Beth Simon

BETH SIMON: 

Okay.  My name is Beth Simon and I am at John Hopkins University.  In one role I’m an associate research scientist at the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships, and in another role I’m dissemination director for the National Network of Partnership schools. 

Technology can support school, family, and community partnerships in various ways.  It is important to keep in mind that not all families and not all schools have equal access to different technological capacities, but for those that do have access – let’s say to the Internet, for example, I think that’s a valuable tool for strengthening family and community involvement and following Joyce Epstein’s 6 Types of Involvement, it can be used in various parenting activities by adding ways for families to get information about child or adolescent development, or for learning at-home activities.  If students are studying astronomy in class they can have links on the web.  So in terms of enriching the curriculum with additional content, but also strengthening what families can do at home it can be a valuable asset.  Um, one other idea that I – that I’d love to see is decision making tends to be challenging at schools, but to allow for parents to vote on important issues online at their own leisure would meet some challenges for parents who are employed during the day and may not be able to come to school.

I’ve heard feedback from different schools about systems that allow schools to input a bunch of phone numbers and then mass distribute a phone message, and I do think that can allow for a lot of um flexibility in terms of sending messages in multiple languages also in terms of the time of day that families can be reached.  Not everyone can pick up a phone at dinnertime.  Um, I’ve heard that the phone system also allows for those who are leaving messages to become an integrated part of the school community.  So I’ve heard them to be quite successful in various locations.

The type of school, family, and community partnership activities that I’ve heard parents want to know is how to better help my student at home with schoolwork.  I do think that’s a very popular activity, but I think across the grade levels once students get into high school, for example, that curriculum is a lot harder for parents to work with them.  I think that an important school, family, and community partnership activity is families talking to their students uh whether it’s at the early grades about what the children are learning in school, um to the high school level in terms of planning for college or career.  I – I know that I’ve heard from a lot of families that that certainly counts as an important type of involvement.  From the school angle I know that sending home newsletters tends to be one of the most popular forms um of communication from school to home.  In terms of the rarest (interruption) the most unique.  I think I’d jump back a little to the technology.  Um in recent years we’ve heard a lot more about schools developing websites and that seems to be a growing interest of schools uh and a way for them to communicate with many families and the community um and provide them with a range of resources.  I think that’s growing.  I don’t know if I’d call it unique um in the year 2002, but it certainly isn’t as common as some other forms of – of connections. 

Sure.  It was about 10 years ago I read about a public school that was privately funded through some corporate donations and one of the features of this school was there was a telephone in each classroom so that the teachers could call home with important information, but importantly the school to home communication was not only bad news.  It wasn’t just when the student was absent or the student was acting out, it was also used as a reward for when a student did something very well in class, got 100% on a spelling test, they could um use the phone to have the students call their families immediately with good news.  So I think it’s important to keep in mind that school to home communication whether it’s with a telephone, a newsletter, or a website, among many – many forms can also be about positive interactions.

The kinds of family and community involvement activities that would show the most promise for schools with language diversity would have to be those that well address the needs at each particular site and it depends on the school level, if it’s elementary, middle, or high, it depends on the number of families who speak whatever number of languages.  I think it’s hard to give a particular example that would be the most effective.  Um at some – in some school communities we’ve learned that there are families who are limited English-speaking families.  They don’t want to go to the school but yet they go to the church every week.  So we’ve had stories where some teachers will go to the churches and be with the families within their community as a way to make some comfortable relationships.  But I can’t think of – of one specific practice that would hold true for all – all – all different uh situations.

