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This issue's Promising Practices section highlights how a range of school-, district-, and state-level efforts incorporate the three components of HFRP's family involvement frameworks: Family involvement a) matters across ages but changes over time, b) occurs in many different settings, and c) should be coconstructed by families and professionals. 

Abby Weiss and Helen Westmoreland look at the lessons learned from the evolution of Boston Public Schools’ family and community engagement strategy.

In 2006, Boston Public Schools (BPS) received the Broad Prize for Urban Education for its accomplishments during then-recently departed superintendent Thomas Payzant’s decade-long tenure. In the months leading up to Payzant’s departure, a group of scholars explored the district’s progress in a number of education reform areas, including family and community engagement.1 This article sheds light on some of the key opportunities and challenges that confronted Boston’s family and community engagement strategy between 1995 and 2006.

Identifying Parent Leadership
As a result of Boston’s turbulent and drawn-out desegregation process, as well as other lawsuits against the school system, by the 1990s the district was home to a complex dynamic of parent representation, in which several parent advocacy groups received BPS funding but acted as autonomous oversight bodies and vehicles for family involvement. When he first arrived as superintendent in 1995, one of Payzant’s early goals was to bring together these disparate voices and services. Rather than negotiating separately with the district’s parent advocacy groups, he turned to the Boston Parent Organizing Network (BPON), a grassroots organizing group that emerged in the late 1990s, as an entity that represented the concerns of all parents, not just those with specific advocacy agendas. BPON, in collaboration with other community groups, helped shape the district’s new family and community engagement strategy.

Using Evaluation to Regroup and Reframe
A growing sense of community dissatisfaction about family and community engagement in the district led the Boston school committee, in the year 2000, to convene a task force to investigate the state of family and community engagement in the district. The nine-member committee, consisting of researchers, central office staff, parents, and representatives from community advocacy and organizing groups, went through an extensive information-gathering phase. They mailed surveys to over 1,000 individuals, held community forums, conducted interviews, and reviewed relevant documents as part of their data collection efforts.

After the task force analyzed this data, Payzant met with them and reviewed their findings and subsequent recommendations, which included:

  • Expanding the definition of “parent involvement”
  • Making family engagement a priority and holding schools accountable for it
  • Developing school-based family engagement plans that would be evaluated
  • Identifying individuals at the school level to focus family engagement efforts
  • Focusing family engagement on student learning
  • Training principals and teachers in how to communicate with and engage families
  • Examining the structure of the parent support services team at the district level

Creating Infrastructure to Serve Families
In 2002, Payzant proposed implementation objectives based on these recommendations. His new plan for family and community engagement included an increase in staffing and service delivery, which required the district to reallocate funds. The district withdrew funding from its parent advocacy groups to free up monies for a new central organizational structure and revamped parent information centers. Although this decision drew criticism from some community members, it ultimately gave the district more transparency and public accountability for its family and community engagement strategy.

Deciding on the structure and leadership of the new team responsible for family and community engagement entailed considerable debate. Early proposals called for teams embedded in student services in individual schools or organized in regional clusters, with team leaders reporting to deputy superintendents. Payzant set aside this model in favor of a plan, put forth by community activists, that elevated family and community engagement to a new level of importance within the district by creating a separate Office of Family and Community Engagement, led by a deputy superintendent who reported directly to him.

In addition, Payzant’s plan called for new family resource centers that would conduct trainings, promote positive practices to involve parents, provide information, and be “one-stop shops” for families. Upon implementation, this plan struggled because student registration continued to take up the majority of family resource center staff time. Recognizing this, in 2005 Payzant again restructured the family resource centers by removing them from the purview of the Office of Family and Community Engagement and instead hiring family outreach specialists and creating a district-wide training center.

Reaching Into Schools and Classrooms
That same year, Boston Public Schools, with input from families and community members, began the Family and Community Outreach Coordinators (FCOC) Pilot Initiative to build consistency in the ways schools partner with families. Before this time, many schools had allocated funds for parent liaisons, but, without clear district expectations and support, varied in how they used these parent liaisons.

The FCOC initiative responded to concerns raised by the task force with its focus on building relationships rather than running programs or mediating school prerogatives. A key component of the FCOC program has been its use of data and evaluation. The FCOCs are assessed on a range of indicators, from cultivating relational trust to helping increase parent involvement in school events and governance.

Although the FCOC program has identified some challenges regarding getting teachers’ buy-in with the program and navigating a complex accountability system with the schools, the program has been largely successful. In part due to ongoing evaluation with positive findings, the FCOC program has expanded each year, more than doubling the number of participating schools since it began with 17 in 2005.

Lessons Learned
Many school districts can learn from Boston’s experience of implementing a system to support family and community engagement. First, school districts must listen to the diverse voices of parents and community members and coconstruct a family and community engagement strategy with them. Much of the story of BPS’s progress can be traced to the outside forces that exerted pressure on the district and to the district’s willingness to listen to and negotiate with them. Other school districts can benefit from engaging in an inclusive process that reaches into the community, as did Boston’s task force, and from identifying local grassroots organizing groups that can foster community dialogue among parents.

Second, school districts should consider making evaluation and accountability a key component of their family and community engagement efforts. BPS took important first steps in committing to evaluation when it engaged the task force to conduct a needs assessment of what was and was not working in the district. Like Boston, other districts also evaluate the impact of specific family and community engagement programs.

The next step is expanding programmatic evaluations to include a deep and critical look at progress towards system-wide change. In order to demonstrate a commitment to family and community engagement, districts can also set goals, benchmarks of success, and an assessment timeline for their overall family and community engagement strategy. Also critical for districts is establishing accountability mechanisms. Clear accountability at the district, school, and classroom levels ensures a district’s family and community engagement strategy is being implemented faithfully and also gives legitimacy to this work.

1 This article is adapted from Weiss, A. R., & Westmoreland, H. (2006). Family and community engagement in Boston Public Schools: 1995–2006. In S. P. Reville & C. Coggins (Eds.), A decade of urban school reform: Persistence and progress in the Boston Public Schools (pp. 219–242). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Helen Westmoreland, Research Analyst, HFRP

Abby R. Weiss
Executive Director
Full-Service Schools Roundtable
443 Warren Street, Dorchester, MA 02121
Tel: 617-635-6537

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