Families & the Community

Keeping in Touch

By Jessica L. Tonn — June 07, 2005 10 min read
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Parent involvement tends to drop off when students enter middle school. But research shows that doesn't have to be the case.

When India Kitts brought home a 77 on a math test last year, her grandparents found her performance unacceptable. After tutoring didn’t help improve her scores, India’s grandmother took the matter into her own hands.

She began conducting “classes” with India, now 10, after school. India served as the instructor, equipped with a child-size chalkboard, and her grandmother, Carolyn Kitts, the student. Kitts would feign ignorance, repeatedly asking her granddaughter to explain the material, until she was sure India had mastered it.

The effort paid off this spring, when India’s average in mathematics reached 97 percent, and she received Clyattville Elementary School’s award for most improved math student.

Overwhelming evidence shows that family involvement—both in school and at home—has a positive impact on student achievement. But researchers have found that parental involvement tends to drop off during the very transition India Kitts is about to make: the move from elementary to middle school. That transition also corresponds with the biggest drop in achievement, says Anne T. Henderson, an independent consultant affiliated with the Institute for Education and Social Policy at New York University and the co-author of a 2002 synthesis of research on the topic.

Kerry Covington, second from left, and her mother, Grace, take a tour of Lowndes Middle School.

Fortunately for India, she will enter the 6th grade here in the fall at Lowndes Middle School, which won a national award last year for its school-family-community partnership program. At the 1,030-student school, parents are provided with a wealth of opportunities to be engaged in their children’s schooling, from home phone calls about upcoming events to workshops about effectively helping with homework.

“Trying to convince [parents] that they still need to be involved, once [their children] get to middle school, can be a huge task,” says Samuel Clemons, the principal at the middle school, part of Georgia’s 9,300-student Lowndes County school district.

Research consistently shows that students with involved families, regardless of their age, socioeconomic status, and racial or ethnic identity, are more likely to earn higher grades and test scores, to have better attendance and fewer behavioral problems, and to go on to postsecondary education, among other benefits.

According to Kathleen V. Hoover-Dempsey, an associate professor and the chairwoman of the department of psychology and human development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, parents’ motivations for involvement are influenced by three variables: their sense of invitation from the school, teachers, and their own children; their perceptions of how effective their involvement will be; and their personal beliefs about how they should be involved.

During the transition from elementary to middle school, those motivating factors tend to be disrupted, studies show. Many students enter larger schools, which often intimidate parents by their sheer size. Parents, also feeling wary of the more challenging curriculum, don’t think they can do much to help their children with their studies. They often don’t understand the course-selection process, or which courses their children need to take to go to college.

And, to make the situation even harder, children begin to push away their parents as they grow older. Parents discover that the types of involvement their children enjoyed in the earlier grades—such as having a family member volunteer in the classroom—are no longer welcome. Adolescents start to assert their independence, making close supervision of their time and schoolwork harder and less necessary developmentally.

Although family involvement remains important throughout secondary school, researchers argue, the forms that involvement take must evolve as the developmental needs of the child change.

“The parent’s role changes from being an administrator or manager, to being a coach,” says Sophia Catsambis, an associate professor of sociology at Queens College, City University of New York.

Home discussions about school, expressing high aspirations for their children, helping plan for college or work, and outside educational activities are some of the most effective ways parents can stay involved after elementary school, research shows.

Marjorie Ard, the mother of 14-year-old Josh Ard, a student at Lowndes Middle School, calls herself a “very hands-on parent.” In addition to volunteering at the school on a weekly basis, she helps her son with writing and math homework, and researches history and genealogy with him at home.

“He has become quite a history buff,” she says of her son. She cultivates his natural curiosity in the subject through visits to museums and Civil War sites. He’s even begun asking to visit specific sites while the family is on road trips.

“It’s important to get him to see what’s out there—to see what piques his interest,” Ard says.

Lowndes Middle School’s multipronged approach to involving families in students’ education shows the variety of ways that secondary schools can encourage such bonds.

Persuading parents to remain engaged—and showing what their role could be—should begin when students are still 5th graders and in the summer before 6th grade begins, experts say.

Lowndes holds two orientation sessions for new students and their families–one during the school day in the late spring, and another on a summer evening. The sessions, which introduce students and parents to changes in curriculum and expectations at the middle school level, the forms of school-home communication that the school provides, and opportunities for parents to become involved in parent-teacher organizations, attract one-third of the entering class’s parents, according to Clemons.

Research and Resources

“A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family, and Community Connections on Student Achievement,” by Anne T. Henderson and Karen L. Mapp, is available from the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory.

Information about the National Network of Partnership Schools and research from the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships—both based at Johns Hopkins University and directed by Joyce L. Epstein—are available at www.partnershipschools.org.

“The Social Context of Parental Involvement: A Path to Enhanced Achievement,” a report by Kathleen V. Hoover-Dempsey and Howard Sandler, is available on the Web site of the Family-School Partnership Lab at Vanderbilt University.

A review of parental-involvement research, by Sophia Catsambis, will appear in the multivolume Encyclopedia of Sociology, edited by George Ritzer, next year.

“Parental Efficacy: Predictor of Parenting Behavior and Adolescent Outcomes,” by Lee Shumow and Richard G. Lomax, was published in the April-June 2002 issue of the journal Parenting: Science and Practice.

The school also provides a reception with food and drink to “make parents feel special,” the principal adds.

Welcoming parents, and making them feel valued, is vital to an effective family-involvement program.

