• by Rosana G. Rodríguez, Ph.D., and Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • November – December 2002 • Dr. Abelardo VillarrealRosana Rodriguez

As the discussion on educational accountability and achievement escalates, the question of impact becomes key in measuring student success. There are many points to consider when discussing student impact, such as ways educational systems can have greater positive impact on learners and ways educators at all levels can engage with parents and communities to create support systems that have positive impact on access and success for all students throughout the educational pipeline.

Much of the work currently underway focuses on these points from the perspective of educators, faculty and administrators. Less is written about how to assess impact from the perspective of parents and communities.

This article provides information about resources and poses key questions that can be used by parents and communities to assess the degree of accessibility and readiness for parent and community engagement on the part of educational systems. These questions are indicators of pathways that exist or need to be created in order to begin a dialogue toward shared accountability and greater impact for student success.

Families in Schools

The importance of family in the educational process is a strongly-held belief in many circles. Parent involvement predicts children’s academic achievement even more than family characteristics, such as education, family size, marital status, socio-economic level and student grade level.
Therefore, a strong parent component can strengthen the impact of any educational program. A clear understanding of educational goals and how to achieve them leads to honest relations with parents and consistent instruction and a curriculum that is coherent.

When trying to foster greater involvement of parents, schools need to recognize that learning begins at home. Teachers who recognize and value the informal learning that takes place in the home are more likely to listen to parents and to be listened to by parents. In this way, faculty and parents can create avenues of engagement and more positive learning environments that will result in greater impact.

In programs for second language learners, there are specific ways the school and the family are each uniquely qualified to contribute to creating positive impacts in learning, and their work should complement each other (Brisk, 2000). Good school-parent-community interaction contributes to the formation of bicultural individuals who can flourish in the new culture as well as in their own ethnic community (Kleinfeld, 1979).
Inviting parents to teach a class or participate actively in learning with their children can stimulate the learning environment for all children. Tapping into the assets parents and communities have to share can increase parent involvement and create positive impact in educational programs. For example, one innovative approach, the Funds of Knowledge Project, surveyed the community for the knowledge evident in their lives, incorporated it in the curriculum, and asked community members to participate in teaching (Moll, et. al., 1992).

Community organizations can also provide key support to schools when access to families is difficult or when there are language or cultural barriers. One bilingual educational project describes an English-speaking teacher who engaged community workers who spoke Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese to explain to parents how they might contribute to activities taking place at the school (Faltis, 1993). Community workers can also encourage schools and parents in forming networks to support each other in creating and strengthening the learning community for youth.
Positive impact through engagement stems from partnerships between schools, parents and communities that are based on mutual benefit, respect and accountability. Engagement for impact goes beyond temporary or limited outreach on the part of educational institutions.

To foster lasting and meaningful educational impact, mechanisms for engagement with parents and families need to be firmly embedded in the mission, vision and central activities of educational institutions from pre-school through higher education. While the process is challenging, an approach that embraces engagement can yield significant results in learning for all spheres.

Families that work with the school in creating an environment conducive to higher student achievement can function as full-fledged partners. These families can have an impact on the school’s ability to deliver quality services to children by asking the right questions and involving themselves in the solutions of the schools.

The next section of this article provides information for schools to use in creating involvement strategies that are meaningful to families. It provides characteristics of a plan to increase impact through the involvement of community and a series of questions that parents can use to assess the degree of accessibility, readiness and effectiveness of the school in creating a partnership that leads to higher student achievement.

Designing and Implementing Meaningful Family Involvement Strategies

Schools that are committed to engagement and are genuinely using the partnership approach do three things before embarking into the process of developing a plan. First, schools assess their approach to identify the degree to which barriers to family involvement will impact the creation of the partnership. The box on Page 11 contains a list of barriers identified in the literature and some suggestions for counteracting the impact of these barriers in creating a partnership (Colten, 2002).

A way of identifying the degree to which these barriers are present in the community is to monitor interactions with parents and conduct focus groups with parent and family representatives. Below is a series of sample questions that could be asked in a focus group.

