Most schools and districts have every intention of encouraging more parental involvement in students’ education, but those good intentions rarely get past organizing a few rounds of parent-teacher conference meetings. Unfortunately, the parents teachers most need to talk to are often the ones who do not attend these conferences.
Lately, some schools and districts have developed parent liaison programs to make greater efforts to reach out to parents of at-risk students. In a recent article in The Journal of Educational Research, a Johns Hopkins University researcher describes an award-winning parent liaison program at a diverse urban district.
Liaisons can play a role in helping schools to learn more about families’ circumstances and challenge assumptions about race and class that negatively affect home-school relations, writes researcher Mavis Sanders.
The district in this study provided professional development for the liaisons, who had degrees in education and social work, and required that they keep data on student achievement, families and their outreach activities.
Based on focus groups, interviews, observations and reviews of documents, the researcher says the 10 part-time liaisons in this district played four roles. They provided:
- support for teacher outreach;
- support for school-based partnership teams;
- data for partnership program improve ment and
- direct services to families at risk
Each of the liaisons worked with approximately 122 focus families in the district’s lowest performing schools. Focus families were selected primarily on the basis of the academic performance of children and perceived need. Preference was given to low-income families with children who were performing below grade level in reading and mathematics.
Other criteria included:
- Child had absentee rate of 20% or more;
- child had inconsistent rates of homework completion and
- family appeared to be disenfranchised or alienated from school.
The district serves 248,000 residents, 14% of whom are African American, 8% Asian and 3% Hispanic. Some 93% graduated from high school, 53% had bachelor’s or higher degree. Some 14% spoke English as a second language. Median family income was $74,000, and 4% lived below the poverty level.
1) Support for teacher outreach
Previous research has documented that high school teachers often blame students’ parents and homes for students’ low academic performance, the author says. Few teachers have the skills or knowledge to partner effectively with culturally diverse parents. One of the major goals of a liaison is to support the teacher in effectively working with the parents, she writes.
Educators, said one liaison in the study, are often focused on their message and not on the receivers of the message–the families. “They need support in hearing the message so that we can both support the student.”
Liaisons provided assistance by acting as cultural interpreters and by modeling outreach strategies for teachers. When a teacher asked one liaison to make a call to a parent, the liaison demurred and encouraged the teacher to make the phone call instead. “And I let teachers know that by reaching out and making phone calls themselves, it gives them an opportunity to talk with this parent and build some type of relationship, so that the next time they have to call about something else, the parent will know the teacher is not just calling because the child acted up in class.”
2)Support for school-based teams
Parent liaisons helped to organize schoolwide activities. One school even held a family-reading activity in the meeting room of an apartment building where many students and families resided. Another school decided to organize a well-attended activity specifically for Latino families because their attendance at schoolwide events was historically low.
The partnership team at one school chose one goal to focus on each year in promoting parent-school interactions.
3) Data for program improvement
Each liaison had to complete a weekly activity report that was organized according to six types of parental involvement (see list below). Liaisons were required to collect achievement and attendance data for students in the focus families. Data was compiled and analyzed and then disseminated. In addition to student data, parent liaisons were encouraged to collect data on families and communities so they could provide wraparound services to help those families better support learning.
In one case, the researcher reports, the liaison had learned that the father of a “needy” child was both working full-time and going to school full-time. The child was not completing his homework. The liaison knew that the father’s only day off was Friday so a parent-teacher conference was scheduled for that day. Once both the parent and the teacher were better informed about the child’s situation at school and home, the boy started handing in his homework more consistently and efforts were made to find a Big Brother or mentor for the boy.
Data collection has the further benefit of demonstrating the program’s connection to student achievement and can help ensure funding for the liaison program. This district’s program had been sustained for 10 years.
4) Direct services to families at risk
Liaisons not only help the parents better navigate “the intricacies of the school system”, but can even help families out in emergencies.
Wrote one parent: “My liaison has assisted my family with dealing with our financial and living issues. We are currently homeless and living in a motel. She has assisted with a refrigerator, Crock Pot, and food on a few occasions. For that we are truly grateful.”
Wrote another parent: “She makes sure that all of my children receive the extra education services that they need and resources for homework and any class projects. She also makes house calls to make sure that I remember all events that I need to attend and to remind me of activities that we are supposed to participate in.”
When focus families were surveyed, on a scale of 1-4 , they rated liaisons particularly high on availability to families when needed (3.68), on providing services to meet family needs (3.67) and overall assistance to families (3.79).
Families who completed the survey, said liaisons helped them understand how to support their children’s learning, gave them encouragement and moral support, and provided material help.
The district is part of the National Network of Partnership Schools established by Johns Hopkins University in 1996 with the goal of using research-based approaches to organizing and sustaining family and community involvement to increase student success in school.
A district specialist for family and community involvement worked with schools to help them form partnership teams and write annual partnership plans. The specialist also helped to coordinate and evaluate after-school programs for more than 100 children and families that provided help with homework and enrichment activities. Those activities included: a quarterly newsletter; a multiple intelligence checklist to share information about children’s learning styles; and home-school communication guidelines for teachers.
As a guide, the district used a framework of six types of parent-school involvement developed by J.L. Epstein:
Parenting guidance–helping families understand child and adolescent development and how to support children as students.
- Communicating–building two-way communication about school programs and children’s progress.
- Volunteering–recruiting and organizing volunteers.
- Learning at home–assisting families in helping students at home with homework and decisions about classes and activities.
- Decision-making–including parents in school decisions and developing parent leaders.
- Collaborating with the community–identifying and integrating resources and services from the community to support schools, students and families.
“How Parent Liaisons Can Help Bridge the Home-School Gap,” by Mavis Sanders, The Journal of Educational Research, May/June 2008, Volume 101, Number 5, pp. 287-297.