Parent Engagement as a School Reform Strategy.
by Giles, Hollyce C.
A growing number of urban school reform initiatives seeking to transform
failing schools engage significant numbers of parents. The initiatives
strive to change a school's culture; the quality of relationships among
educators, parents, and children; and students' educational outcomes. The
initiatives work toward effecting systemic change in a school, and they
situate their reform efforts within the context of the surrounding community.
Further, since schools alone cannot solve the problems imported into them
from society, some projects reach beyond schools; they draw upon the power
of community institutions, such as churches and civic groups, to improve
schools and aspects of life in the community that impact education. Successful
systemic initiatives usually result in an increase in the quantity and
quality of the various forms of parent involvement identified by Epstein
(1995), such as parent volunteers in the school, and parents helping their
children with homework.
Many such initiatives have succeeded in improving student academic achievement
and transforming the culture of schools (Lewis, 1997; Murnane & Levy,
1996). This digest describes the common characteristics of such projects.
While the best among the projects is James Comer's School Development Program,
another example is highlighted here: the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF),
a national organization that operates locally in many communities around
the country, and whose successes to date in low-performing schools are
encouraging. Begun over 50 years ago by Saul Alinsky, IAF is a national
network of broad-based multi-ethnic interfaith organizations in economically
poor and moderate-income communities. IAF works with communities to gain
the power to improve the lives of their members, including the education
of their children.
CHARACTERISTICS OF SUCCESSFUL INITIATIVES
The most successful reform initiatives are collaborations between parents
and schools. Typically, a group of local institutions, sometimes with the
aid of foundation funds, hires an organizer--possibly from an organization
like the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF)--to initiate and facilitate
the reform process. Through conversations with many individuals and groups,
the organizer helps to identify a core organizing team of 8-15 parents
and educators that usually coordinates the work of the others involved.
Such collaborative initiatives share certain characteristics, described
VIEWING THE SCHOOL AND COMMUNITY AS AN ECOLOGY
The initiators of collaborative reform projects tend to view a school
and its surrounding neighborhood as a part of an interdependent social
ecology that must be understood as a whole in order to identify problems
and develop solutions (Heckman, 1996a; Murnane & Levy, 1996; Lewis,
1997). They address the ways that the strengths and difficulties in a school
and neighborhood can affect each other and the children in both contexts.
The projects often marshal the political strength of the residents and
the institutions in a community, such as churches and civic organizations,
to obtain needed reforms and resources for the school. For example, parents
and faculty at Zavalla Elementary School in Austin, Texas, worked with
a local IAF organization to obtain funding and cut through bureaucratic
red tape to establish a health clinic at the school. Children had often
missed school because of illnesses and long waits for appointments at community
health clinics. Once the school clinic opened, attendance increased significantly
(Murnane & Levy, 1996).
Projects also work to make the values, cultures, and languages of the
various components of a child's ecology--home, school, and neighborhood--more
continuous. In the Educational and Community Change Project (ECC) in Arizona
(which joined forces with a local IAF organization), the staff altered
the curriculum of the project's schools so that economically poor Latino
and Native American parents and students join together with middle-class
teachers of diverse ethnic backgrounds to study issues of concern to the
community. Their joint inquiry permits the worlds of the school, home,
and neighborhood to come together (Heckman, 1996a; Lewis, 1997).
Attention to the social ecology of a school and its neighborhood responds
to the important concerns raised by Lareau and Shumar (1997) about the
individualist approach to family-school relationships pervasive in educational
policy. The authors note that most schools attempt to engage individual
parents without considering how differences in education, income, social
networks, and positions of power can affect their ability or willingness
to participate. The result is that parents from working and lower class
groups are less likely to become involved in school-related activities.
The projects described here, however, invite groups of parents to reflect
critically upon the education of their children, and to take action as
citizens to make needed changes in their schools and communities. Such
an approach can be affirming and can increase participants' awareness of
their collective power. It contrasts significantly with the strategies
of other parent involvement projects which invite the participation of
individual parents as consumers of education (Vincent, 1996), or in some
cases, as "at-risk" parents, which implicitly suggests a view of parents
as patients in need of treatment by educators and school mental health
professionals (Swadener & Lubeck, 1995).
BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS BASED ON COMMON CONCERNS
The foundation of the work of successful initiatives consists of building
relationships among parents, educators, community leaders, and public officials.
Such relationships foster increased involvement, and create resources such
as trust, information channels, and shared norms among people that are
essential to transforming schools (Coleman, 1990).
