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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.

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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. 

Mavis Sanders from Johns Hopkins University looks at how school districts can promote family–school partnerships by collaborating with community based organizations.

Effective school, family, and community partnership programs largely depend on teachers’ and administrators’ knowledge about such partnerships and their capacity to work collaboratively with adults in students’ families and communities. They also depend on district educational leaders’ capacity to support the efforts of school faculty and staff.1 District leaders who can garner support not just from within the district but also from external sources—such as businesses, foundations, community organizations, and universities—may be the most successful in implementing and scaling up partnerships.2

The importance of such external support is highlighted in a case study of an urban school district in the northeastern United States. In this district, the relationship between district-level leaders responsible for family and community involvement and a community-based organization, the Community Parent Involvement Organization (CPIO), positively influenced the implementation of school, family, and community partnerships.

The study is part of an ongoing longitudinal qualitative study of district leadership for family and community engagement.3 Districts participating in the study are members of the National Network of Partnership Schools (NNPS).4 The study employs a multiple case study design, which includes interviews with district, school, and parent leaders; observations of workshops, meetings, presentations, and other work-related activities of key district-level respondents; document collection and review; and site visits to participating schools within each of the four districts included in the study.

Findings reported in this article are drawn from data gathered in District 3 between 2005 and 2007. District 3 has approximately 60 schools that serve approximately 38,000 students representing a variety of racial and ethnic groups. As a member of NNPS, it has been implementing a comprehensive district-wide partnership program for nearly a decade. Data collected during the study suggest that the collaborative relationship between district leaders for family involvement and the CPIO has supported partnership reform in the following, often overlapping ways:

Continuing Research

The research described in this paper is part of a larger study that focuses on bringing school, family, and community partnerships to scale. Cynthia Coburn offers a conceptualization of scale that has four interrelated dimensions. These are: (a) depth, (b) sustainability, (c) spread, and (d) ownership. Findings related to how successful district leaders for partnerships achieve these dimensions of scale are expected in 2008.

Parent leadership training for school-based partnership teams. District and CPIO leaders (who together attend NNPS annual leadership development conferences) have jointly worked to provide parent leaders with in-depth knowledge of family and community involvement in schools, including the core principles of the NNPS framework: (a) a team approach to partnership program development and design; (b) a broad definition of parent and community involvement based on Epstein’s six types of involvement; and (c) a goal-oriented, research-driven approach to partnerships. CPIO parent leadership activities, such as monthly meetings and parent academies, complement school partnership team trainings provided by the district’s family involvement coordinator(s).

Planning and implementation of district-wide partnership activities. District leaders for family involvement and CPIO members have worked collaboratively to plan and implement several district-wide partnership activities, including a parent involvement conference. They also worked together to develop a “road map” for partnerships requested by the superintendent, which included recommendations for improvements in the district’s current practices.

Advocacy for district partnership personnel and resources. The CPIO has supported partnerships in the case district by acting as an advocate for continued implementation of the NNPS framework. For example, when two of the district’s three coordinators for family involvement retired, the CPIO “harassed” the district to fill these positions, buttressing the requests of the remaining coordinator and her supervisors. Furthermore the CPIO has met monthly with the superintendent to lobby for improvements in the district’s partnership efforts, including holding principals accountable for family and community outreach at their schools.

Findings from this study suggest that district leaders can work with external partners such as the CPIO to keep family and community engagement a central focus in their districts’ improvement efforts. This is especially critical, given recent reductions in staff and resources committed to family involvement in districts throughout the U.S. Moreover, the collaboration between the CPIO and the case district’s office of parent and community involvement has arguably been aided by NNPS, another external partner. NNPS provided a conceptual framework, vocabulary, and core principles around which district and CPIO leaders could agree. This collaborative approach serves as a model for other districts seeking to improve the quality and scale of school, family, and community partnerships.

1 See Epstein, J. L., Galindo, C., Sheldon, S., & Williams, K. (2007). Levels of leadership: Understanding district influence on schools’ programs of family and community involvement. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago, IL; Sanders, M., Epstein, J., & Sheldon, S. (2005). Improving schools’ partnership programs in the National Network of Partnership Schools. Journal of Educational Research and Policy Studies, 5(1): 24–47.

2 Fullan, M., Bertani, A., & Quinn, J. (2004). New lessons for district-wide reform. Educational Leadership, 61, 7: 42–46.

3 This research is supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. The opinions expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the positions or policies of the funding agency. The author would like to sincerely thank participants for their willing cooperation at each stage of the study. Actual names of districts and individuals involved in the study are not used to ensure participant anonymity and confidentiality

4 NNPS was established in 1996 to provide schools, districts, and states with research-based guidelines and tools to develop goal focused programs of school, family, and community partnerships. To read more research related to NNPS, visit and click on Research and Publications.

Mavis G. Sanders, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Education and Research Scientist

Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships
Johns Hopkins University
6740 Alexander Bell Drive, Suite 180
Columbia, MD 21046
Tel: 410-516-9768

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