Engaging Schools, Engaging Parents: The School-Community Partnership

In response to research showing a connection between parental involvement and student achievement, districts nationwide have launched initiatives to increase community engagement with schools. Yet many schools find it difficult to sustain parent involvement beyond the parent-teacher conference.

Engaging Schools, Engaging Parents: The School-Community Partnership

Tuesday, September 15, 2 p.m. Eastern time

At President Barack Obama’s urging, and in response to research showing a connection between parental involvement and student achievement, districts nationwide have launched initiatives to increase community engagement with schools. Yet many schools find it difficult to sustain parent involvement beyond the parent-teacher conference. Joyce L. Epstein and Larry Ferlazzo, joined us for an in-depth discussion on the subject. Ms. Epstein is the main author of “School, Family, and Community Partnerships.” Mr. Ferlazzo co-authored the forthcoming book “Building Parent Engagement In Schools.”

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Joyce L. Epstein, director, Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships and the National Network of Partnership Schools at Johns Hopkins University

Larry Ferlazzo, English and social studies teacher, Luther Burbank High School, Sacramento, Calif.

Mary-Ellen Deily, editorial director, Education Week Press, moderated this chat.

Engaging Schools, Engaging Parents: The School-Community Partnership(09/15/2009)



Web Person: Casey: Today’s chat “Engaging Schools, Engaging Parents: The School-Community Partnership” is open for questions, please start submitting them now.

The chat will begin at 2 p.m.


Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily:

Welcome to today’s chat on School-Community Partnerships. I’m Mary-Ellen Deily, editorial director of the Education Week Press, and I’m joined by two experts in the field, Joyce L. Epstein of Johns Hopkins University and Larry Ferlazzo of Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, Calif. Ms. Epstein and Mr. Ferlazzo will be taking your questions momentarily, but I’d like to start by asking each of the guests to tell us a little about themselves. Joyce, why don’t we start with you?


Joyce Epstein:

Hello Mary-Ellen, Larry, and everyone,
I direct the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships and the National Network of Partnership Schools (NNPS) at Johns Hopkins University. We invite schools, districts, states, and organizations to join NNPS to develop research-based and goal-linked programs of family and community involvement.

Schools are guided to use an action team approach and our research-based framework of six major types of involvement to engage all parents – not just those who are easiest to reach. Each school tailors its plans and practices to address school goals for student success. For example, schools’ plans will involve families and the community with children on reading if the school has a goal to improve students’ reading skills and scores. District and state leaders are helped to organize their leadership activities to assist all schools to conduct this work.

There is a great deal of information and hundreds of ideas on the NNPS website. In answering questions today, it will not be possible to be complete, due to time and space limitations. So, let me give you the website address, now, so that I do not have to reprint it over and again. I will refer in my answers to questions to sections of the NNPS website, and you will know that I mean this place: http://www.partnershipschools.org

2:02 Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily: This is great, Joyce. I’m sure a lot of our readers will access your Web site. Larry, would you like to tell us a little about yourself?

2:03 Larry Ferlazzo: I spent nineteen years working as a community organizer before becoming a teacher at Sacramento’s largest inner-city high school six years ago. I was interested in trying to connect what I learned as an organizer in both the classroom and with students. We do a lot of work with parents are our school, including making hundreds of home visits, a family literacy project where home computers and Internet access are provided to immigrant families to help learn English and more. I have a book coming out and a blog sharing my experiences and my learnings


Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily:

Since we have so many questions, I’m thinking we may want to jump right in. First off, we have a big-picture question about the connection between school-community partnerships and student achievement. Joyce, what can you tell us about this?

2:04 [Comment From Marsha]
Does research show a connection between this work and student achievement? If so, how can it be accessed?


Joyce Epstein:

Our studies indicate that when family and community involvement acativities are goal-linked, and well implemented, there will be measurable effects for students. For example, involving families in ways that help students on reading, can, if well designed and implemented, impact students’ reading skills and scores. You can see the many research studies on RESULTS on our website in the section Research and Evaluation -- See publications list, and an excellent summary of this literature in Chapter 1 in our handbook:

2:09 Larry Ferlazzo: SEDL, an exceptional “think tank” out of Texas, is also a great source of research on this topic.


Joyce Epstein:

It looks like our Handbook title was chopped from the comment above, so here it is again.

Epstein, J. L. et al. (2009). School, family, and community partnerships: Your handbook for action, third edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.


Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily:

Larry--we have several questions about engaging parents from families where English is not their native language. Can you offer tips on that? I’ll include a question below.