  • What is the commitment of the school to engage with parents in meaningful ways to enhance learning?
  • How does the school demonstrate this commitment?
  • How pro-active are teachers and administrators in creating effective pathways to communication between schools and families?
  • What are the important resources that families can offer to the learning process?
  • Are mechanisms in place to facilitate shared decision-making and communication between school and home?
  • What strategies are working to effectively engage parents?
  • What needs to be improved?
  • What action can be taken and by whom?

Once this information is collected and analyzed, the next step is to outline the guiding principles that will be used in selecting family involvement strategies. Those guiding principles are based on the elements of a successful partnership. The following are a set of guiding principles that have emerged from the literature.

  • Learning is enhanced through mutual trust and respect.
  • Effective partnerships in learning are built upon a no-fault/no-deficit model.
  • Parents and teachers each have unique contributions to enhance the learning process.
  • Accommodations for different needs and expertise strengthen the context for learning to take place.
  • Children’s learning and development are enhanced by parent involvement.
  • Communication is facilitated when it is two-way, ongoing, clear of jargon and reflective of the native language of the family.
  • Information and mutual respect help break down cultural barriers.
  • Transportation and childcare facilitate interaction with families.
  • Learning strategies that are fun, inexpensive, and feasible encourage parental interaction.
  • Parents are valuable resources who can assume important leadership roles in education.
  • Strong home-school partnerships and effective collaboration draw and build upon the strengths of parents.
  • Responsive schools are flexible in order to accommodate a variety of parent and caregiver schedules.

Third, schools must integrate into their school improvement plans the role that community and family involvement will play complementing the schools’ efforts to improve student achievement. Mechanisms for engagement need to be firmly embedded in the mission, vision and central activities of educational institutions. This is true for public schools, community colleges and universities. In this way, schools and universities can make an important investment in the future of young people and have lasting positive impact upon their communities.

Characteristics of an effective plan to partner with community and families, at a minimum, include the following:

  • See their present and future well-being as inextricably linked;
  • Collaboratively plan and design mutually beneficial programs and outcomes;
  • Engage in reciprocal learning;
  • Respect the history, culture, knowledge and wisdom of the other;
  • Create structures that promote open communication and equity with one another;
  • Have high expectations for their performance and involvement with each other;
  • Value and promote diversity; and
  • Regularly conduct a joint assessment of the partnership and report results (W.K. Kellogg Foundation, 2002).

Families can have an important, positive impact on the school’s ability to deliver quality education when they are valued, their contributions are sought and integrated into the school decision making, and they collaboratively plan and deliver services aimed at higher student achievement. Families represent a valuable resource that should be factored into the educational equation. A dialogue between families and educators should be established to arrive at a shared accountability approach with a focus on academic achievement of children. The Intercultural Development Research Association has developed two guides to help families and school personnel to review and plan improvements to the school’s community engagement (for details call 210-444-1710 or e-mail feedback@idra.org).

Research has found correlations between family education, size, marital status, and socio-economic levels and student achievement. Recent research is suggesting that meaningful parent involvement in education is a great predictor of high student academic achievement. A challenge for the school is to design family involvement that fosters a partnership with one central goal in mind – that of high academic achievement. Students should be able to graduate and be prepared to exercise their options of a college education or the workplace.