SHARING CONCERNS. Organizers of community-school initiatives spend considerable
time talking with parents and educators to learn about their personal concerns
for their children's school. It is an effort to develop trust and build
a culture of conversation that leads to action as people form relationships
based on common concerns. IAF organizers, for example, conduct a "situational
audit," which gives everyone in the school the opportunity to identify
its positive and negative aspects. They identify areas of overlapping self-interest
with other parents and, if possible, with educators at a school. Organizers
also sponsor "neighborhood walks," in which parents and educators gather
at a school and then go out to visit parents at home; the aim is to engage
families in conversation about their concerns for the school and community
Organizers foster relationships in group forums as well. For example,
voluntary weekly dialogues among teachers, teachers' aides, and the principal
of a school are at the heart of the work of ECC. Participants discuss their
beliefs and ideas about their work, and initiate efforts to co-create the
curriculum with parents (Heckman, 1996a).
Parents and educators also meet together to identify common concerns,
decide which to focus on, and develop a strategy for addressing them. IAF
calls these sessions "house meetings." ECC calls this process "indigenous
invention," explaining that "teachers, parents, children, and other community
members must be the inventors of their social worlds" (Heckman, 1996a,
TAKING ACTION. Next, action committees develop strategies to address
specific concerns. Members first meet with public officials, academics,
business leaders, and others who have information about the issue on which
they are working. They then develop plans of action to resolve problems,
and present them at a neighborhood meeting for ratification by the larger
community. They may also hold accountability sessions, where a large number
of parents and educators meet with public officials to ask for their support
or action on a particular issue.
ACKNOWLEDGING THE ROLE OF POWER IN SCHOOL-COMMUNITY RELATIONSHIPS
An understanding of the complex ways in which power, or "the ability
to act," influences education is central to the approach of a successful
collaborative initiative. Diverse projects, including the School Development
Program, IAF, the Family Matters Project (Cochran & Dean, 1991), and
ECC, acknowledge the influence of power relations on the way children are
educated. Some focus more on the dynamics within schools where parents
often are marginalized (Comer, 1980), while others examine the impact of
the social and political context of the schools as well. IAF conducts a
formal "power analysis" that identifies the self-interests of the different
groups and individuals in a particular education bureaucracy and the relative
power that each has over educational policy and practices. The purpose
is to understand how to influence these various groups to make decisions
beneficial to students in their schools.
Power analyses frequently reveal parents' absence from the processes
of educational decision-making. Thus, many initiatives work with parents
to develop their power, which they can use in school reform collaborations.
IAF, along with several other initiatives, promotes the goal of changing
the culture of schools from one of "unilateral" or "command and control"
type of power, which they see as predominant in today's schools, to one
of "relational power" among educators, parents, and community members,
which grows out of collaboration and conversation (Comer, 1980; Cochran
& Dean, 1991; Heckman, 1996a).
A key to parents' development of personal power in the work of IAF is
the "iron rule": "Do not do for others what they can do for themselves"
(Cortes, 1994). The rationale for the rule is that parents become aware
of their own capabilities as they assume responsibilities, and develop
the confidence to take on increasingly challenging tasks to transform their
children's schools. ECC and IAF have observed that when parents demonstrate
their power in achieving positive changes for a school, teachers view parents
with greater trust and respect (Lewis, 1997).
FOSTERING THE COLLABORATIVE LEADERSHIP OF PRINCIPALS
As the chief executive officer of a school, a principal's willingness
and ability to engage in a collaborative process of reform is essential
to the success of the initiative (Cortes, 1994; Heckman, 1996a; Smylie,
Crowson, Chou, & Levin, 1996). Since educational bureaucracies typically
are more conducive to unilateral, command-and-control leadership than collaborative
leadership, reformers usually must seek out and cultivate principals who
are open to examining and changing their style of leadership. IAF has found
the greatest success with principals who "do not want to be compliance
officers, but who want instead to be educational leaders and entrepreneurs"
(Cortes, 1994, p. 13).
Being an educational entrepreneur involves creating an environment where
teachers and parents feel safe enough to take risks, and even to fail,
in an effort to create positive change (Cortes, 1994; Heckman, 1996a; Murnane
& Levy, 1996). One risk that runs counter to the socialization of principals
and to the culture of most schools, yet is crucial to collaborative reform,
is sharing information about the school with parents. Although there exists
a fear that parents might be troublemakers who would make decisions that
teachers oppose (Heckman, 1996a), in fact, if parents do not know about
a school's problems they cannot contribute their considerable energy and
resources--their power--to resolving them. At the same time, trust must
be developed between parents and educators to reduce the likelihood of
each blaming the other for the problems.
Collaborative leadership also involves principals' sharing the responsibilities
of leadership with teachers and parents who have been identified as leaders.
Such a shift from wielding unilateral power to building relational power
may not be easy for principals, but can provide them with support and relief.
