Organizing school, family, and community partnerships

Steven Sheldon explains the essential components of high-quality and sustainable family and community partnership programs that help all students experience academic success

Educators understand that students’ success and learning in school is strongly influenced by their experiences at home and in their community. Teachers, as well as school and district/local authority leaders, routinely comment that they cannot successfully teach students without the support of families. Research bears this out, showing that family support and involvement predict achievement throughout school. <!–more–>

Too often, however, educators wait until there are academic or behavioral problems that need to be addressed before they engage with families. This approach to family involvement is reactive. Instead, schools and teachers need to proactively engage families, working with them to prevent academic struggles and to promote high achievement. Research demonstrates that such outreach is an effective way to engage parents in their children’s education. The more teachers and schools work to invite families to school events, and to communicate with them about their child’s academic learning and progress, the more likely families are to be involved in their child’s education at home and at school.

What we know
● School efforts to engage families need to be proactive and preventative, rather than reactive and always responding to student problems.
● High-quality partnership programs require: teamwork among teachers, administrators, parents and community partners; action plans that are aligned to school goals for students; implementation that is responsive to families’ needs and challenges; and evaluation of strengths and weaknesses.
● Principal/head teacher and district support is essential to the success of this work.

Strong programs of school, family, and community partnerships are proactive, and support the on-going work in classrooms. These programs are well organized and have four components:

  1. A teamwork approach;
  2. A goal-oriented framework;
  3. Responsive implementation; and
  4. Evaluation.

These four elements have been at the center of work by the National Network for Partnership Schools (NNPS) and the focus of numerous studies. In this article, these four components are discussed so that practitioners will understand how they can organize their efforts to engage family and community members to support student learning and engagement in school.

1. A teamwork approach

One reason why school-wide programs for school, family, and community partnerships are not more widely implemented and sustained is that, within schools, the responsibility of this work often rests with a single individual. The most likely result of this is that the partnership work is not school-wide, the person responsible becomes burnt out and leaves, or both. School leaders need to establish a committee or team to take ownership and help teachers, staff, and families coordinate their efforts to engage families and community members.

Therefore, a first step in establishing a school-wide partnership program is for the school leader to form a team dedicated to coordinating school partnership efforts – an Action Team for Partnerships (ATP). This should include teachers, school administrators, parents, community members, and, at the high school level, students. To ensure that the partnership efforts reinforce, rather than distract from, other school improvement efforts, at least one member of the ATP should also be a member of the school improvement team or council (SIT).

2. Goal-oriented framework

A primary responsibility of the ATP is to construct an annual action plan in spring that will coordinate, guide, and document the family and community engagement efforts the following school year. This plan should link family and community involvement activities to specific school goals established by the SIT. Action plans that share the same student and school goals as the school improvement plan allow partnership activities to support other programs at the school. At NNPS, we encourage ATPs to set two academic goals (eg, improved reading or mathematics achievement), one non-academic goal (eg, improved attendance or behavior), and a goal of improving the school’s partnership climate.

The six types of involvement

For each goal on the action plan, schools should implement practices that will engage families in their children’s schooling in multiple ways. A research-based framework outlines six types of involvement that help create effective school, family, and community partnerships:

  1. Parenting – helping all families establish supportive home environments for children.
  2. Communicating – establishing two-way exchanges about school programs and children’s progress.
  3. Volunteering – recruiting and organizing parent help at school, home, or elsewhere.
  4. Learning at home – providing information and ideas to families about how to help with homework and other curriculum-related materials.
  5. Decision making – having family members serve as representatives and leaders on school committees.
  6. Collaborating with the community – identifying and integrating resources and services from the community to strengthen school programs. Not every goal needs to have activities planned from each of the six types of involvement, but each action plan should have at least one activity of each type of involvement across the four goals.

3. Responsive implementation

Schools need to implement family and community engagement activities in ways that are responsive and sensitive to the factors that limit family members’ participation. Given research showing there is variation in family engagement according to the education levels of the child, educational attainment of the parents, and language spoken at home, schools must examine their partnership practices and assess whether they should provide translation for family members who do not speak English, make the materials accessible for those who are not strong readers, provide transportation and child care to help make parents available, and provide food if an activity is scheduled during or near mealtimes.

In some cases, educators need to adopt a new definition for commonly understood terms related to family involvement. For example, volunteering cannot be solely about having adults come to the school during school hours. Educators must respect the fact that many students have parents who must work during the day and cannot volunteer in the traditional sense, but nonetheless are eager to find ways to support the school and their children’s education from home or through work. By recognizing and being responsive to the challenges families face, schools can inform and involve parents across racial, educational, and socioeconomic groups.

4. Evaluation

School and action-team leaders need to conduct on-going and end-of-year evaluations of their partnership program and practices. In the current context of education, whatever gets measured gets done. This is essential to the development and sustainability of family engagement efforts, and enables ATP members to: identify the strengths and weaknesses of their program; demonstrate outcomes from the activities implemented; and send a message that partnership is valued at the school. Studies demonstrate that partnership programs are more likely to improve and maintain a higher level of quality if the Action Team evaluates the activities implemented.

Contextual influences

These four components of a school, family, and community partnership program are essential for this work to become integrated into the regular work of schools. Research on the development of partnership programs shows, however, that principal/head teacher and district-level support are important contextual factors that determine the extent to which these components are enacted. Partnership programs, like other types of educational programs, need the support of the leadership to provide school staff with the time, space, and encouragement to reach out and engage families in their children’s schooling.

District leader support for school partnership programs is also important, as it can guide and motivate schools to develop and implement strong partnership programs. This might include developing clear policies to guide all schools’ partnership programs, organizing professional development workshops, helping teams write plans and evaluate goal-oriented partnership programs, and sharing best practice.

We know that schools can develop and sustain strong school, family, and community partnership programs. The elements described in this article provide a foundation on which strong outreach to families can benefit all students.

For further ideas about specific practices to engage families, and for success stories, visit the National Network of Partnership Schools’ website

About the author

Steven Sheldon is a Research Scientist and an Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins School of Education. He studies the predictors and impact of family involvement, as well as the development and impact of partnership programs in schools. He coordinates the graduate certificate program for Leadership on School, Family, and Community Collaborations.

Further reading

Epstein JL, Sanders MG, Sheldon SB, et al (2009), School, Family, and Community Partnerships: Your Handbook for Action (3rd Edition). Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press.

Sanders MG and Sheldon SB (2009), Principals Matter: A Guide to School, Family, and Community Partnerships. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Sheldon SB (2007), Improving Student Attendance with a School-wide Approach to School-Family-Community Partnerships. Journal of Educational Research, 100, 267–275.

Kreider H and Sheldon SB (2010), Theoretical Perspectives on Family Involvement. In D. Hiatt- Michaels (Ed.), Promising Practices in Family Involvement. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

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May 2014