Education Equity

How Can High-Poverty Schools Engage Families and the Community?

High-poverty schools can involve students’ families through home visits and by joining the community’s safety net to provide social and medical services for those in need.

May 18, 2016
© Gabel Denims/500px

Editor's note: This piece was adapted from Turning High-Poverty Schools into High-Performing Schools by William H. Parrett and Kathleen M. Budge.

The story of Luis is a good example of the benefits of engaging parents and families. A simple home visit by the teacher revealed how, previously unbeknownst to the school, a young ESL student was connecting his tutoring and schoolwork with his family. In turn, Luis' family was most appreciative of their son's progress in school and welcomed his newly gained English skills that were helping them learn.

Families living in poverty often work multiple jobs, may have limited English language skills, and in some cases may have had few positive experiences with their children's teachers or schools. These factors frequently work against a school's attempts to form relationships with families living in poverty and authentically engage them in their children's education. Even in high-performing schools, this problem is an ongoing concern. Leaders in high-performing, high-poverty (HP/HP) schools continually look for ways to provide opportunities for involvement and to gain back their trust.

The Critical Importance of Trust

In a recent study of public schools in Chicago, Anthony Bryk, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and his colleagues concluded, "Relationships are the lifeblood of activity in a school community" (Bryk, Bender Sebring, Allensworth, Luppescu, & Easton, 2010, p.137). In one high-poverty elementary school, a teacher remarked, "Without a trusting environment in our classroom and with the families of my kids, it's all uphill. We never make the progress we could. . . we never can 'click.' Trust is what makes it all happen for us." The development of trusting relationships lies at the heart of successfully engaging parents, families, and the community.

Here are seven strategies and practices to build trust between schools, students, and families.

Create Full-Service Schools and Safety Nets

Many HP/HP schools connect vital social and medical services with their students. These full-service schools typically provide services such as social workers, physicians, dentists, vision and hearing specialists, grief counselors, and family counselors on site. Some schools provide a childcare center, a family resource center, or hunger/homelessness support to assist families in meeting their basic needs. Research shows that when a full-service school works well, student achievement increases, attendance rates go up, suspensions drop, and special education placements decrease (Dryfoos, 1994; Dryfoos & Maguire, 2002).

Create Links Between School and Home

Strengthening the family's ability to support their children's academic achievement and other forms of success in school is a priority in HP/HP schools. One school organizes a learning academy on Saturday mornings to assist families of refugee students. Other schools employ school-family liaisons who connect families with schools in a variety of ways. Sadowski (2004) identifies six activities that a school might consider to establish linkages between students' homes and school:

  1. Dual-language classes for students
  2. English as a second language, GED, and parenting classes
  3. Home-school liaisons (with fluency in the home language)
  4. Preschool and early literacy programs
  5. Early assessment
  6. Community and school activities and events

Offer Mentoring to Students

Most educators have long known that a meaningful relationship with an adult is what kids want and need most. Mentors provide such a relationship. The National Dropout Prevention Center identifies mentoring as one of the most effective strategies to keep kids engaged and in school. The Western Regional Center for Drug-Free Schools and Communities identifies five positive outcomes of mentoring programs (Jackson, 2002):

  1. Personalized attention and care
  2. Access to resources
  3. Positive/high expectations for staff and students
  4. Reciprocity and active youth participation
  5. Commitment

Many HP/HP schools operate their own programs with local staff and volunteers; others access the help of Big Brother/Big Sister programs, local YMCA/YWCA services, and a host of other community-affiliated programs that offer adult mentoring.

Provide Opportunity for Community-Based and Service Learning

Noted for connecting academic learning to real-world problems beyond school, community-based learning, particularly service learning, has become common in HP/HP schools. Many benefits accrue from service learning (Billig, 2000a, 2000b):

  • Enhanced academic achievement
  • Increased school attendance
  • Improved student motivation to learn
  • Decreased risky behaviors
  • Increased interpersonal development and student ability to relate to culturally diverse groups
  • Improved school image and public perception

Community-based learning also provides an excellent means to initiate career exploration, internships, shadowing, and jobs.

Conduct Home Visits

Many HP/HP schools encourage and conduct some form of home visits. Fourteen years ago, test scores in the Mason County School District ranked in the lowest quartile of all districts in Kentucky. Inspired by the idea of building closer connections to students' home lives, the district, with a cadre of volunteer teachers, embarked on a goal of visiting every home of the 2,800 kids enrolled. Maintaining this commitment over the years, together with positive administrative and collegial support and the requisite professional development, has resulted in every family receiving at least one home visit annually from their child's teacher. The district has experienced consecutive years of student achievement growth and a 50-percent drop in discipline referrals, as well as reduced achievement gaps and increased attendance.

