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Schools, Families, and Community Partnerships

When Professor Karen Mapp speaks to educators around the country about the importance of parent and community involvement in schools, she often gets asked, "Where's the beef?" In other words, where's the evidence that these investments actually work.

On October 28, Mapp, along with Lesley University Professor Anne Larkin, Cambridge Family & Children's Services Executive Director Maria Mossaides, and HGSE doctoral candidate Keith Catone, Ed.M.'06, discussed the ins and outs of schools, families, and community partnerships as part of a panel sponsored by Phi Delta Kappa.

"A lot of practitioners want to know if we really spend money on cultivating community partnerships then why we should do it," Mapp said. "When we looked at the evidence, we saw there were positive and convincing relationships between family involvement and students, including improved academic achievement."

Studies show that school and community relationships have positive results on students stretched across all racial, socioeconomic, and education backgrounds. While educators often inquire what type of partnerships are successful, Mapp noted that many educators are still surprised to learn that family engagement in the home is vital and can even transform school districts. "When we change from a school sense to a more parent sense type of engagement strategy, it means really thinking about how to support families in what they are already doing at home. When family engagement and community involvement is linked to learning, we see improvement," Mapp said, emphasizing the importance of trust in building and sustaining these relationships. "It's all about the relationship."

Larkin's success through the Say Yes to Education program further demonstrates the importance of family and community relationships in school and children's outcomes, especially relationship building. The partnership, which began in 1991 with founder George Weiss, Cambridge Public Schools Superintendent Mary Lou McGrath, and Lesley University President Margaret McKenna, followed 69 third grade students through college. Along the way, the program established various partnerships in the community, the school, and with parents, as well as interventions like afterschool programs and tutors, to help the students.

Having concluded this June, 88 percent of the Say Yes Program students had earned high school diplomas - compared to 51 percent nationally - and 57 percent had completed post-secondary education. Larkin stressed that these results demonstrate that partnerships, when given a full commitment by a community, can work and have enormous impact on students' lives. She also stressed that parental involvement was the crucial underlying piece to making the partnership work, despite the interventions. "The partnerships were critical for the parents...we worked with them to have the dream of a college education for their children," Larkin said.

Although no one argued against the need for parental involvement in community partnerships and education, part of the challenge is figuring out how to initiate and build the relationships. Catone challenged some of the traditional reasons that parents become involved in a child's education, such as a parent's own need to be involved and a sense of efficacy. "The idea is that all of these things function together, and right in the middle you have a high level of partnership and it will work out really well," he said. However, Catone continued, that theoretical approach changes based on individual experiences and thoughts. "If we all believe it's appropriate for parents to be engaged in their children's schooling, we might have very different ideas about the forms in which that engagement should occur, which would then lead to a differing role construction, a different set of skills parents would need to feel efficacious and to fulfill this role that we have," he said.

An audience member inquired how communities can start to get parents involved. Mapp responded that she thinks it needs to happen from the educators, who invite the families. "Once it happens, that's when you start to see efficacy increase and get the ball rolling," Mapp said, noting that the government can help by providing resources.

Yet Mapp warned that it wasn't as easy as it sounds. "There is disconnect between families and schools," she cautioned. "Schools need to reach in and do reflection before they reach out."


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