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The field of family and community connections with schools does not have consistent agreement on what is meant by the terms “connections,” “parent involvement,” and “community involvement.” * There are also many different kinds of activities that fall under the field’s umbrella. In addition, the various stakeholders that are involved in these connections (school, family, and community) may hold conflicting perceptions of their roles and the roles of other stakeholders. The need to clarify these definitions of family and community connections comes not from a call for a universally acceptable, all-encompassing definition of the terms, but from a need to be clear in our language so that researchers and practitioners can more effectively implement and measure the impact of these connections.

This lack of clarity and agreement about what and who is included in the concept of family and community connections with schools creates a challenge for those who seek models that are practicable and yield measurable results. When achieved, however, the rewards will be many, for effective connections can improve student achievement in school, support student success in life, and nurture the development of healthy schools, families, and communities.

Ways Families Connect with Schools

Current research reveals that there are many different activities that connect families and schools. Often these activities are quite different from each other, yet they are lumped together as “parent involvement” or “school-family connections.” Some researchers emphasize activities that take place at the school in their definition of parent involvement, such as parental attendance at school events and participation in parent-teacher organizations (PTOs). Others include activities that take place in the home that support student achievement, such as parental homework help and discussions about school issues between parents and children. Still others include abstract concepts as well as actual involvement behaviors in their definition, such as parent aspirations for a child’s education.

The following are some of the specific types of family connections with schools that were described in the literature reviewed:

  • Homework help, including school-developed homework that encourages parent-child interaction as well as more general strategies that schools and families use to support effective homework. Also included is school-developed training for parents in strategies, tools, and resources to support learning in specific school subjects (Clark, 1993; Cooper, Lindsay, & Nye, 2000; Epstein & VanVoorhis, 2001; Izzo, Weissberg, Kasprow, & Fendrich, 1999).

  • Supportive home environment, including the supervision and structure that parents give children outside of school to support their education, such as limiting television viewing time and providing structured time for homework and learning (Shumow, 2001; Xu, 2001).

  • Home-school communication and interactions, including direct parent-teacher contacts and relationships as well as more general communication between school and home regarding school events and school policies (Chrispeels & Rivero, 2000; Miedel & Reynolds, 1999; Quigley, 2000).
    • Parent participation in activities at school, such as parent-teacher organizations (PTOs), meetings, school advisory or site-based decision-making teams, and volunteering in classrooms or with class activities (Epstein & Dauber, 1995; Izzo et al., 1999; Mapp, 1999).

  • Home practices that support literacy development, such as parents reading with children or providing books and writing materials (Faires, Nichols & Rickelman, 2000; Starkey & Klein, 2000; Melzi, Paratore, & Krol-Sinclair, 2000).

  • Parent tutoring on specific subjects as part of school-sponsored programs (Invernizzi, Rosemary, Richards & Richards, 1997; Powell-Smith, Stoner, Shinn & Good, 2000).

  • Parent support for the child, including emotional and academic support, and the expression of parent aspirations and expectations regarding a child’s current school performance as well as future college or career success (Lopez, 2001; Trusty, 1999; Yonezawa, 2000).

  • Parent-directed activities that connect students to out-of-school opportunities for learning and development, such as museum and library visits, private tutoring, and other enrichment opportunities (Cairney, 2000; Gutman & McLoyd, 2000; Tapia, 2000).

  • Parent-child discussions and interactions about school-related issues and activities, including parental advice and guidance on academic decisions and course placements (Catsambis, 1998; Yonezawa, 2000).

  • Parents serving as role models for why school is important and sharing their own experiences that reinforce the value of education (Sanders, 1998).

  • Parent involvement in school reform efforts, including advocating for change, using standards and test scores as tools for holding schools accountable for student achievement, participating in the development of improvement plans, and taking part in opportunities created by reforms, such as governance councils (Desimone, Finn-Stevenson, & Henrich, 2000; Dodd & Konzal, 1999).