Ensure Effective Two-Way Communication

We know that a "whatever it takes" attitude prevails in HP/HP schools. This is especially true in their efforts to communicate with the parents and families. Despite often-limited resources, educators in these schools make it a priority to develop authentic connections with students' parents and families. The goal of fostering two-way communication between school and home requires school leaders to be relentless in their insistence that communications be respectful, honest, and timely.

Use the School as a Community Center

Many HP/HP schools engage parents, families, and other community members by opening their doors and expanding their schedules to offer clubs, parent support and education, early childhood activities, GED programs, advisory groups, community education classes, and a host of other events and activities of interest to the community. These HP/HP schools partner with community or city organizations, local foundations, state and municipal agencies, service clubs, universities, and businesses to host these valued endeavors in their buildings, as well as offer services at times that better fit families' work schedules.

The Principal's Role

Principals, working with teacher-leaders and staff leaders from various vantage points within the school, are positioned to address the wide spectrum of environmental needs that confront high-poverty schools. HP/HP school principals can take a variety of actions (PDF) that will surround every student with the positive supports and scaffolds necessary to ensure his or her individual success.

High-performing, high-poverty schools don't go it alone -- and they don't reinvent the wheel. They access support, resources, and guidance whenever and wherever they can to foster a healthy, safe, and supportive learning environment. The resources and organizations listed below can guide a school's efforts to build strong relationships with parents and families:

Action Advice

  • Monitor data to ensure a safe learning environment. Are we making sure that every student is always safe?
  • Build a common understanding of how poverty impacts learning. Do we all understand how living in poverty may negatively influence the ability of our underachieving students to catch up?
  • Plan for mobility. Are we ready for mobile students' arrival -- providing welcome packets, diagnostic testing, and appropriate placements? Do we develop "catch-up" plans if needed? Do we provide built-in opportunities for new friendships with peers? Do we make it a practice to communicate with parents during the first six weeks after enrollment? Do we address transportation issues if a student is mobile within our district?
  • Make sure that all students are connected to a caring adult. Do we know which students come to school without the support of a caring adult?
  • Start student advisories. Is every secondary student connected to an adult at school who regularly monitors his or her progress?
  • Personalize relationships through small learning environments. Is the size of our school presenting problems for some students and preventing us from forming caring relationships?
  • Provide opportunities for all students to participate in extracurricular activities. Do our students have an equitable opportunity to participate?
  • Work to engage every family with school. Do we have a plan in place for guiding our efforts to build trust and connect with our families?
  • Personalize the connection between school and the student's home. Who among our staff visits the homes of our kids?
  • Initiate an effective mentoring program. How are we connecting students with caring adults and positive role models?
  • Offer community-based learning and service-learning opportunities to all students. Are we connecting students with the community? Are we teaching students about the value of giving back? Are we providing opportunities for students to explore career options in the local community?
  • Visit every student's home. Do we have a plan in place to guide us in conducting productive home visits?
  • Ensure two-way communication between homes and school. This includes:
    • Language-appropriate written and verbal contacts
    • Translation assistance when needed
    • Respectful and clear communications
    • Frequent contact through the most effective mode
    • Authentic requests for feedback or response
    • Willingness to help with requests and family needs
    • Personal invitations to participate in school conferences
    • Timely invitations to activities and events
  • Open the school to the community. Have we created a plan to provide welcome and needed services to our community?
  • Join a network to enhance school, family, and community relationships. Can we improve our connections with our families and communities?
  • Notes

    • Billig, S. (2000a). Educator's guide to collecting and using data: Conducting surveys. Denver, CO: RMC Research Corp.
    • Billig, S. (2000b). Profiles of success: Engaging young people's hearts and minds through service-learning. Berkeley, CA: Grantmaker Forum on Community & National Service.
    • Bryk, A.S., Bender Sebring, P., Allensworth, E., Luppescu, S., & Easton, J.Q. (2010). Organizing schools for improvement: Lessons from Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
    • Dryfoos, J.G. (1994). Full-service schools: A revolution in health and social service for children, youth, and families. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
    • Dryfoos, J.G., & Maguire, S. (2002). Inside full-service community schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
    • Jackson, Y. (2002). "Mentoring for delinquent children: An outcome study with young adolescent children." Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 31(2), pp.115-122.
    • Sadowski, M. (Ed.). (2004). Teaching immigrant and second-language students. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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