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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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About Family Involvement Research Digests

Harvard Family Research Project's (HFRP) Family Involvement Research Digests summarize research written and published by non-HFRP authors and/or written by HFRP authors but published by organizations other than HFRP.  To learn more about the research summarized in this digest, please contact the author at the address below. For help citing this article, click here.

Research Background

School–community partnerships have been pursued by a variety of private and public institutions in a multitude of settings and contexts. Educational research that examines the successful and unsuccessful approaches of school– community partnerships is vital to the creation of a distinctive knowledge base of best practices.

This multisite case study examined the relationships and interactions among educators, parents, and a faith-based institution striving to create a viable parental engagement initiative at a public elementary and middle school in the Texas borderlands. In the early 1990s, parents, community members, and educators in a Dallas elementary school came together to form a school-community partnership known as the Texas Alliance School Initiative (TASI). Since this modest inception, TASI has been adopted at over 100 public schools across the state. To facilitate the ongoing work of TASI and to meaningfully connect even more to their constituent communities, the two sample schools in this study collaborated with the El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization (EPISO), a local faith-based institution. 

Research Methods

The two sample schools, Mountain Vista Elementary and Sombra del Norte Middle Schools, have been in partnership with EPISO since the early 1990s. Both schools are located in El Paso County and traditionally have Latino student enrollments that exceed 95% of the student population. The socioeconomic status of the students in both schools mirrors many of the other schools in this county with over 70% of the students considered economically disadvantaged.

Open-ended interviews were conducted with parents, teachers, and administrators who also collaborated with the researcher in the analysis of these interviews. Participant observations of TASI activities both in the school and community took place over the course of this year-long study conducted in 2001.

Research Findings

Results of the study revealed multiple benefits and challenges of implementing this school–community partnership.

First, TASI significantly impacted parental leadership, self-confidence, and advocacy skills. The willingness to engage the entire learning community in the conversations, decisions, and assessment of school practices and reforms is the essence of TASI's vision for public schools. To engage and educate parents, TASI employed a key organizing strategy of establishing parent centers and parent academies. Family education and parent leadership training provided by both schools in this study enabled families and school faculties/staff to implement and sustain TASI strategies.

Parents spoke of parental leadership development at the school site and in the community. Parents also felt empowered in the relationships they established with teachers and other school staff, in contrast to the relationships they experienced in other schools their children attended. Specifically, parents noted that with TASI they were petitioned for their opinion on matters dealing with the school and their concerns about the school's instructional program. Several teachers commented on how parents had become increasingly involved in the classroom, both as volunteers and co-educators. Additionally, parents occupied many of the school and grade-level committees, such as the Campus Educational Improvement Committee, that were charged with decision making regarding curricular programs and other governance activities. Overall, research participants described how TASI transformed the culture and governance dynamics within their schools.

Educators appreciated resources, but questioned new teacher roles. The educators of both schools stipulated that the additional training and resources brought to the schools through TASI served to strengthen their bonds with parents and the community. However, a number of teachers were unclear about their roles and responsibilities as part of TASI at their respective schools. Additionally, some teachers expressed concerns about whether they should be involved in activities external to the classroom, especially those unrelated to academics and, therefore, outside the province of the school.

EPISO was a source of support and tension in the implementation of TASI. EPISO proved invaluable to the goals and successes of TASI by providing parents, teachers, and administrators direct access to local and state legislators, businesses, and higher education institutions. Their untiring efforts to bolster parental engagement with the schools, educate parents and school faculty, and advocate for school reforms or increased school resources were made evident through research observations at the school sites and through participant interviews.

However, several research participants also asserted that EPISO's political agenda, religious affiliation, and aggressive approach created borders between the school and this faith-based institution. First, some participants questioned if the school, as a public institution, should be a location for political activism that is sometimes divisive and partisan. Second, EPISO's religious affiliation, mainly with several Catholic churches in El Paso, was viewed as an encroachment on the legal separation of church and state and on the school's identity as being unaffiliated with any church denomination. And third, some research participants maintained that EPISO's aggressive, uncompromising approach to educational reform and community engagement alienated them from wholeheartedly embracing TASI.

Findings suggest that the interfaces between the public school and a community or faith-based organization can create both bridges and borders to school-community partnerships. The agendas, professional practices, and organizational activities of either the school or the faith-based institution can be at odds and make collaboration, if not controversial, then highly complex. Faith-based institutions such as EPISO agitate for community revitalization and citizen empowerment, a seemingly congruent mission of the public school. However, educators may not either understand or be willing to get involved with the politics necessary to realize these goals.

Implications for Practice

TASI provides a unique glimpse into a school–community partnership with a faith-based institution, and has implications for improving school and community-based practices to engage families in education.

The results of this study clearly indicate the potential for parents to become school leaders who advocate within both the school district and the larger community for school improvements and resources. Knowledge of school bureaucratic functioning must be developed if parents and other family members are to be constructively engaged as school leaders. TASI promoted parent access to this knowledge through parent, family, and community education.

Parental self-efficacy and confidence can also be fostered by directly involving parents as CO-educators in the classroom. Involvement in classroom learning activities such as tutoring, co-teaching, and other forms of classroom support helped TASI parents realize that they no longer were limited to basic volunteer activities often not connected to student learning. Parents were given the skills necessary to assist students with classroom lessons and materials through the family education provided by TASI in the parent academies, which addressed curriculum design, student intellectual development, and student-centered teaching and learning.

Teachers also need to know how parents can constructively support classroom instruction. Teachers in this study were often placed in a difficult position, as professionals in the classroom, when parents were more fully engaged in classroom instruction. Teachers must be assured that parents are there to support them in their quest to raise academic achievement rather than as a challenge to their classroom authority. In large part, this can only be accomplished by including school faculties and staff in the educative process undergone by parents as CO-educators. In this way, parents are seen as an asset, not a threat or burden, to teachers in their everyday pursuit of quality teaching and learning.

In addition, teachers and administrators need education about new leadership roles for parents in the school. With the involvement of EPISO, the faculty of both schools began to realize that not only are parents integral to sustainable academic achievement, but also can be advocates who can enhance public perceptions about the school or act as solicitors for needed school reforms or resources.

Timothy J. Quezada, Ed.D., M.A.
Assistant Professor of Education
Utica College
1600 Burrstone Road
Utica, NY 13502-4892

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