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Engaging Families Through Community Organizing: Lessons for School Leaders

The Parents United: How Community Organizing Can Improve Our Schools

It's a constant refrain: "Families in low-income communities never respond, never come to school events-they just don't care about their children's education." But is it true?

I hear this kind of comment from school leaders who work in low-income communities across the country-in urban districts, in suburbs where poverty is growing, in new immigrant destinations, and in rural areas as well. Yet my research on community organizing shows that the situation is quite the opposite. Families care deeply about their children's education, but often they just don't know how to get involved in their children's schools. They lack the knowledge and skills to participate in a meaningful way. Many parents feel isolated and alone, making them hesitant to participate.

Recently community groups across the country have been working to change that, by organizing parents to get involved with-and improve-their local schools. Such campaigns connect parents to each other and to schools, giving parents the tools to develop themselves as participants, and even leaders, in their school community.

Many people associate community organizing with protest, conjuring scenes of school district officials and parents in shouting matches. Research I've undertaken with Karen Mapp and my colleagues at the Harvard Graduate School of Education has found this stereotype to be untrue. Community groups express their views passionately, but they also work hard to find ways to bring parents, community residents, and educators together to create a different kind of power-a shared, reciprocal power. Finding common ground is hard work, but it results in sustainable outcomes because everyone contributes to them and everyone owns them.

We saw this pattern again and again-in New York, Chicago, Denver, the Mississippi Delta, San Jose, and Los Angeles.

For example, in Los Angeles, during a "listening campaign" with parents of students at the Fernangeles Elementary School in Sun Valley, community organizers from the group OneLA heard a parent describe a child waking up with blood on his pillow from a bloody nose. It turned out that six of ten parents had children with asthma; the principal had a whole medicine cabinet in her office with asthma medicine.

Sun Valley, a low-income Latino neighborhood, was home to 34 landfills; one of the biggest, just two blocks from the school building, received 10,000 tons of garbage a day. OneLA organizers brought parish priests, staff of community-based organizations, school leaders, and teachers together and organized parents and residents over three years to stop the expansion of the dump. They researched the issue, held rallies, lobbied the mayor, and eventually they won. Through the process, OneLA built the community's capacity to think and act differently-the campaign connected institutions (parishes and schools), built relationships between parents and teachers, and developed leadership.

OneLA went on to hold academies for parents to build their capacity to support their children's education and to better engage with efforts to improve the school. Parents now regularly work with teachers to do both. Meanwhile, Fernangeles School's Academic Performance Index-California's key measure of school performance-has gone up nearly 70 points in the past year, and the Los Angeles Times', in its system-wide value-added rankings, has designated Fernangeles as a "most effective" school.

In Chicago, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA) started education organizing after a rapid influx of Latino migrants to the neighborhood. At the time, much of the faculty at local schools were non-Latino teachers who lived outside the neighborhood. Many thought the new Latino parents didn't care about the education of their children. When LSNA organizers began talking with Latina mothers, however, they found that many of them wanted to become more involved, but didn't know how. Many did not have much schooling themselves, and they lacked knowledge about the local educational system.

In partnership with local school principals, LSNA brought Latina mothers together through a "parent mentor" program, where they could learn how to become involved in schools, and build their knowledge and confidence in a supportive environment. Participants were placed in classrooms for two hours a day. They helped teachers by preparing materials, giving students individual attention, and organizing classroom activities.

As they developed relationships with each other and with teachers, these parents became leaders in the school community. Over the past 15 years, parent mentors have spearheaded efforts to open community learning centers and lending libraries, and launched a tutoring project and a home visitation program, among other initiatives. As a result of LSNA's efforts, more than 1,400 parents have been trained as parent mentors and the schools are supported by a strong community of active parents.

Lessons for School Leaders

Our research spells out four important lessons for school leaders:

  1. Shift your mind-set. Educators need to change the way they think about parents-from being part of the problem to being an essential part of the solution. When organizing groups approach parents as assets, listen closely to them, provide opportunities for them to build knowledge and skills, and help them work together, it's the schools that benefit.

  2. Build relationships and trust. Sometimes school leaders can't escape from the realm of programs and projects. Parents attend school events because someone they know and trust has asked them to come, not because they've received a generic flyer. Building this kind of social capital takes time and attention, but it provides the foundation for people to embrace change and contribute to it. Too often, teachers and parents become cynical about the new "reform du jour" announced from above; if they have an authentic voice in creating solutions, they'll be motivated to do the hard work to make them succeed.

  3. Work together. Schools cannot do this work alone-and they don't have to. School leaders can reach out to community-based organizations that have ties to families and know how to bring people together. Working with school leaders, organizers can foster the knowledge and skills community members need to participate in school and neighborhood life.

  4. Share power. School leaders who succeed at building inclusiveness and collaboration know that they can't call all the shots. They don't just talk at parents; they are willing to genuinely listen, to hear their concerns, and also their hopes and dreams for the children. As parents get more involved, schools benefit from an expanding group of capable leaders.

Building collaboration is not easy, but it has succeeded all across the country-when community organizers and school leaders commit themselves to doing the hard work. There's no quick fix to transforming public education. It will take long-term, sustained effort. Community organizing builds the capacity of families to have a meaningful say in school reform. And with families and educators working together, school communities gain the capacity to create deep and meaningful change for the benefit of the children who need it most.

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