I think that for – for schools to keep in mind among the various uh important features of communication no matter how strong a message a school wants to deliver, they can scream it at the top of their lungs, unless the recipients are capable of understanding it and interested in hearing that message, that’s useless communication, so for each school to keep in mind that some families may be able to um speak English but they may have issues of literacy.  We have a lot of students who maybe raised by grandparents.  So if a newsletter is sent home perhaps it should be done on larger type.  With the phone master or a similar system, perhaps the messages could be delivered on the phone as opposed to delivering a newsletter in all of the languages available at the school if that’s an issue.  I think also I’ve heard some – some very nice stories at different school locations where they involve family members as volunteers to do translation and that’s a wonderfully welcoming way to honor language diversity among families, but to have those families be contributing um to – to other families who speak their language, or to tap into resources in the community who would also be willing to do translations.  We had one school in Kansas that sent out information I think in 5 different languages and they – they did their best to meet the needs of their own language populations, but it’s a waste of time, resources, and energy out that – that families can’t interpret.

I think that at any grade level it’s unreasonable to expect every parent to know how to best support his or her child in school across all academic subjects and all of the social and developmental needs.  I think that the schools can be a very strong resource for providing information to families.  In particular, at the high school level I – I think that it’s the high school’s responsibility to reach out to families and invite them in and involve them in ways um that um adolescents are almost particularly at need.  Um, for example, uh in the National Network of Partnership Schools, each school site has an action team for partnerships, which consists of teachers, of parents, of school administrators, of community uh members at the high school level of student that it’s this team’s responsibility to reach out to involve families and communities in ways that link to student success.  So there’s not one set of activities um that are most appropriate um for all schools, but when schools are most conscious about linking involvement activities to their own goals for student success so that family involvement fits within the larger picture of this school, their overall school improvement plan as opposed to being an accessory on the side, I think that’s a particularly effective way of involving families in the communities as an overall plan.

I think that uh the relationship between an action team for partnerships and a parent coordinator again varies from school to school.  I’m familiar with some schools that may not have a parent coordinator, but it’s the action team for partnerships that is responsible for developing an overall plan for family and community involvement that is linked to goals for student success, to organize activities, um but fit within that plan, and then to evaluate progress from year to year, and that’s the responsibility of the – the action team for partnerships.  Uh, the parent coordinator at a school may be one member of that action team for partnerships um and serve as a liaison between their own knowledge um if that’s – if the parent coordinator’s full-time position is to do the research and to collect the resources for parent and family – excuse me – family and community involvement, that person would be an excellent resource as part of the action team for partnerships, but not a complete team.  So to – to compliment the parent coordinator with other teachers and community members um would make for a rather strong um organizing – um partnership organizing body.

Parents of – of adolescents face particular challenges and some schools in the National Network of Partnership Schools have reached out to parents in ways that support them um as they – as they work with their growing teens.  For example, one school has a parent support group for parents of 9th graders and this is an informal group but it meets monthly so that parents have a safe place to discuss issues uh that tend to become quite pressing um during the adolescent – adolescent years.  Um, also at the high school level we found that students may not want their parents in the classroom with them.  They also may not want their parents wandering around the campus uh thinking that their parents are checking in on them, but we’ve seen schools develop activities where it’s non-threatening for all parties involved.  And some high schools have a parent resource room, which is a place that a parent can come to the school to get information.  Maybe a school has videotaped a workshop.  That would be a place for the parent to get information, um or to have families do volunteer work off site.  Not all volunteering has to occur within the school building.  So if a parent can volunteer to type up a school newsletter, that would be something – um, let’s say a parent has access to a computer um at work.  That could be an activity.  Um, also we found that research has shown that parents and teens just talking about school and talking about college planning can have positive affects on students’ academic outcomes.  So there are different kinds of parent involvement.  Not all of them have to be at this school, um and some simple ones that many families are already doing.  We’ve also found um a study with over 11,000 high school students in over 1,000 high schools that when schools sent out information to parents about teen’s plans after high school, those parents were more likely to talk to their teens about their college planning.  So research has shown in several examples that when high schools reach out to involve families, families are more likely to be involved in various ways.  And I’m sorry because I just answered another question.  I’m sorry.