2:09 [Comment From Stacey]
What can districts that have a diverse community do to reach out to parents that have a different language/culture?

2:10 Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily: Obviously, engaging parents who have traditionally had a harder time getting involved in school communication is challenging. I imagine a lot of schools have struggled with the issues Stacey raises.


Larry Ferlazzo:

We’ve been successful with a project providing home computers and Internet access to families who want to learn English. It came out of asking parents what their concerns were, their identification of a problem, and then connecting them together. Listening and relationships come first, and then “agitation” (challenging people to do something about what they say they are concerned about) instead of “irritation” (challenging people to do something about what WE want them to do about).

2:11 Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily: Was this program expensive to implement, Larry? How many families are working with it?

2:12 Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily: Joyce, what can you add about reaching parents from diverse backgrounds?


Joyce Epstein:

Communities across the country are increasingly diverse. Families differ by socioeconomic status, and by racial, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds, among many other qualities. Each school must first know their families. Who are the students and families you serve? What are the school and family goals and dreams for the children? What are the children’s hopes and expectations? With these things in mind, it is critical, we have found, to organize a team structure

(we call this an Action Team for Partnerships) with a clear plan of how to reach out to involve all families in goal-linked ways throughout the school year. Schools that serve Latino, Hmong, Chinese, Russian, and other new immigrants are successfully using the NNPS approaches, tools, and guidelines to reach out to and involve ALL families, making the appropriate adjustments (e.g., translators, interpreters). You can see many ideas from these schools and their districts in our annual books -- the most recent is-- Promising partnership practices 2009. Baltimore: National Network of Partnership Schools. See the book and prior editions on our website: http://www.partnershipschools.org in the section Success Stories.


Larry Ferlazzo: Similar examples abound -- ranging from schools working with other institutions to respond to safety, housing, economic issues. The idea is to focus on asking what families are concerned about, not just what the school thinks they should be concerned about.

In terms of the home computer project, the purchase of new computers is the most expensive cost, but that cost is going down every day. Internet access is typically $25 or less. We work with fifty families for $30,000 a year , excluding the capital cost of the computers.


Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily:

Here’s a very straightforward question that needs to be answered.

2:14 [Comment From Guest]
How do you define parent involvement; what are characteristics of an involved parent?

2:15 Joyce Epstein: By the way, NNPS is not an expensive investment for any district or school that wants to organize and improve its program of family and community involvement. Many of the activities in the books of Promising Partnership Practices estimate their costs. And, to join NNPS is very thrifty -- see the benefits and how to join on our website in the section Join NNPS.


Larry Ferlazzo: I actually use a distinction between “involved” and “engaged” A short preview of how I describe this in my book can be found here:


I think, in terms of schools, “involved” often means schools going to parents with their agenda and what they perceive to be their institutional self-interest. “Engaged” means to ready to listen.

2:17 Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily: Thanks, Larry. Another reader asks about building connections by working first with teachers. Larry, do you have any thoughts for Heather Kilgore, whose question will be posted just below.

2:18 [Comment From Heather Kilgore]
what are the most effective professional development activities to build teachers’ capacity to involve families?

2:18 Joyce Epstein: After many years of study, we have a framework of six types of involvement that refer to how a school (and district) build a program that enables parents to become in volved in many different ways that support their children’s success in school. Family involvement (parents, grandparents, and other caregivers) connect with their children’s schools to help students succeed to their full potential. So, we focus on the students -- and helping them succeed in many ways. From our view, it is not up to every parent in American (or anywhere else) to figure out how to become involved in age-appropriate ways in every school year. Thus, it is the school’s responsibiltiy to organize effective partnerships as part of good school leadership and organization. You can see the framework for Six Types of Involvement on our website in the section NNPS Model - click on School Model.

2:19 Larry Ferlazzo: We work very closely with the Parent-Teacher Home Visit Project, which is an extraordinarily group that works with schools around the country providing training to both teachers and parents on the art of making home visits and listening. They provide three hour trainings to teachers and support them throughout the process.

2:20 Joyce Epstein: NNPS is a professional development organization. Teachers, principals and district leaders must learn more about the new directions for organizing, implementing and evaluating their partnership programs. We conduct a fall Leadership Development Conference (coming up = October 27-28 in Baltimore) and a spring District Leadership Institute. Of course, our website itself is full of professional development information and examples for teachers and for other educators, parents, and the public.


Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily:

It sounds like there are good professional development opportunities out there. Is there a Web link for the PTHVP, Larry?

2:21 Joyce Epstein: By the way, the NNPS Program Facilitators conduct on-site workshops (we call this Workshops on the Road -- to tailor training to specific communities. See the section called Professional Development and click on training activiites that interest you!

