district. Partnerships are integrated with the mainstream activities and programs of the school.

    The comprehensive program of partnerships includes such elements as parent education and family support, family members and community members acting as volunteers in the school, many different forms of home-school communication, strategies that foster children's learning at home and in community settings, participation in decisionmaking and governance bodies and in many kinds of school-community exchanges, both large and small.

  • Outside help. The 10th school usually has sought an outside agent to serve as the catalyst and facilitator of change. Outside help takes many forms. In some 10th schools, help came from being a part of a national reform project such as Accelerated Schools, Success for All, my own group's Responsive Schools Project, or James P. Comer's school-development program.

    In many cases, the schools breaking the mold have taken good advantage of federal or state programs such as Even Start and Drug-Free Schools, and have hired facilitators as well as family-outreach workers in the school. In other instances, help has come from an interested professor or faculty team from a nearby university or one of the federally funded research-and-development centers.

    Outside help has usually had two crucial components: discretionary money (often very small amounts, as little as $5,000) and the presence of an outside facilitator or consultant on a continuing basis.

  • Ways to welcome families. The 10th school made a breakthrough in establishing collaboration as a standard way of doing business by building mechanisms to make families feel welcome and to give structure and focus to their partnership activities. A family or parent center is one such mechanism. This is a low-cost, easy-to-manage method to make schools more hospitable to families and to plan and carry out a wide variety of family and community activities. The center is a symbol of the school's welcome to families.

    A parent usually serves as the center coordinator, paid for through federal Title I funds or by a business partner. The centers come in various forms. Some are as simple as a few tables in the library. Others may be more extensive and include comfortable chairs and sofas, a telephone, a refrigerator and coffee pot, and tables for meetings and work. They have been set up in unused classrooms, a section of the auditorium, or even an old school bus with the seats removed.

  • Learning at home. In a 10th school, learning does not stop at the schoolhouse door. The school helps families do what nearly all of them want to do anyway--increase their children's academic success.

    Teachers provide guidance on setting realistic expectations, monitoring and helping with homework, selecting appropriate books and learning materials, supporting the school's academic priorities, and using home learning materials. Teachers (or groups of teachers in a school or district) can develop their own learn-at-home materials for parents or can use materials that have already been developed by many groups around the country.

    A 10th school also encourages community organizations to set up homework and tutoring centers for children and teens and out-of-school-time programs with both recreational and academic options. Senior citizens and other community residents are recruited to help students outside school hours, either in the school or in other settings.

    A 10th school actively negotiates increased access to community resources, including reduced fees at museums and cultural events, family reading programs in libraries, increased access to college facilities and courses, and tutoring and mentoring programs in businesses and corporations.

  • Multiple approaches to communicating. One of the things that differentiate a 10th school from the typical school is its varied and imaginative forms of communication. The better informed families are about the schools and their own children's social and academic progress, the better able they are to participate effectively. Access to information enables family members to successfully support learning and school improvement.

    A 10th school has assessed and improved its traditional communication approaches: report cards, parent-teacher conferences, newsletters, open houses, inserts in local newspapers, and parent-association meetings. But it also has considered scores of other innovative ways to communicate that can work under different circumstances and for specified purposes, and has selected from among them those that fit the school's situation best. For example, the school may have considered any number of the following: a telephone with voice-mail capacity in or near every classroom; automated telephone systems; three-way parent-teacher- student conferences; homework hot lines; home visitors; holding school meetings and conferences in community settings; use of local-access cable television; use of ethnic and other-language radio stations and newspapers; home-teacher journals; notices and handouts in markets, clinics, churches, mosques, and temples; and newsletters in several languages.

  • Preparation for working collaboratively. Administrators, teachers, families, and community members in 10th schools usually have made special efforts to learn how to work together well. For most, this was unexplored territory. The required skills that must be learned or honed include talking and listening across cultural and educational boundaries, negotiating, strategic planning, interview techniques, planning and chairing meetings, having productive parent-teacher conferences, and building consensus about the ends and means of education.

    Each group approaches collaboration with some resistance: Teachers may fear loss of status or criticism from parents; some family members remember negative experiences in their own schooling and are intimidated by the status and specialized language of educators; and many community agencies view schools as aloof and having little connection to or understanding of their broader communities.

    Specific training for collaboration helps 10th schools reduce these obstacles and compensates for the fact that the specialized preparation teachers and administrators had in schools of education almost never included any detailed attention to working with families and the community.