A reform-minded principal must also be able to work effectively in two
very different cultures: the ongoing hierarchy of the broader educational
bureaucracy in which the school is embedded, and the evolving collaborative
activities in the school. Thus, the principal needs to know how to negotiate
the bureaucracy to attract and keep resources, such as skilled, dedicated
teachers and funds, and, also, how to prevent institutional regulations
from interfering with the process of school change.
DEVELOPING AND TRAINING PARENTS AND EDUCATORS AS LEADERS
Creating systemic change in a school is labor-intensive, and requires
the sustained efforts of many people: parents, teachers, administrators,
community members, and the staffs of outside organizations. For this reason,
projects spend significant time and energy on identifying and nurturing
leaders, defined by IAF as people with a following who can build networks
of relationships and are able to motivate and recruit people to accomplish
a task (Cortes, 1994).
TRAINING PARTICIPANTS TO IMPROVE EDUCATION. Projects also devote considerable
time to training and mentoring to ensure that all participants develop
the skills needed to reform education. IAF offers national 10-day training
sessions three times a year, where participants develop their skills as
leaders and organizers of change in communities. In these sessions and
in local training events, IAF helps participants develop organizing skills,
such as recruitment of new leaders, team building, and effective conversation,
negotiation, and compromise (Cortes, 1994). Training focused on education
organizing covers additional material on what students need to learn in
schools in order to become productive citizens in today's economy, how
the educational system works, what characteristics define a good school,
and how to create a collaborative culture in schools.
TRAINING PARTICIPANTS TO RESOLVE CONFLICTS. This training, in the context
of ongoing mentoring relationships in local schools and communities, develops
the skills to negotiate and compromise when the self-interests and values
of parents, educators, members of the community, and public officials conflict.
For example, a conflict arises when administrators are reluctant to publicize
negative information about their school's performance, such as low achievement
scores, or present it in a way that only the most highly-educated parents
can understand, even though the information is crucial to parents' meaningful
involvement in school change (Murnane & Levy, 1996). The collaboration
of a large number of parents and teachers who trust each other and have
been trained in negotiation also mitigates concerns that one group of parents
may come to exert absolute control over a school, overruling educators
and other parents on issues such as grading, classroom placement, and curriculum
MONITORING AND EVALUATING PROGRESS
Unfortunately, a prevalent pattern in schools in low-income communities
is a lack of accountability for poor educational achievement (Public Education
Association, 1997). Parents and, in many cases, teachers and school counselors
often do not even know the achievement data for their schools. If they
know the data, they often do not understand their significance for students'
future educational and employment options.
A cornerstone of the work of successful collaborative reform projects
is to increase parents' and teachers' awareness and understanding of educational
outcomes such as achievement scores, attendance, and dropout rates, and
to enable them to monitor the impact of their reform efforts on these outcomes
(Lewis, 1997). IAF also suggests monitoring less tangible indicators such
as attitudes toward teaching and learning, and the social climate at a
school, by listening to the tone and content of people's conversations
in the hallways and classrooms.
THE IMPORTANCE OF CONTEXT
It is important to recognize the impact of the local educational bureaucracy
on a reform initiative. Though educational bureaucracies tend to be resistant
to widespread and active parent involvement in educational decision-making
(Cibulka, 1996), some locales are more resistant than others. Organizations
which can establish a collaborative relationship with higher levels of
the educational bureaucracy, such as state or city departments of education,
usually have an easier time gaining entry into a local school and beginning
the process of collaboration (Murnane & Levy, 1996). Also, initiatives
involving a university-school partnership, such as the School Development
Project and ECC, begin inside of schools, and so do not have to fight to
gain entry (Comer, 1980; Heckman, 1996a, b). Conversely, initiatives located
in settings that are highly resistant to parent involvement tend to rely
on strategies of confrontation to have an impact on schools (Ross, 1997).
The mixed results of the plethora of reform initiatives implemented
over the past several years suggest that urban schools alone cannot solve
the societal problems imported into them, nor can they alone address the
daunting obstacles often presented by educational bureaucracies. However,
the process of reform described in this digest, as exemplified by the Industrial
Areas Foundation, has had a significant positive impact on schools. In
Texas, two years after the IAF's Alliance Schools initiative began, three-fourths
of the schools increased their scores on the state assessment test (Lewis,
1997). In New York, IAF organizations have created three new public schools
with more collaborative approaches to education, have mobilized large numbers
of parents to participate in and lead reform initiatives, and have had
an impact on city-wide educational policy through a media campaign to publicize
the retention of superintendents and principals in "Educational Dead Zones,"
with years of poorly-performing schools.
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