Improving Collaboration

Decades of research confirms that positive parental involvement is critical for students’ success in school, and federal policy mandates effective programs at all school levels; however, parent involvement often remains on the back burner of school improvement initiatives.

Schools across the United States, particularly at the secondary level, continue to struggle with how to include parents as part of the overall school organization for student success. I offer these “lessons learned” from a study of policy and practice in middle schools. The findings should help other educators in the middle grades improve school, family, and community partnership programs that contribute to student achievement and success in school.

My study collected data in eight middle schools in one Mid-Atlantic school district, referred to here as North Shore School District (NSSD). I selected this district because of its size, diverse student population, and an official parent involvement policy that requires that all schools establish effective practices to engage students’ families. The study asked: How can middle schools cultivate comprehensive and inclusive programs of partnership?

I interviewed 43 district leaders, principals, assistant principals, and parents to better understand how middle schools can develop and sustain district leadership and school-based programs of partnership. In addition, I observed partnership activities and meetings at the schools and reviewed school documents that concerned the plans and activities for family and community engagement.

Although the eight middle schools differed in the success and inclusivity of parent involvement implementation, the study revealed several elements that helped the schools strengthen their programs.

Lessons Learned

North Shore School District had several structures and practices in place to help schools engage families in their children’s education.

1. District Policy and Personnel. In 2008, NSSD drafted a new strategic plan for student success that consisted of five goals—one of which involved parents and the community in students’ education. The policy stated that the district “will create opportunities for parents, community, and business leaders to fulfill their essential role as actively engaged partners in supporting student achievement and outcomes for student success.”

Prior to drafting the policy, the district held town hall meetings. An outside evaluator defined characteristics of “under-served families” to create a document that encouraged schools to involve all parents, not just those who were easy to reach.

The district also joined AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) and the National Network of Partnership Schools (NNPS) at Johns Hopkins University to help the staff and schools implement research-based approaches to motivating students and involving parents.

A thoughtful district policy on partnership program development publicizes the district’s priority and provides a clear expectation that schools will implement the policy. More important, however, is having the infrastructure (e.g., staffing, budget, and other supports) that will support the schools’ efforts to engage all parents.

Research shows that schools are more likely to have higher-quality partnership programs, address more challenges to reach all families, and report greater district support and assistance when they are in districts that support partnership program implementation.

2. Congruence Between District Policy and School Practices. North Shore School District’s parent involvement policy was highly publicized in the middle schools. Principals, assistant principals, and parents who were interviewed defined parent involvement in three ways: supporting students’ academic success, remaining in communication with the school, and volunteering in and for the school.

Supporting Students’ Academic Success. One way parents in the middle schools could support their students’ academics was by checking a Parent Portal to monitor grades and attendance. Principals expected teachers to update the grades on the Parent Portal at least weekly. One parent said of the Parent Portal, “It’s an awesome tool. I was afraid of it at first, but it’s just an awesome tool. The parents love it.”

Many of the middle schools held a Parent Night that included a technology tutorial for families.

Another way that parents supported students’ academics was by getting involved in the homework process. Although many parents struggle with how to help their middle school students with homework, every principal suggested that parents could “help” with homework by engaging in a positive conversation with students about the school day. One principal suggested, “Parents can say, ‘OK, let me see your planner tonight. Have you done your homework?’”

Having simple conversations helps students see that their parents believe that homework is important, but these exchanges do not require parents to know the content or how to “teach” every school subject.

Finally, interviewees suggested that parents could support academics by attending parent meetings and family nights whenever possible. All of the middle schools held parent meetings and family nights. Many of the events were academically focused, such as a family math or family reading night for parents and students to experience activities together that help parents better support academics at home.

Other evening activities focused on improving the school climate, such as a potluck tailgating party, which allowed the parents to connect with the school in an informal setting rather than at a formal parent-teacher conference. One principal held a family night dinner in a low-income apartment complex. The administration cooked dinner for families and hoped that by having an informal dinner where parents and educators met each other, the low-income families would be more likely to attend other events at the school in the future.

Establishing Two-Way Communications. Two-way channels of communication between home and school are essential for strong partnership programs, yet challenging to establish. In this study, interviewees described several ways that NSSD educators communicated with families. These included teachers’ websites, My School Mail, weekly newsletters, e-mail, automated phone calls, and the Parent Portal. As one district leader shared, “In the past, [a parent] had to be an active seeker of information and now, you know, it’s being practically delivered in your ear and I think that helps.”

Many schools promoted personal communications through phone calls and face-to-face meetings. In one school of over 900 students, the principal required that each teacher contact every family of the students on his or her roster within the first two weeks of school. That meant that most families received four or five phone calls from teachers of different subjects at the beginning of the school year.

This was a lofty goal, but the educators believed it was worth it to start the year off in a positive and very communicative way. Each phone call lasted about five minutes and enabled the parent to learn more about the schools’ expectations and enabled the teachers to better know each family.

Volunteering in and for the School. Participants were unanimous in stating that the most active parents were volunteers. The most common form of volunteering was to support students’ cocurricular activities. Parents were more involved at school when their children were actively involved in such things as band, chorus, drama, or sports. Interviewees included parents as audience members, chauffeurs, and booster sponsors in their definitions of actively engaged volunteers.

The middle schools provided many behind-the-scenes volunteer opportunities. Administrators and parents agreed that most adolescents do not want their parents volunteering in their classrooms, but that it was generally OK for parents to volunteer in the library or front office, or sell dance tickets (but, perhaps, not chaperone the dance!). When discussing her own experiences with her children, one district administrator reminisced, “My middle school kids didn’t really want me hanging around reading to
their class. That would be mortifying. However,
they loved when I showed up at their soccer game
or their concert.”