  • Personnel policies that promote partnerships. A 10th school's policies and practices for selecting, evaluating, rewarding, and promoting staff members reflect a commitment to building partnerships with families and community agencies and institutions.

    Involving family and community members in personnel actions, such as interviewing teacher candidates and selecting a principal, helps assure that family and community perspectives and voices are considered. Respecting family needs and demands on teachers' time, regulations, and contract language, the 10th school specifies time for teachers and other staff members to be available for meetings and conferences with family members.

  • Shared decisionmaking. A 10th school sees families as partners and not simply as clients. The staff has explored ways to involve them in governance and decisionmaking processes, including decisionmaking about budgets, school programs, and personnel--even though some teachers and administrators resist this and some parents are skeptical of it and fear being "tokens."

    A 10th school pays attention to some of the essential elements of the democratic process, including recognizing different interests, respecting all participants regardless of color, religion, or educational status, respecting minority viewpoints, and using conflict resolution, mediation, negotiation, and compromise.

    From the start, a 10th school brings together teachers and other staff members with families, students, and community representatives to discuss and agree on mutually important goals for children, schools, and the community and then to make collaborative plans to achieve them.

  • Family and student support. A 10th school recognizes that it benefits when comprehensive health and social services are offered to children and their families, since the school's educational mission cannot be fulfilled when children are sick, hungry, or emotionally disturbed, or when serious unmet health and social-service needs interfere with a family's ability to care for its children. There is convincing evidence that good programs in a school that provide health and social services can help increase student achievement, save money and reduce overlapping services, reach those children and families most in need, increase community support for the school, and help at-risk families develop the capacity to manage their own lives successfully.

    A 10th school's plan for school-linked services reflects the needs of the families served and involves them in setting the agenda, deciding on priorities, and designing service programs. The programs often include family support and parent education. Home visiting is a mechanism often employed. Home visitors can help families gain access to social and health services, become involved in school activities, and support their own children's education at home.

  • Written policies. The 10th school profits from written policies at both the district and school levels that set guidelines and requirements for collaboration. The policies provide a politically sanctioned framework for action at the school and community levels. But only a handful of the nation's 15,000 school districts actually have specific written policies about partnership.

    San Diego is a good example of one that does. Its written parent-involvement policy is backed up with central-office staff and local money. The policy states the school board's commitment to (1) involving parents as partners in school governance, including shared decisionmaking; (2) establishing effective two-way home-school communication; (3) developing structures and strategies in each school to empower parents to participate actively in their children's education; (4) providing district coordination and support in kindergarten through 12th grade; and (5) using schools to connect students and families to community resources. The district has provided grants on a competitive basis to schools to develop new parent- and community-outreach strategies.

  • Problem-solving mechanisms. Any school has to get started toward making partnerships a part of the school culture. An action team or action-research team is one way that has worked to begin and sustain achievements.

    A 10th school uses an action team as a way to improve working relationships between participants in a partnership and a means of gathering information about school and community problems and then helping solve them. A team includes a small number of volunteer teachers, family members, community representatives, and students, along with the principal, to assess school and community strengths and priorities or to investigate a troubling problem or issue.

    The team talks to teachers, families, and community agencies and residents through various means, such as focus groups, interviews, and surveys, then analyzes the results of these interactions to decide on one or two priority objectives that can be addressed through collaboration. The team works with others in the school or community to plan and carry out interventions aimed at the objectives, then studies and evaluates what happens.

    An outside facilitator is often responsible for coordinating meetings, following up with staff members and families, and bringing in outside resources. This process takes time, but our research shows that it can be cost-effective.

Readers should not assume that all 10th schools look alike or represent some kind of idealized condition. Successful partnerships exhibit as much variety as the local conditions that spawn them. Partnerships work best when they recognize differences among families, communities, cultures, states, and regions.

The 10th school exists in a real world buffeted by problems of all kinds--personal, economic, political, racial and ethnic tensions, staff conflicts and changes. Partnerships are not a magic bullet to solve all of these problems. But research and experience show that schools successfully incorporating partnerships in their daily operation are better equipped to deal with most real-world problems. They have learned to work with others across barriers to achieve common objectives.

Yet, the 10th school is likely to remain just that--a rare and interesting aberration in a sea of traditional parent-involvement practices--unless school board members, superintendents, central-office staff members, principals, and parent and community leaders offer more aggressive leadership. Both leadership from the inside and increased demand from the outside can help make 10th schools the rule rather than the exception.

Vol. 15, Issue 40, Pages 44, 47

Published in Print: July 10, 1996, as The 10th School
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