“Schools don’t have a clue about how unfriendly their schools look to someone from the outside,” Henderson says. Even small gestures, such as posting directions to principals’ or guidance offices, can make a difference to parents who feel overwhelmed by the new, larger schools.

Teachers and schools need to be specific about how and why parents are needed, advises Ms. Hoover-Dempsey. Giving parents concrete instructions about how to help with student assignments and alerting them to when specific school events will take place are key.

At Lowndes, “there’s no excuse for not knowing what’s going on at school,” says Kim Williams, a mother of two former students.

The school runs an Internet service called Parent Connect, operated by Pearson Educational Technologies of Upper Saddle River, N.J., that offers parents free, password-protected access not only to their children’s attendance records, schedules, grades, and assignments, but also to school calendars and student health records. The site facilitates e-mail exchanges between parents and teachers, and parents can receive automatic updates on unexplained absences, missing homework, or poor grades.

Twice a month, Clemons sends out telephone messages to all parents, outlining upcoming activities at the school. Each teacher is assigned a voice mailbox within the service for posting daily messages about homework and other assignments.

But school administrators know that not all parents in Lowndes County, a southern Georgia community of some 95,000 residents, have access to the Internet or in some cases, even to telephone service. Each student at Lowndes Middle School is given an agenda book at the beginning of the year, in which he or she is required to record daily school tasks. Teachers will often ask students to have their parents sign the books, so that the parents will stay abreast of homework, test schedules, and school activities.

“The agenda book is an important communication tool between school and home,” Melanie Mares, a 6th grade reading, English, and social studies teacher, told an assembly of 5th graders and parents at an orientation session held at the middle school last month.

In addition to making sure that parents know what is going on at school, Lowndes offers them a room of their own.

This school year, it opened a large, inviting Parent Resource Room. Half the space is decorated with plush sofas, cushioned chairs, and a full dining room set. The other half contains computers that parents can use to access Parent Connect and other educational resources, a large, flat-screen TV, and other electronic equipment. Most of the items were donated by local businesses or community partners.

The room can be used for meetings, parent-teacher conferences, volunteer activities, and workshops. It also houses resources for families about parenting and academics.

Melanie Mares, left, a 6th grade teacher at Lowndes, speaks during an orientation session for incoming students.

“Having a space for families in the school makes a huge statement,” says Mavis G. Sanders, an associate professor of education at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and a senior adviser to the Johns Hopkins-based National Network of Partnership Schools. The network, composed of schools, districts, and states working to establish school-family-community partnerships, chose Lowndes as one of three schools in the nation to receive Partnership School Awards in 2004 for their effective, permanent partnership programs.

At a chamber of commerce meeting held in the room last month, for example, E. Steve Smith, the Lowndes County superintendent of schools, lauded the business partnerships that made the room possible and hailed it as a space for families without “the intimidating feeling you usually get in schools or principals’ offices.”

The Parent Resource Room was home this year to the monthly, daytime program “Wonderful Wednesdays,” which served as a support group for parents who met to share their experiences raising adolescents, discuss the many challenges they face, and receive literature from the school’s guidance department.

Other afternoon and evening workshops covered topics including creating conducive study environments at home, helping students with homework, and preparing students for Georgia’s standardized assessments.

Experts recommend that schools offer programs at various times during the day, especially in the evening, to create opportunities for parents and other family members who work to attend. Providing a meal is an added incentive for those who come straight from work or don’t have much money.

Family Nights, held at the school every year, can draw as many as 400 parents. Last fall, a Family Night introduced parents to a free mental-health screening that was offered by the school. Parents of students who showed signs of depression or other mental illness were referred to counseling agencies that had agreed to partner with the school.

At the annual Math-a-Thon Family Night, families are invited to take part in interactive math activities at stations set up throughout the school.

Studies of high-performing schools show that parent and community involvement is one of several factors—including high standards, effective school leadership, and focused teacher professional development—that affect achievement.

An effective school-family-community partnership program should be part of a school’s overall improvement plan, says Sanders of the National Network of Partnership Schools. The network recommends forming an “action team for partnerships” as a committee of the school improvement team.

The action team, made up of teachers, parents, and students, should write a one-year plan each school year linked to specific improvement goals, says Joyce L. Epstein, the director of the network.

At Lowndes Middle School, the 24-member action team focuses on bolstering math and reading comprehension, and strengthening family and community connections.

Welcoming parents, and making them feel valued, is vital to an effective family-involvement program.

Over the five years since the team’s inception, reading, math, and writing scores on Georgia’s state tests have improved, and the school’s relationships with local businesses and organizations have blossomed. The team routinely reaches out to companies for donations, advertising, and volunteers for its events, and to local agencies for services such as mental-health counseling for students.

Researchers say it takes at least three years to develop a permanent family- and community-partnership program. Schools should start small, says Sanders, and let such programs grow over time.

Starting with an event that already attracts a large crowd—an annual open house, for example—is a good way to begin advertising other events and forging relationships with families.

Clemons, the middle school principal, credits his action team for the success of the partnership program at Lowndes. He says he acts as the team’s coach, making sure that the team has adequate resources, and that it has continuity as teachers and parents come and go. Dividing the responsibility prevents administrators, who may already feel overwhelmed by their many other tasks, from having to develop the program alone.

Quoting Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great, a book about effective business strategies, Clemons says: “It’s all about having the right people on the right bus, in the right seats, going in the right direction.”


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