2:21 Larry Ferlazzo: http://www.pthvp.org/


Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily:

Thanks, Larry. Joyce, we have a participant named Rose who would like to know more about Action Teams in urban settings.

2:21 [Comment From Rose]
Regarding your Action Teams for Partnerships, which involves the family, school, and community. How realistic is that in an urban school environment when the needs of the families are (child care, jobs, resources, and literacy) to get families to partnership with the schools?

2:24 Joyce Epstein: It is very realistic, and very necessary. There is not one way to do this. Every Action Team for Partnership must tailor its plans and practices to match the needs and interests of its communities. But all families in all settings want to help their children succeed. This is not just my opinion. I can only refer you to the research on our website (see Publications List) -- much of which was (and is) conducted in poor, urban communities, and see those Promising Partnership Practices from wonderful communities that are exactly as you describe. The inspiring thing to me and my staff is how good guidance can produce new knowlege and good practice in every community that wants to do the work.

2:25 Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily: Here’s an interesting question from Julie. Larry: Your thoughts?

2:25 [Comment From Julie]
What have you found to be effective in reaching parents who put all the responsibility of followup on the schools?

2:27 Larry Ferlazzo: Lots of families have many other pressures going on, particularly in urban areas. If we’re talking about follow-up issues that are of specific concern to schools, the challenge, I think, is to first develop relationships with parents so they don’t feel that the school only contacts them when there is a problem with their child.


Joyce Epstein:

In our experience (answer to Julie), parents follow odd and unproductive paths when their schools are disorganized and when they do not have the structures and processes in place that help parents see how to become involved in reasonable ways, given their busy schedules. The important fact is that schools that help parents with their work, help parents change their views because reasonable guidelines are organized.

2:28 Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily: Just a side note: Larry, I noticed in a TLN column you wrote for Teacher Magazine that a parent you contacted immediately thought there must have been some problem with her child. I thought that was interesting.

2:29 Larry Ferlazzo: Unfortunately, for many families, that’s the only time ANY person from a public institution contacts them -- when there’s a problem.

2:29 Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily: Joyce, here’s a question for someone putting together a statewide family institute. They sound like they’d like your advice.

2:29 [Comment From Guest]
we are planning a statewide 18th annual back to school family institute and for the first time this year we are including a strand - (5 sessions over 2 days) - for school staff. We want to present info about title I parent invol requirements and effective models and practices - we want to present the NNPS model but only have 2 sessions to do that in - any suggestions?

2:32 Joyce Epstein: To the guest with a question about a statewide conference and Title I topics- please communicate with me via e-mail -at nnps@csos.jhu.edu as you have a complex and unique question. And, if there are others whose questions are not addressed, you are welcome to communicate by email. We will address your questions if we cannot do so during this hour.

2:32 Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily: Another participant has a good question for both of you about social networking tools and parent involvement.

2:33 [Comment From Peggy Sorensen]
I have been intrigued in much of my reading that there is such a heavy focus on a very limited part of the scope of parent involvement. Such things as being a good parent, volunteering at school and helping with homework often totally eclipse any consideration of parents as school decision-makers and as community liaisons. While it is true that everyone, particularly parents, have multiple draws on their time, I wonder if the interconnectivity of technology mightn’t be a helpful tool. I wonder if either of you have experienced the use of networking tools to bring parents into a different relationship with both school, and with other parents.

2:35 Larry Ferlazzo: Theoretically, it can be a great tool. However, so many inner city families don’t have a computer or Internet at home or, if they do, it’s turned off periodically because of the cost or because the computer is broken and can’t be fixed. For middle class communities, though, like the city (Davis, CA) where I live, it’s used very effectively by schools.

2:36 Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily: I can see where economics/access could be a problem.

2:36 Joyce Epstein: Technology is becoming a critical tool in changing what we call Type 2- Communicating (in our Six Types of Involvement). There are new high-tech ways to reach families who are very busy -- for example schools have e-lists now to reach those who have email access, and PTA/PTO’s ask for e-mail input to agenda items, even when parents cannot attend those meetings. There are many wonderful “tech” related practices in the collections of Promising Partnership Practices on our website -- BUT, the caveat is that many families still do not have e-access or other technology connections. Thus, again, schools must knoiw their families -- and both high-tech and low-tech options must remain on the agenda when plans are written and when practices are implemented.

2:37 Larry Ferlazzo: Technology also offers opportunities, like our school supplied Internet family literacy project.


Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily:

Yes, I was just about to write about that, Larry. It sounds like a perfect fit here, but obviously not every community is connected yet. Meanwhile, another participant writes of a very interesting project in her community in N.C. See below.

2:38 [Comment From Donna Watson]
I am a Parent Involvement Specialist with Gaston Co. in NC. One of the best ways I have involved ESL parents is to join with the local Literacy Council and teacher volunteetrs to teach basic English. This year we will work with a local community college. We have monthly Hispanic parent sessions with a parent translator or a county translator.

2:38 Joyce Epstein: Good idea!

2:39 Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily: Yes, and here’s her additional comment--also, very interesting.

2:39 [Comment From Donna Watson]
Last year Gaston Community College began helping our school offer GED courses to our parents. This was very important to us since this area has high unemployment rates (textile/blue collar city). I decided to contact the school to offer the classes at our site when gas prices were near $4/gal. This saved our parents money coming to the local school instead driving across town. Also, we accept other members of the community not just parents. My goal has been to have a family literacy program that will be eligible for grants.

2:40 Larry Ferlazzo: That’s a great example of responding to a parent’s self -interest -- wanting to learn English. If you’re a parent, who are you more likely to want to respond to when you’re asked to do something -- an instituation that is helping you out, or one that only contacts you with a problem or when they want you to do something?


Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily:

Excellent point!

2:41 Joyce Epstein: GED programs for parent education are examples of Type 1- Parenting in our framework, as studies indicate that assisting parents to gain many different skills can help them help their children. But, it is important to note that the focus on family involvement for everyone in a school must be to help all parents support their students’ success -- as not everyone can attend classes, or workshops -- but everyone is focused on their students in elementary, middle, and high schools.

2:42 Larry Ferlazzo: A community garden, needing support to get more police in a neighborhood, working with an affordable housing group to get apartments built nearby, getting a local SuperFund site cleaned up -- are all real-life examples of how schools have connected to parents in the same way.

2:42 Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily: Another reader asks a very practical question about getting parents out to events. I suppose laying the groundwork with the kinds of work you’ve both cited is a precursor to this.

2:42 [Comment From Elizabeth]
What kind of activities have you found to be effective in getting parents to come out for events at the school?

2:42 Larry Ferlazzo: Research has show that these kinds of efforts can result in increased student achievement.

2:44 Larry Ferlazzo: Sorry if I sound like a broken record, but long ago an experienced organizer told me that we call people apathetic when they don’t come to the meetings WE want them to come to, to talk about the things WE want them to talk about. However, everybody is interested in something, we just need to find what those “somethings” are. By leading with our “ears” instead of our “mouths” and asking parents about their concerns and show willingness to help connect them with others who have the same concern (crime, citizenship, jobs) and help them figure out a way to respond to them, we might be surprised at how much participation we might get.

2:44 Joyce Epstein: Absolutely -- for example, many schools in NNPS schedule an event twice -- once in the morning and once in the evening to engage more families who are employed at different times of day. Others make sure they use the varied technologies we talked about above. And, of course, every educator knows the secret of having students involved when trying to get parents “out” to events. In our work with schools, however, we also do not want all parts of a comprehensvie program about “bodies in the school building” There are important activities to involve families at home, in the community, via their workplaces, etc.

2:45 Larry Ferlazzo: The type of event is less important than the relationship built leading up to it.

2:45 Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily: Both of you are making excellent cases for listening to your parents and building relationships. One reader asks if this kind of work is being done at a district level.

2:45 [Comment From Elizabeth]
Are there any promising prospects on engaging families and communities on the district level? And if, so what are they doing? and what districts are they?

2:47 Larry Ferlazzo: The Parent Teacher Home Visit Project is a partnership between PICO, a community organizing group; our local teachers union, and the District. Hundreds of home visits, if not far more, are done throughout the District each year. Teachers are paid for making them, and receive professional development credit for being trained.

2:48 Larry Ferlazzo: In addition, the Sacramento District has provided money and an incredible amount of technical support to our home computer project.


Joyce Epstein: (For the prior question) For schools and districts that are ready to develop full programs, the variety of different activiites and types of involvement help all families get involved in one way or another. With variety, more students can see that their parents value and support their education.

For the new question: NNPS is particularly focused on developing district leadership for partnerships. In the past five years, this is what we have learned most about, and how to help district leaders for partnerships organize their work in order to assist every school in the district (not one school at a time) to develop effective partnership programs. See, on the NNPS website, in the section NNPS Model -- Click on District Model and also see Chapter 7 in the Handbook cited above.

2:48 Larry Ferlazzo: Our District’s Technology Dept. is a model for how similar Departments can respond to community needs.


Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily:

Can either of you tell our readers about Student-Led Conferences?

2:49 [Comment From Rose]
Student Led Conferences; how is that defined and is it an effective tool for students to be accountable and to advocate for their learning and educational needs?


Joyce Epstein:

To see wonderful investments by districts in organizing their leadership on partnerships, please visit the NNPS website, in Success Stories, in the sction on Award Winners and find the Partnership District Award winners each year (since 2001) -- They are developing knowledge and skills in how to guide their schools’ Action Teams for Partrnerships to reach more (and all) families in productive ways linked to school improvement goals.

2:50 Larry Ferlazzo: I have read about people’s success with them -- I personally, however, have not used them. I do have plenty of parent/teacher/student conferences, and the student is always an active participant.

2:51 Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily: Larry--you’re writing about student-led conferences, correct?

2:51 Larry Ferlazzo: Yes,

2:52 Larry Ferlazzo: I hope it was a coherent response :)

2:52 Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily: Definitely! We just have so much good information--and so many questions and answers--that I want to make sure we’re all on the same page, so to speak.

2:52 Joyce Epstein: Student-led conferences are good ideas that require more prep-work so that students can confidently conduct the conferences. They are being used in the U. S. (and for a long time in Canada) from grades K (yes!) through high school, but still in relatively few places. There are some “ways to do this” in the Promising Partnership Practice books from members of NNPS who have used the practice successfully.

2:54 Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily: Thanks Joyce and Larry. Here’s a specific question for you from Lynn.

2:54 [Comment From Lynn]
How can we begin the process of developing a multi-cultural famiy literacy community?

2:55 Larry Ferlazzo: Before I respond to that, I just want to mention that people who have further questions that have not been covered here, and would like to ask them to me, should feel free to leave a comment on either my Parent Engagement blog http://engagingparentsinschool.edublogs.org/ or my resource sharing blog http://larryferlazzo.edublogs.org/ and I’ll be happy to respond.

2:55 Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily: Thanks, Larry. That’s great because there is obviously a lot of interest in this topic.

2:57 Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily: I should add, too, that a lot of the participants in this chat seem to have great suggestions for further engaging school communities so they might want to also be in touch with Joyce and Larry with their ideas.

2:57 Larry Ferlazzo: Start by asking parents what their concerns are and build a relationship. Be open to what they say, and what a literacy community might look like. Starting with questions will lead to some kind of community, and have parents be decision-makers what kind it is.


Joyce Epstein: Multicultural literacy and other multicultural practices for awareness, appreciation,and for learning together are key to most districts and schools nationwide. There are many ways to build this into a full partnership program, and the best way to see how to do this is via expert practitioners -- in workshops for parents, activities for students, family nights, and curricular designs. Those books that I keep mentioning include a wealth of examples on this.

2:57 Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily: We’re nearing the end of the chat. Here’s another big-picture question--this time on getting teacher buy-in.

2:57 [Comment From Donna Watson]
Question? How do you get teachers to buy in to the ATP? I feel like they are already overworked. Plus, if you are not in the classroom with direct contact, some teachers have the attitude that you don’t need to be FT and what do you do all day. So I am hesitant to ask them-Will they say that’s your job? Our school just rejoined NNPS so I will ask , what’s the harm! I have some teachers that always help. Kudos to them!


Joyce Epstein: Everyone is overworked! The secret is that good organization makes work easier, not harder. The ATP is a commitee of the School Improvment Team or School Council, and helps distribute leadership within a school. In the “old days” one person tried to work with all families. That was not successful. We have found that teamwork is the key -- (chapter 3 in the Handbook for Action), and, if well implemented, will work. Implementation of any school improvement program is the key to success - of course.

No more wishing -- just good work is needed. I hope anyone whose district and school spent an hour with us today will look into joining NNPS and enjoying real success on this topic!


Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily:

It’s time to close now, but the chat transcript will be available shortly on edweek.org. Thanks so much to our two experts, Joyce Epstein and Larry Ferlazzo, and to all those who took part in today’s chat.

3:02 Larry Ferlazzo: I can’t speak about NNPS, but I can say that if teachers and administrators feel like they get a great deal of parents wanting to be connected now, than they don’t need to do anything differently, But, if they’re not, they should consider exploring how to engage parents in a way that is driven by parent energy and not by school energy.

3:02 Joyce Epstein: Thanks to all for looking into this work today.

3:02 Edweek Producer: Jennifer: A transcript of this chat will be available shortly on this same page. Please check out Edweek.org’s other upcoming chats at http://www.edweek.org/go/chats


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