You are seeing this message because your web browser does not support basic web standards. Find out more about why this message is appearing and what you can do to make your experience on this site better.

The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

Terms of Use ▼

This article is adapted from Chapter 9, “Scaling Up: Why Can’t All Schools in a District Create Strong Partnerships With Families?” of Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family–School Partnerships by Anne Henderson, Karen Mapp, Vivian Johnson, and Don Davies.1

Since all public schools are part of a larger school district, family and community involvement at individual schools depends, in part, on district expectations and support. The job of creating and coordinating a serious, consistent, systemic program of family and community engagement for any district requires senior leadership—preferably at the superintendent level—to establish beyond a doubt that the district is fully committed to family and community engagement.

What can district leadership do to develop system-wide policies and practices that support families to enhance their children’s experience in school? In the interviews and focus groups we conducted across the country, the districts that showed the best results took action in three key areas:

Creating a culture of partnership throughout the district by setting high standards for family-friendly schools—and expecting all district and school staff to meet those standards. A culture of partnership grows best when the community is engaged in the process of planning and setting goals for family involvement in its district’s schools. From our conversations with district leaders, the following strategies emerged:

  • Engaging all community members with an interest in schools—not just educators and parents—in setting the goals for family and community engagement
  • Conducting and analyzing parent surveys about school satisfaction
  • Setting a clear standard for what’s expected at schools and offering help to meet the standard
  • Staffing the effort by creating a high-level family involvement position and committing real resources to it

Connecting family–school partnerships to the district’s school improvement initiative and performance goals for students. In high-achieving districts, school board members, administrators, and teachers alike can link district improvement goals to actions to be undertaken in individual schools and classrooms. Tying family involvement to the school improvement process can help increase visibility and understanding of how families fit into the larger school improvement picture.

When families are seen as part of school improvement, district and school staff can name and act on the specific ways in which the district involves parents and community. In districts around the country, we saw several approaches to integrating parents into the school improvement process, including:

  • Districts hiring teachers or well-trained paraprofessionals to fill parent coordinator positions
  • Superintendents and deputies holding principals accountable for strong and measurable outreach to families and community members
  • Administration leaders sharing examples of effective family involvement practices with school staff
  • Districts offering professional development in many settings, including sessions at principals’ meetings, leadership academies, and cluster meetings
  • Districts including parents in ongoing student assessments—for example, by providing a website where they can view their children’s performance and progress and get ideas for how to help their children
  • Districts tying materials for parents to the district improvement plan

Organizing district resources to create a structure of support so that all schools can establish and sustain strong partnerships. Why is there so much variation in parent involvement from one school to the next? Even in the same neighborhood, one school can be a fortress locked against parents, while another is wide open to parent involvement. Districts can help reduce these disparities by providing and organizing resources and infrastructure in a way that provides all schools with the support they need to engage families effectively. Specific strategies include:

  • Offering technical assistance, funding, and other supports to principals, teachers, and other school staff
  • Supporting parent decision-making structures at schools
  • Sustaining teacher action research2
  • Creating and maintaining written district policies on family engagement

For a district to be serious about closing the achievement gap, it will also have to be serious about closing the gap between schools that do and do not welcome partnerships with families. All of us—teachers, parents, administrators, office holders, community members, students, family members, and local organizations—must work together to make this happen. With strong leadership, constant and open communication, and a passion for partnership, this vision of family–school partnerships is possible in all districts and schools.

1 This article encapsulates the main themes of Beyond the Bake Sale’s chapter on district-level family involvement. For specific examples of successful district strategies from around the country, please see Chapter 9 of the book. The book also offers more specific strategies and examples, checklists, and other practical tips and tools on how to improve family involvement in districts and schools. To learn more about or to purchase the book, visit

2 Action research allows teachers to look at their own practice, reconsider their teaching methods, or solve a problem. A team of educators can study a problem or issue and tests out ways to approach it.

Anne T. Henderson
Senior Consultant
Community Involvement Program
Annenberg Institute for School Reform
1640 Roxanna Road, NW, Washington, DC 20012
Tel: 202-882-1582

Karen L. Mapp, Ed.D.
Lecturer on Education
Harvard Graduate School of Education
Appian Way
Cambridge, MA 02138
Tel: 617-496-3095

‹ Previous Article | Table of Contents | Next Article ›

© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project