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Engaging Families and the Community in High-Poverty Schools

Engaging Families and the Community in High-Poverty Schools

14 March, 2016

Families living in poverty often have multiple jobs, may have limited English language skills, and in some cases may have had few positive experiences with their children’s teachers or schools.

These factors commonly work against a school’s attempts to form relationships with families living in poverty and authentically involve them in their children’s education. Even in high-performing schools, this problem is an ongoing concern. Leaders in high-performing, high-poverty (HP/HP) schools continually look for ways to provide opportunities for involvement and to gain back their trust.

The Critical Importance of Trust

In a recent study of public schools in Chicago, Anthony Bryk, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and his colleagues concluded, “Relationships are the lifeblood of activity in a school community” . In one high-poverty elementary school, a teacher remarked, “Without a trusting environment in our classroom and with the families of my kids, it’s all uphill. We never make the progress we could. . . we never can ‘click.’ Trust is what makes it all happen for us.” The development of trusting relationships lies at the heart of successfully engaging parents, families, and the community.

Approaches and practices to build trust between schools, students, and families

  1. Create Full-Service Schools and Safety Nets

Many HP/HP schools link vital social and medical services with their students. These full-service schools normally provide services such as social workers, physicians, dentists, vision and hearing specialists, grief counselors, and family counselors on site. Some schools give a childcare center, a family resource center, or hunger/homelessness support to assist families in meeting their basic needs. Research revealed that when a full-service school works well, student achievement increases, attendance rates go up, suspensions drop, and special education placements decrease (Dryfoos, 1994; Dryfoos & Maguire, 2002).

  1. Create Links Between School and Home

Strengthening the family’s ability to support their children’s academic accomplishment and other forms of success in school is a priority in HP/HP schools. One school organizes a learning academy on Saturday mornings to assist families of refugee students. Other schools employ school-family liaisons who connect families with schools in a variety of ways.

Sadowski (2004) identifies six activities that a school might consider to establish connections between students’ homes and school:

  • Dual-language classes for students
  • English as a second language, GED, and parenting classes
  • Home-school liaisons (with fluency in the home language)
  • Preschool and early literacy programs
  • Early assessment
  • Community and school activities and events
  1. Offer Mentoring to Students

Most educators are long aware that a meaningful relationship with an adult is what kids want and need most. Mentors give such a relationship. The National Dropout Prevention Center identifies mentoring as one of the most effective strategies to keep kids engaged and in school.

The Western Regional Center for Drug-Free Schools and Communities identifies five positive outcomes of mentoring programs (Jackson, 2002):

  • Personalized attention and care
  • Access to resources
  • Positive/high expectations for staff and students
  • Reciprocity and active youth participation
  • Commitment

Many HP/HP schools operate their own programs with local staff and volunteers; others access the help of Big Brother/Big Sister programs, local YMCA/YWCA services, and a host of other community-affiliated programs that offer adult mentoring.

  1. Provide Opportunity for Community-Based and Service Learning

“Our kids actively work to support their community. Through clubs and classes, they raise money for families in need, work on a ‘coats for kids’ project, plant trees, build park benches, help with efforts of the Northwest Blood Center, Children’s Miracle Network, American Cancer Society, March of Dimes, Red Cross, and many others. They rake leaves in our parks and do yard work for our elderly folks in need. Our students feel better because of these efforts, and our community values the extra help that the school gives back to them. When everyone is supporting one another, it makes Tekoa a great place to live and raise children.” (Wayne Roellich, principal, Tekoa High School)

Community-based learning is noted for connecting academic learning to real-world problems beyond school, particularly service learning and has become common in HP/HP schools.

Benefits of service learning (Billig, 2000a, 2000b):

  • Improved academic achievement
  • Increased school attendance
  • Enhanced student motivation to learn
  • Decreased risky behaviors
  • Increased interpersonal development and student ability to relate to culturally diverse groups
  • Improved school image and public perception
  • Community-based learning also provides an excellent means to initiate career exploration, internships, shadowing, and jobs.
  1. Conduct Home Visits

Many HP/HP schools promote and conduct some form of home visits. Fourteen years ago, test scores in the Mason County School District ranked in the lowest quartile of all districts in Kentucky. Inspired by the idea of building closer connections to students’ home lives, the district, with a cadre of volunteer teachers, embarked on a goal of visiting every home of the 2,800 kids enrolled. Keeping this commitment over the years, in combination with positive administrative and collegial support and the requisite professional development, has resulted in every family receiving at least one home visit annually from their child’s teacher. The district has experienced consecutive years of student achievement growth and a 50-percent drop in discipline referrals, as well as reduced achievement gaps and increased attendance.

  1. Ensure Effective Two-Way Communication

We know that a “whatever it takes” attitude prevails in HP/HP schools. This is especially true in their efforts to communicate with the parents and families. Despite often-limited resources, educators in these schools make it a priority to enhance authentic connections with students’ parents and families. The goal of fostering two-way communication between school and home requires school leaders to be relentless in their insistence that communications be respectful, honest, and timely.

  1. Use the School as a Community Center

Many HP/HP schools involve parents, families, and other community members by opening their doors and expanding their schedules to offer clubs, parent support and education, early childhood activities, GED programs, advisory groups, community education classes, and a host of other events and activities of interest to the community. These HP/HP schools partner with community or city organizations, local foundations, state and municipal agencies, service clubs, universities, and businesses to host these valued endeavors in their buildings, as well as offer services at times that better fit families’ work schedules.