Want more family involvement in schools? Here’s how

Wanted for the soon-to-start school year – more parent and family involvement, right? That’s been a frequent request. “If we could just get more families involved, students would do better.”

The good news is, according to Johns Hopkins University professor Joyce Epstein, that we know how to produce it.

Epstein was here last week to work with district and charter educators from Brooklyn Park, Richfield, Robbinsdale, Minneapolis and St. Paul, as part of our Center’s efforts.  She’s one of those great professors who conducts research and then travels throughout the world (literally) to share it. For decades she’s helped educators and community members understand how to use research to help youngsters.

She has found that the best predictor of family involvement is what the school does to promote it. It’s a better predictor than the race, income level, educational or marital status of families. “That’s what my research shows, along with what many others have concluded,” she said.

Her research also shows many benefits of family involvement: higher student achievement, better student behavior, more satisfied families, educators and students, to name just a few.

She urges educators to meet with families before the school year starts.

“Make the first contact between home and school a positive one. Celebrate a new year. Celebrate what students accomplished. Make it a fun, positive event,” she said.

Some schools where I’ve worked do this by having individual family student conferences in August. Some schools also served food during conferences and had people available to watch very young children.

These August conferences allow educators, students and families to begin or continue a positive working relationship. Some of these schools also have a list of 50 different ways families can help out the school. I can send that to anyone who’s interested.

Epstein has found that schools with strong family and community partnerships have a working group that includes faculty, families and in secondary schools, students.  That group discusses the six “types” of family involvement that Epstein has identified, and develops priorities for the year.

The six types are parenting, communicating, volunteering, learning at home, decision-making and collaborating with community. Epstein’s research shows that each type of involvement has a different impact on students. For example, having families advocate for the school could help raise community awareness or generate additional resources. But advocacy would not necessarily increase student achievement.

Epstein and her colleagues at Johns Hopkins University have created a National Network of Partnership Schools. They did it “because we want to share the great work that educators and families are doing.” The network has many examples of “what works” in different schools, whether suburban, rural or urban.

Network membership costs $400 the first year, and $200 a year after that. It’s one of the best investments a school can make. More information is available at www.csos.jhu.edu/p2000/index.htm.

Epstein is one of the most gracious, upbeat, positive educators I’ve ever known. Her research and ideas she shares from other educators can make this a better school year for faculty, families and most importantly, students.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change, Macalester College. Reactions are welcome  via  e-mail  at jnathan@macalester.edu.

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