In a study of over 11,000 high school students from over 1,000 high schools analysis showed that regardless of students socioeconomic status, regardless of their race and ethnicity, regardless of their gender, or their family structure, or even their academic achievement in schools, when high schools reached out to involve families, families were more likely to be involved.  So high schools in particular have a responsibility to invite families into what can be a rather intimidating environment, especially for families who may not have had the most positive experiences themselves in high schools.  High schools have a tremendous capacity to welcome families in various ways.  In terms of decision making and advocacy, I think that if parents have more input into some decisions, with all due respect to the teacher’s role and – and honoring their training and experience, but to invite families in let’s say for disciplinary policies, um for attendance policies, um families will have more ownership of this and perhaps be more likely to support schools disciplinary actions um and to encourage their students to – to play by the rules.  So that may be one way that parents could be involved in advocacy.

One thing I would like teachers to know about connecting with families in their communities is if they have fears about uh working with families because they think that families will be coming into a classroom to judge them or to evaluate them, we’ve heard time and time again that that’s one reason that teachers don’t want to deal with parent involvement.  Another reason is they say, “It’s too much work.  I already have enough to do.  I can’t be expected to add one more thing.”  But what we’ve also heard time and time again is when teachers along with the other members of  an action team for partnerships make investments in involving families and the communities in targeted ways, they can actually make teachers’ lives easier and they can support – families can support what teachers are doing in the classroom with activities at home.  And um I’m trying to remember the second part of what you said – I’m sorry.

For teachers that are somewhat skeptical about involving families and the communities, I think beginning with a very small step can be helpful.  Uh, a step that involves rather minimal investment from the teacher, but they can show even the smallest amount of payoff and then to build um on that positive – uh, that positive um example.  I think that for um – for teachers to do something so simple as sending home a two-way flyer about what the student has learned in class and here are 3 questions you may want to discuss at the dinner table, and here’s a note that the parent can sign off and return that, that would not be a large investment of time on the teacher’s part, but it would be a way to get families involved at home with their students.  And that certainly ranges from something so simple as that to something much more complex as developing an interactive homework curriculum where their assignments that compliment what’s going on in class, but it’s an activity that students can do at home with their families over the course of a few days, and obviously with um very inexpensive materials, ones that we wouldn’t expect families to have to go to the store to get, um and – and that can certainly show some academic payoffs for students.  I think we had one teacher who was rather skeptical about inviting families into the classroom, so she use to put a bag outside of her classroom door and it had activities that a parent needed to cut out stencils or – or do some – some work like that.  And so a parent could walk by the classroom, grab the bag, go into a parent resource room, take care of that volunteer effort, and then replace it.  And once that teacher could see that that parent wasn’t there to be threatening, but rather to save that own teacher’s time that helped a faster, very positive relationships.  So rather minimal investments in teachers’ efforts can show them that working with families in the communities can be positive, but they’re also academic and behavioral payoffs in terms of students.  And partnerships ultimately are about increasing students chances for success.  So family/community involvement as has shown time and time again across many research studies is a powerful tool that all schools in all areas, urban, suburban, rural, um schools that have from 0 uh percent families speaking a language other then English or more then 40, as the network has shown, have been able to develop successful programs of family/community involvement.

