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FINE Newsletter, Volume III, Issue 4
Issue Topic: Expanded Learning and Family Engagement

Voices from the Field

Nita Rudy is a Program Director for the Mississippi Schoolhouse to Statehouse program developed by Parents for Public Schools (PPS), a national organization supporting community-based groups that work with parents to improve public schools. Prior to joining PPS, Nita worked for seven years with the Center for Parent Leadership based in Lexington, Kentucky, where she assisted community-based education groups developing and running parent leadership programs in eleven states.

In my work at the Mississippi Schoolhouse to Statehouse program, I have found that using data can be a powerful way to engage families around school improvement.

Capacity Building: The Parent Leadership Institute

Training parents on data use is a significant part of our Parent Leadership Institute. It has been our experience that if we take the time to walk parents through the process of accessing and interpreting the data, they pick it up quickly. At the Institute, we start by introducing families to a curriculum framework, so that once they look at the data, they understand what exactly the data are measuring. Once they take a look at the framework, we ask parents what surprises them about their children's curriculum. Typical responses—about vocabulary requirements, for example—have included, “Wow, I didn’t know they had to learn this many words,” or, “Oh, so this is what vocab is about.”

For the trainings, we put together a packet that includes only data that are publically available on the State of Mississippi’s website. It is important for us to present the data in graphs (see example below) and other visual formats so that families can easily grasp what the data mean. We provide the data packet at the trainings, and we illustrate how and where families can access the data in the future. We hope that in future years, these parents will look at their school’s performance via school report cards and measures of growth on No Child Left Behind assessments, and more. We also teach parents how to prepare similar data graphs on their own, so that once they are back at their schools they can effectively share new data with other parents on an ongoing basis.

We have found that it is important to look at disaggregated data with our families. Some districts that are thought of as “great” districts appear to be doing well until you break down the numbers. In one specific “great” district, a group of parents realized that only 17% of African American boys were reading at grade level in third grade (a key milestone for students). The parents were shocked to see these data, and decided to focus on addressing this problem at the school level. 

We also like to show parent participants data on a high-achieving school with similar demographics before sharing their own school’s data. Many of these parents have not had great school experiences themselves, but when we can illustrate the possibilities by showing them data on high-poverty schools that are having successes, it is very powerful. The training becomes a light bulb, and parents leave ready to take action at their own school.

Parents Using Data for School Improvement

Parents who attend our training make a commitment to go back to their school and engage other parents in a school improvement effort. Parents select a focus area, and we help them design something like a school improvement plan. We have coaches who provide ongoing technical assistance to the parents, including data support. Many of our schools have computer rooms that are kept open for parents in the evenings so that parents can, among other things, easily access data after the Institute training is over. In areas where we have public libraries, we encourage families to sign up for library cards and access public computers.

Our parents have used data to hold their schools accountable and to help brainstorm innovations to improve their schools’ performance. For example, a group of parents at one school was alarmed by data indicating that very few of their school’s students were passing the high-stakes subject area test for Algebra 1. As a result, the parents helped to create a Saturday school program taught by a retired teacher from another district, and they launched a public relations campaign to ensure that other families were aware that students had to pass the exam to graduate. In another instance, parents were concerned about low scores on the science subject-area test and discovered that one of the problems was that students were not getting any hands-on science experience. In response, they helped create a rolling science lab to provide students with a valuable opportunity to gain more action-oriented science instruction.

At a different school, parents from our Institute were concerned about their school’s high dropout rate. They began to examine longitudinal data, tracking students back to sixth grade and looking at feeder patterns. They began to realize that the dropout problem could be traced to students starting to disengage from school in the middle school years. Parents then worked with principals and teachers and created a mentoring program that brings current high school students into the middle school to build relationships with and provide academic support for the younger students.

Preparing for Inevitable Challenges

Our parents’ successes have garnered support from many school administrators throughout the state; however, one persistent challenge is the high level of principal and superintendent turnover in our districts. When a new principal is placed in a school, it requires substantial effort to redevelop a relationship. When a district has a new leader, our coaches help pull our parents together to host a welcome event so that the new superintendent is aware that this group of parents exists, creating a level of understanding that makes true partnership possible.

We also work to create cadres of informed parents so that our local parent groups are sustainable. When parents leave the training and develop their own project concept, we encourage them to assemble a planning team of at least ten parents. These other parents can later attend the Parent Leadership Institute, building additional parent capacity over time. We find that parent teams create a sense of accountability among members and support the work in ways that are not possible when individual parents are acting on their own.

Finally, we know that systemic change cannot happen unless we have school board members who understand our work, so we encourage board members to attend our trainings. We also encourage our parents to run for the school board. We are actively preparing them to take a much deeper role in education, and the parents who do get involved at this level do not always have the typical school board profile. Parent board members may be more likely to continually ask, “What is in the best interest of the students?” Data can often help them more effectively address this question.


FIGURE 1: Example of disaggregated data visuals used in Parent Leadership Institute

Percent of Students Scoring Proficient and Above

Questions for Parents:

  1. Why is there no data reflected for some subgroups?
  2. In how many categories could one student’s results be reflected?
  3. Do you see an achievement difference between subject areas?  What questions do you have about that difference? 
  4. Identify an achievement gap between different performance groups at this school (for example, are the boys scoring higher than the girls?). What questions would you have about that gap?

Source: Parents for Public Schools


This resource is part of the December 2011 FINE Newsletter. The FINE Newsletter shares the newest and best family involvement research and resources from Harvard Family Research Project and other field leaders. To access the FINE Newsletter Archive, visit

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Published by Harvard Family Research Project