• by Rosana G. Rodríguez, Ph.D.  • IDRA Newsletter • April 2009

Rosana RodriguezPresident Barack Obama has said that the chance to get high quality schooling and a college education must not be a privilege of a limited few, it should be a birthright of every single American. This mantra should be adopted by every school. Parent involvement and community engagement are critical vehicles through which the promise of a quality education will be fulfilled. Our definition of engagement must extend far beyond a narrow catch phrase toward a genuine partnership of parents and teachers working together and making decisions together within the teaching and learning process that will have a lasting impact on the future of students.

Current theories regarding the relationship between community involvement and increased school efficiency and student learning are based on the premise that in traditional society, the community is often the provider of children’s education (Bray, 2000; Williams, 1997) and therefore, the public owns its schools.

When considering public education, the literature on community participation provides many theories of participation that shed light on the relationship between community involvement and increased school efficacy and student success. Some of the models, such as IDRA’s Parent Leadership Model (Montemayor, 2000), offer dimensions around which a community can positively impact its schools: parents as teachers, as resources, as decision makers, and ultimately leaders and trainers of other parents. Within these domains of community participation, the impact of parent involvement can be felt beyond the classroom.

Jennifer Swift-Morgan (2006) suggests that there are at least six domains for community participation in schools: infrastructure and maintenance, management and administration, teacher support and supervision, pedagogy and classroom support, student supervision, and student recruitment. Jimenez (2002) underscores the importance of the community’s role in school administration and management. Muskin (2001) considers the advantages of the community’s role in participation in school curriculum. IDRA’s President, Dr. María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel (2005), presents a Quality Schools Action Framework where parents and communities play “vital roles in every school reform effort – from fighting for fair funding to making sure that students are not ignored or punished because of the language they speak. As partners in education and catalysts for education policy and funding reform, their role can be critical to helping local neighborhood schools turn the tide of student attrition.”

Some theorists develop categories of involvement in education, such as Shaeffer (1994) who offers a ladder of involvement that ranges from the lowest, being the mere use of a service in a school, to the highest, representing true responsibility and power that is described as participation in real decision making at every stage of education. This decision making includes problem identification, feasibility studies, planning, implementation and evaluation. And Williams (1997) makes the important distinction between who in the community is participating: Are only the officials involved or “only the rich with the clout, time and means to participate?”

Swift-Morgan (2006) reminds us that the international community recognizes the importance of community participation as a critical ingredient for educational access and quality. Viewing engagement from an international perspective offers worthwhile insights into the scale of community participation as well as potential domains of engagement where parents and community can have greater impact working with schools to ensure they are responsive to all children. Throughout the world, just as in our nation, under-resourced communities are calling for financial incentives as well as technical assistance to assist in learning how to encourage broader based community participation that can lead to improved high school graduation rates and higher access, persistence and graduation rates in higher education.

The international research done by Swift-Morgan (2006) with rural communities delves further into what constitutes community participation and the impact on schooling. In her extensive focus group discussions, she proposes forms of engagement for the future that include the following, which are certainly relevant within the U.S. context:

  • participation in ongoing dialogues with school staff on issues of enrollment, academic performance and general school improvement;
  • participation in awareness-raising and community participation; and
  • assisting with teaching on topics such as culture and language.

Emerging forms of participation include advocacy work, such as parent leadership training, that seeks to identify key issues that relate to quality schooling and raising awareness for changes in policy and practice at the school or state level.

In its advocacy work over the past 35 years, IDRA’s parent engagement model and parent leadership training makes the case for all parents – particularly those whose voices are most often not heard – to fully participate in the decision making process. This is especially true in the highest form of parent engagement where parents serve as advocates and trainers of other parents. On this level, parents see the importance of their participation not only for their children, but for themselves, their schools and for the entire community.

Throughout her extensive focus groups with multicultural and multilingual communities in southern Ethiopia, the factors cited by Swift-Morgan (2006) that encourage parent and community engagement in school include the following:

  • Encouragement from staff to welcome parent participation;
  • Staff expressing their respect for parents and the valuing of different community contributions;
  • More meetings among school, parents and community;
  • Financial resources allocated to support school expenses and improvement projects; and
  • Technical assistance to help formal and informal parent groups manage schools better and facilitate parent and community involvement.

In Swift-Morgan’s research, throughout all types of communities, parents expressed a desire for “co-ownership” of the school in partnership with school officials and governments. She found universal parent and community member willingness to contribute in-kind with their time, talent or personal knowledge.

Administrator and teacher attitudes are key to establishing a culture of engagement that encourages full participation by all the community members (Rodríguez and Villarreal, 2003a; 2003b). In areas of advocacy and awareness raising, the involvement of parents, communities and teachers working together through dialogue and action planning can positively impact teaching quality, access to resources for all students, governance and policy at the school and district levels.

In order to ensure that community and parent engagement will be embraced for the wealth of knowledge and support it can provide toward improving the teaching and learning process, institutions of higher education and schools of education also need to partner in preparing a new cadre of teachers who are fully committed to emphasizing teacher-parent relationships. Stressing this aspect is important in the preparation and certification of teachers, in training and retraining teachers, through professional development and through additional research and resources.

The great Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset pointed out that every generation “has its own theme, its own preoccupation” (Max-Neef, 1991). One hopes that ours is a relentless quest for quality education for all children through effective community-school partnerships.

The promise of fulfilling every child’s birthright to a quality education will become reality only when we fully embrace a vision of teachers and parents as co-leaders, co-creators of a new reality for schools. True partners learn how to work together as significant change agents to implement a Quality Schools Action Framework, (Robledo Montecel, 2005) and can have positive impact on schooling as well as on the quality of life in the surrounding community they serve for generations to come.


Bray, M. Community Partnerships in Education: Dimensions, Variations and Implications (Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, 2000).

Jiménez, E. “Empowering Communities and Individuals to Improve Education,” paper presented at the World Bank Empowerment Retreat (2002, May).

Max-Neef, M.A. Human Scale Development: Conception, Application and Further Reflections (New York: The Apex Press, Council on International and Public Affairs, 1991) pg. 109.

Montemayor, A.M., and A.A. Romero. “Valued Parent Leadership,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, June-July 2000).

Muskin, J. “Measuring Community Penetration into the School-Based Learning Process,” presented at the annual conference of the Comparative and International Education Society (Washington, D.C.: Comparative and International Education Society, March 2001).

Robledo Montecel, M. “A Quality Schools Action Framework – Framing Systems Change for Student Success,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, November-December 2005).

Rodríguez, R., and A. Villarreal. “Community and Public Engagement in Education – Opportunity and Challenge,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, November-December 2003).

Rodríguez, R., and A. Villarreal. “Community-Based Education Reform – Increasing the Educational Level of Communities as an Integral Part of School Reform,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, June-July 2003).

Schaeffer, S. Participation for Educational Change: A Synthesis of Experience (Paris: UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning, 1994).

Swift-Morgan, J. “What Community Participation in Schooling Means: Insights from Southern Ethiopia,” Harvard Educational Review (Fall 2006) Vol. 76, No. 3, pp. 339-368).

Williams, J. H. “Improving School-Community Relations in the Periphery,” Quality Education For All: Community-Oriented Approaches, H.D. Nielson and W.K. Cummings (Eds.) (New York: Garland Publishing, 1997) pp. 37-78.

Rosana G. Rodríguez, Ph.D., is director of Development. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2009, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 2009 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.]