Supporting Family Involvement in Schools

School-Perceived Barriers Some Ideas for Addressing Barriers
Problems with logistics such as transportation, childcare, or scheduling Schedule school programs for parents during non-work hours and at multiple times to accommodate a variety of work schedules. Provide childcare and transportation for families to attend school functions. Engage other parents to help with scheduling and transportation.
Teachers’ lack of expertise on working with families
Provide mandatory professional development and training for teachers in how to work effectively with families. Engage professionals to work with educators throughout the year in developing skills of interaction and outreach. Create linkages with universities, local community-based organizations and other parents to identify resources for this purpose. Positively reinforce and reward teachers who have mastered this skill and enlist their help in mentoring other teachers.
Confusion over the roles of school personnel and families Stress the importance of partnerships in learning at all levels. Reinforce the unique roles, skills and expertise that each member of the partnership brings to the table in planning successful educational outcomes for all youth. Clarify the roles of each partner through focus groups and discussions involving parents, teachers, counselors, administrators and other personnel.
School educators may not wish to have parents “complicating” their schedules As part of a year-long strategic plan, create a schedule for outreach, visitation, parent-led activities and school programs. Make the schedule available early in the year with multiple contacts each month. Strive for ongoing, consistent and regularly scheduled times for parents, making sure these times allow for testing, curriculum assessment and other mandated school time lines.
Changes in family commitments and lack of time for reaching older, upper grade students in non-threatening and productive ways For each child, create a plan for support that includes a variety of strategies for success. Recognize that family work schedules and circumstances are subject to frequent change. Help parents feel welcome to discuss these changes with teachers so that continued support can be provided. Arrange for short-term interventions from the home as well as longer-term meetings or committees in order to allow flexibility for parents to participate as their schedules allow. For upper grade students, be specific about how parents can help with planning for graduation and higher education.
Parents’ feelings of inadequacy, failure and poor self-worth Value the contributions parents make to the informal learning process. Reinforce parents as partners with meaningful decision-making roles. Provide parents opportunities to be leaders within the school.
Parents’ own negative attitudes of bad experiences with school Pro-actively engage parents with outreach and positive reinforcement. Make home visits to invite parent participation. Provide childcare for special meetings with flexible time lines to accommodate work schedules. Invite parents to serve on committees or in focus groups.
Parents’ suspicions or anger that schools are not treating some families equally Plan family days that recognize and celebrate the diversity reflected in the language, culture and history of all students. Reinforce the importance of this diversity to the democratic process throughout the year in the classroom. Provide useful information in clear, jargon-free messages to the home in several languages. Engage outreach workers for home visits or telephone outreach.
Cultural and language differences Stress the importance of multiple languages for economic, social and educational advantages. Provide information in the home language. Invite parents to visit the classroom, incorporating their languages and culture as part of the curriculum.
Source: Colton, A.B. Helping Parents Help Children Learn: Involving Caregivers in a Child’s Education (Grand Haven, Mich.: Council of Michigan Foundations, 2002).


Colton, A.B. Helping Parents Help Children Learn: Involving Caregivers in a Child’s Education (Grand Haven, Mich.: Council of Michigan Foundations, 2002).

Becher, R.M. Parent Involvement: A Review of Research and Principles of Successful Practice (Urbana, Ill: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education, 1984).

Brisk, M.E. “Good Schools for Bilingual Students: Essential Conditions,” Lifting Every Voice: Pedagogy and Politics of Bilingualism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Education Publishing Group, 2000).

Brofenbrenner, U. “Is Early Intervention Effective?” Teachers College Record (New York, N.Y.: Teachers College, Columbia University, 1972).

Dauber, S.L. and Epstein, J.L. “Parents’ Attitudes and Practices of Involvement in Inner-city Elementary and Middle Schools,” Families and Schools in a Pluralistic Society (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1993).

Faltis, C.J. Joinfostering: Adapting Teaching Strategies for the Multilingual Classroom (New York, N.Y.: Merrill/Macmillan, 1993).

Henderson, A.T. and Berla, N. A New Generation of Evidence: The Family is Critical to Student Achievement (Washington, D.C.: National Committee for Citizens in Education, 1994).

Henderson, A.T. and Berla, N. The Evidence Continues to Grow: Parent Involvement Improves Student Achievement: An Annotated Bibliography (Columbia, Md.: National Committee for Citizens in Education, 1987).

Kleinfeld, J.S. Eskimo School on the Andreafsky: A Study of Effective Bicultural Education (New York, N.Y.: Praeger, 1979).

Moll, L.C., Amantin, C., Neff, D., and González, N. “Funds of Knowledge for Teaching: Using a Qualitative Approach to Connect Homes and Classrooms,” Theory Into Practice (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University, 1992).

Sanders, James R., et.al. A Model for School Evaluation (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Center for Research on Educational Accountability and Teacher Evaluation-CREATE of Western Michigan University, 1995).

W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Engagement in Youth and Education Programming ( Battle Creek, Mich.: W.K. Kellogg Foundation, 2002).

Rosana G. Rodríguez, Ph.D., is director of the IDRA Division of Community and Public Engagement. Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D., is the director of the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to them via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2002, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the November – December 2002 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]