Educators in two of the eight middle schools in the study discussed opportunities for parents to focus on academics by volunteering in the classroom. At one school, parents helped with enrichment classes, teaching art, sewing, and construction/shop. At another school, educators invited parents to volunteer as judges for an annual student essay contest.

Although some middle schools in the study were making progress in designing opportunities for parents to volunteer behind the scenes or from the audience, others still struggled to develop “meaningful” volunteer opportunities.

NSSD’s middle schools conducted many excellent activities, including a Bring Your Parent to School Day. However, despite the diversity of the community, the activities and opportunities for volunteers generally attracted white mothers. This was also the case for parent leaders at the schools, as seven of the eight middle schools had only white women as parent representatives on their School Improvement Teams.

As schools develop their partnership programs, they must have diverse parents in leadership positions representing all major racial and ethnic groups served by the school. They must also design activities that engage mothers, fathers and father figures, grandparents, and other family members in the school’s population.

Many middle schools in NSSD were members of the National Network of Partnership Schools (NNPS) at Johns Hopkins University at the time of this study. Schools in NNPS were guided to plan a comprehensive partnership program using an Action Team for Partnerships (of teachers, parents, principal, and others) and activating the Framework of Six Types of Parent Involvement: parenting, communicating, volunteering, learning at home, decision making, and collaborating with the community (

Although some interviewees used the framework, they most often described examples linked to three of the types of involvement: parents communicating with educators, volunteering to support student activities, and being actively engaged in supporting academics.

3. Strong Principal Leadership. Perhaps the most important finding that emerged from the data in this study was the importance of strong principal leadership for developing high-quality partnership programs. As one district leader described, “Principals and teachers are the nuts and bolts [of effective school-based partnership programs] and the district provides a little grease. We lubricate.”

The district leader for partnerships acknowledged that the district’s support and guidance for schools was important, but it was mainly the principals who led their staffs and their schools to create a positive climate of partnership. Principals set clear expectations with all teachers for school and family collaborations that would improve the school and increase student success.

Many principals reported that they recognized their responsibility to help promote a positive partnership climate. In this study, principals from schools with the strongest partnership programs attended events with teachers and students’ families, including academic workshops, sporting events, and plays. A parent commented that at one evening event, the principal introduced himself and shook hands with every parent. That simple gesture helped parents feel welcome and comfortable. Another principal shared, “I think that my role is more as an ambassador. When I have the audience, whether it be large or small, I certainly take the opportunity to brag about the things that are going on here.”

Besides being a visible presence for parents, principals set clear expectations for faculty and staff to follow. Several principals in the middle schools required teachers and administrators to aim for a 24-hour turnaround in responding to a parent’s e-mail or phone call. Other principals encouraged teachers to collaborate with colleagues in developing activities to involve parents.

4. Multilevel Social Ties. Creating and sustaining positive school and family relationships was an important aspect of strong principal leadership. Principals who had strong networks with parents and with their school-based colleagues reported more and better parental involvement. For example, six principals shared their weekly parent newsletters to get advice on communicating with families. Feedback from their colleagues served as support for their programs.

Regarding collaboration with other middle school administrators, one principal said, “They’re the first people I call. If I say I’m thinking about doing this or that, I call another principal and see if they’ve ever experienced this. They’re a great resource.”

Three principals formed their own Professional Learning Community to discuss challenges and best practices in their school, including those involving partnerships. Principals who collaborated with colleagues and shared leadership with teachers, parent leaders, and their Action Teams for Partnerships reported higher-quality partnership programs and addressed more challenges to have inclusive partnerships, according to Principals Matter: A Guide to School, Family, and Community Partnerships, by M. G. Sanders and S. B. Sheldon (2009).

This support also was true for the school and district relationship. Principals who had positive personal relationships with NSSD’s district leaders for partnership (e.g., were friends, former classmates, or had children the same age) were more likely to receive district support for strengthening their schools’ partnership programs.

In one instance, a middle school principal who attended graduate school with a district administrator received special assistance to secure community partners for a feeder-school transition activity. Though the district administrator said she was happy to help all schools improve parent involvement, principals who already had that relationship were more likely
to ask for assistance.

Partnerships for Success

NSSD middle schools had many components in place for effective programs of school, family, and

community partnerships, but like most middle schools across the United States, NSSD schools struggled to actively involve all parents. The good news is that educator and parent teams from many middle schools are eager to share examples of promising partnership practices to help middle schools improve their partnership programs (Search middle school Success Stories at

  • The findings from this study suggest the following recommendations for strengthening partnership program development in middle schools across the country:
  • Enact a district-level research-based policy that guides all schools—including middle schools—to involve family and community partners in their children’s education.
  • Align school-level partnership activities with the district policy and supports so that parents of students in the middle grades are engaged in age-appropriate and grade-level-appropriate ways.
  • Form a diverse action team for partnerships that plans inclusive parent involvement initiatives and engages all students’ families in activities linked to school improvement goals for student success.
  • Provide time and training for principals to utilize district-level support for their school-based partnership programs, collaborate with colleagues in other schools, and form productive social ties with parents to strengthen the support of school, family, and the community for student learning.

Although it is challenging to establish and sustain productive programs of family and community engagement in the middle school, it is critically important to fulfill these recommendations.

When such programs are in place and when they continually improve, educators and parents will see that their partnerships help more students succeed
in school.

Darcy J. Hutchins is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Social Organization of Schools, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland.

Published in AMLE Magazine, September 2013.