One concept that I’m sure you’ve gotten information on today is about the 6 Types of Involvement.  I don’t know if you’ve received much information?  (Interruption)  Okay.  Uh, the framework of the 6 Types of Involvement is really a powerful way to think about family and community involvement.  (Interruption)  Joyce Epstein developed a framework of 6 Types of Involvement that was based on research conducted in elementary, middle, and high schools and based on work that she conducted with educators, with parents, and with students.  And she found that there were 6 basic types of involvement into which multiple activities um would fall.  And the first is Type I Parenting.  And that includes activities that support parents’ roles.  At the elementary level it may involve something as basic as a food bank or nutrition so that parents can – can be served in their roles as provides.  Um, up through the high school level it may involve information so that alcohol or drug abuse prevention.  Offer parents a workshop um about that topic.  Type II Communicating is about communicating from school to home and from home to school.  Communication takes on many forms whether its newsletters, websites, surveys.  Um and in terms of the two-way communication from school to home and home to school, it may be something like a tear-off so that when a school sends home a newsletter they know it didn’t wind up on the playground along with all of the other pieces of parent, but a parent has a place to not only note that he or she has received it, but to ask a question back.  And on that note, I’ll say, we found that in the network schools have offered incentives to students so that the highest return rate for a classroom of these tear offs would win a pizza party.  And to involve the student and to recognize the student’s role as this conduit of information from school to home and home to school I think has been a quite appropriate activity.  Um, in the framework Type III Volunteering involves opportunities for families to volunteer at school and in other locations.  So volunteering maybe, um let’s say at the elementary school level, a parent in a classroom um serving in various capacities.  At the high school level it also would include a parent going to a band concert to showing their support in a rather non-threatening way to – to high school students, but still supporting a school community.  Type IV Learning At Home Activities involve such things as interactive homework, which would be assignments that teachers develop that are closely tied to what their teaching in class, but that provide an extension for that student to take that information home and then teach it to the parent.  Not expecting the parent to know how to teach a – a complex subject area, or even expecting a parent to know how to read.  But it’s an opportunity for the student to be a teacher and then to learn more about the subject area and the process.  Type V Decision Making deals with a range of issues including parents as decision makers.  And whether that’s inviting a family member to serve on a curriculum committee or whether it’s providing families with the phone number for the district superintendent or with their local representative when some hot educational topic has come up.  Um, that’s one way to involve families as decision makers.  Type VI is Collaborating with Community and as I mentioned before, into each of these 6 Types of Involvement there are hundreds of activities, and collaborating with the community certainly opens itself up for that as well.  (Interruption)  I’ll say that again, sorry.  Type VI Collaborating with a Community involves community members in um – in a multiple – in multiple ways um as volunteers for the school.  It may be as a mentor so that let’s say a high school student is interested in engineering.  That student may be partnered up with an engineer in the community.  A community member may volunteer at an elementary school to do reading um with students.  It also may be getting resources from the community, whether its donations from a grocery store for a Family Fun & Food Night, um but also having the students give back to the community.  And it may be a community garden; it may be offering a band performance at a company um that – that has donated goods and services to the school.  So the framework of the 6 Types of Involvement is a comprehensive way to look at family and community involvement, which often extends the way that most of us tend to think of parent involvement in schools.

Students are at the center of school, family, and community partnerships and family and community involvement activities are focused on improving students’ chances to succeed.  And in the process of helping students do better in school, teachers are supported in their efforts uh to teach students every day in the classroom.  School, family, community partnerships don’t replace excellent teaching, and a strong curriculum, and a safe school environment.  It’s a part of an excellent school program.  And so students are the – student success is the bottom line in education reform and school, family, and community partnerships, it’s no different.    

School, family, community partnerships are focused on helping students succeed in schools; however, for each of the 6 Types of Involvement and for many different kinds of family and community partnership activities, there can be positive results for students, for teachers, and for parents.  And for parents, for example, um we’ve had some parents come to the National Network of Partnership Schools training workshops.  And it’s this large room of about 200 people where there are some researchers, some principals, um some teachers, and at the beginning of the 2 days often the parent may be a little shy or feel “Maybe I’m not the one who should – should be here.”  Parents are the ones we need to be most actively involved and we’re most honored that they would come and participate with the teachers and with the administrators.  And I’ve said something to – to teachers and administrators before to thank them for coming and for bringing a parent, and they’ve often said, “Until we were able to get her to join the action team for partnerships, we never saw this parent at school, but all it took was a tap on the shoulder.”  And so many parents, and many of us in our lives, if we’re asked to volunteer for something and it’s a blanket statement, blanket call for volunteers, we’re not going to do it.  But when someone is tapped on the shoulder and they feel like their own talents, their own resources can be something to give, that’s a very um – a very positive way to honor parents.  I think that for families um aside from their leadership development, which I do think is an important, important um, uh ripple affect of school, family, and community partnerships in terms of empowering them um as a decision maker and feeling that they can hole their own with teachers and principles, um when families are offered, let’s say, literacy classes or GED classes, they’re not only furthering their own education but they’re setting an outstanding example for their own children and to show a parent as a learner and parent as a student.  So parents maybe increasing their own education, but they also may be strengthening their status at home in their families and – and providing an – an excellent mentor for their children to look up to.  Um, in other ways we have in – in Baltimore City, I should say, um (unintelligible) end of year celebrations, but this happens all over the country, and at the end of the year schools get together and they celebrate the progress that they’ve made.  And after you hear the stories about ways that parents have come out of their shell and been able to feel confident walking into a school they never would have done so before, or feel confident talking to their children about curriculum when they may not have been um excellent or confident students themselves, there’s not a dry eye in the house at these end of year celebrations, so parents um certainly have grown in many ways um via school, family, and community partnerships.  Um in other ways with the collaborations with the community, for example, when families can be tied into resources in the community.  We had one chain store, for example, offered free clothing to parents so that parents could come to a parent/teacher conference.  And these parents were embarrassed to show up at school not feeling that they had appropriate attire, but when that parent was honored enough to say, “You’re important enough that we’ll do what it takes to get you to – to come to this school,” um I think that certainly made that parent feel – would make those parents feel that they – that their voices were worth being heard.  Um, I have several examples running through my head.  Um, I’ll jump to the teachers for a moment.  Um, for teachers um there are positive affects for school, family, and community partnerships um across the line.  Um, I think that for teachers, after investing their time – and it certainly is an investment of time, the payoffs are immeasurable.  To have families working with their students at home on homework, for example, to allow the students to serve in the role of teacher to extend the curriculum into the evening hours or onto the – or into the weekends, research has shown that students then do better on tests.  That makes the teacher’s job that much easier.  In addition, interactive homework, um the TIPS design, Teachers Involve Parents and Schoolwork from John Hopkins University, parents have a place where they can write a note back to the teacher so teachers can get targeted information about “Which part of this activity did my student not understand?  What part of this activity would I like more information on?”  A teacher can’t go home to 30 different families each night to gather that information, but to get communication on a regular basis from parents can be extremely valuable.  Also to involve families before a crisis hits, I think can make a teacher’s job easier as well.  We have schools in our network that send home “Good News Notes.”  Um, so they’re sending home recognition of – when students are doing something um particular well, which is a way so that parents aren’t quite as timid when they keep receiving communications from home.  So by keeping the channel of communication open and friendly, when there is a call that a teacher has to make to a parent about a more difficult topic, about a concern that the teacher has, that teacher’s already created um a positive channel of communication and I think that can make lifting up the phone that much easier when um – when it’s needed.

When we talk about school, family, and community partnerships, we automatically think about elementary schools much of the time and school, family, and community partnerships are essential for student success through their last year of high school.  And research has shown that regardless of student’s background and achievement, when families are involved in meaningfully – in meaningful ways students will do better in school.  That’s powerful evidence that even through student’s 12th grade, when parents are involved it’s never too late.  So if families have maybe been a little wary about being involved in student’s earlier years or they haven’t been invited to do so, it’s never too late for a parent to be involved.  And the other point that I feel so strongly about is that it is not up to each individual parent to know exactly how to best support his or her child, but the school has experts, it has school administrators, it has teachers, it has uh other individuals who work on the school staff who are experts in educating.  So to take that knowledge and reach out to families in targeted ways and not just wait for a parent to show up at the – at the office door and say, “I’m ready to help,” but for schools to reach out to families, research has shown families will be involved.  So my – I guess my main rallying cry is um for schools to um – schools to focus their energy on reaching out to parents in targeted ways and parents will respond.  Don’t give up.  All families want their children to succeed; they just may not know how to best do that.