Although all of these activities may fall under the heading of “family involvement,” there is evidence that different types of involvement may have little or no correlation to each other (Keith & Keith, 1993). For example, while a parent may maintain consistent contact with a child’s teacher through telephone calls and written notes, he or she may not participate actively in volunteer activities at the school campus.

Several authors have developed frameworks for understanding the various types and components of parent-school connections (Chrispeels, 1992, 1996, as cited in Chrispeels & Rivero, 2000; Eccles & Harold, 1996; Epstein, 1995; Grolnick & Slowiaczek, 1994, as cited in Kohl, Lengua, & McMahon, 2000; Hoover-Dempsey & Sandler, 1997). Joyce Epstein’s framework of six types of family involvement (1995) is frequently cited in research and has been adopted by many practitioners, most notably the National Parent Teacher Association (National PTA, 1998). Epstein’s framework outlines six dimensions of parent-school partnerships:

Type 1 Parenting – Assisting families with parenting skills and setting home conditions to support children as students, as well as assisting schools to understand families

Type 2 Communicating – Conducting effective communications from school-to-home and from home-to-school about school programs and student progress

Type 3 Volunteering – Organizing volunteers and audiences to support the school and students. Providing volunteer opportunities in various locations and at various times

Type 4 Learning at Home – Involving families with their children on homework and other curriculum-related activities and decisions

Type 5 Decision Making – Including families as participants in school decisions and developing parent leaders and representatives

Type 6 Collaborating with the Community – Coordinating resources and services from the community for families, students, and the school, and providing services to the community

Cataloging these kinds of activities is a useful step, but more work is needed to capture the variety of forms that family-school connections can take and create a common language in the field. The variety of definitions make it difficult to compare studies and models of parent involvement to one another. They also make analysis of the findings of multiple studies a challenge. For practitioners, this lack of clarity may lead to difficulty in making judgments about what kinds of activities to implement, how to implement them, and what results to expect from them.

Ways Communities Connect with Schools

Similarly, many different kinds of activities fall under the heading of “community connections with schools.” One researcher may define a school-community connection as a formal partnership between the school and another local organization. Another may highlight learning opportunities for students that take them out of the classroom and into the community for real-life experiences such as job internships and community research projects. Community connections might involve individual community members as educational partners, as well as community organizations such as businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies. Still other researchers may look at the role of the school in the larger community—as a community center or a community institution that can play a role in community development efforts. There is even variation in the very way the term “community” is defined. Cahill (1996) suggests that community can be defined using geographical, philosophical, political, sociological, or economic terms.

The following are some of the types of community connections with schools that were discussed in the literature reviewed:

  • Connections that integrate or locate health and human services at school sites and use school facilities and resources for the benefit of the entire community. These kinds of connections are generally called “full service” or “community” schools (Abrams & Gibbs, 2000; Dryfoos, 1998a, 1998b, 2000; Lawson, 1999; Shaul, 2000).

  • School-to-work initiatives that link career training and real-life experiences with academic content (Hughes et al., 2001; Reynolds, Walberg & Weissberg, 1999).

  • After-school programs that provide remedial or enrichment learning activities for students while maximizing the use of school resources and fulfilling parents’ need for childcare (Miller, 2001).

  • Community-driven school reform efforts that simultaneously seek to improve local schools, build the social networks that exist in the community, build the capacity of local community members to take action and solve problems at the local level, and create “new standards and expectations for life in the community” (Rockefeller Foundation, 1997, as cited in Jehl, Blank, & McCloud, 2001, p. 4).

  • School-business partnerships in which businesses provide schools with resources, business expertise, and volunteers (Otterbourg, 1998; Sanders, 2000; Shirley, 1997).

  • Connections with community organizations, such as local health and human services providers and community-based youth development organizations, to provide services or enrichment opportunities for students at or near the schools (Center for Mental Health in Schools, 1999b; McMahon, Ward, Pruett, Davidson, & Griffith, 2000).

  • School-university partnerships where universities, usually colleges of education, provide expertise, resources, and professional development to schools while schools participate in research studies or other professional collaboration projects (Restine, 1996; Zetlin & MacLeod, 1995).

  • Direct support from individual community members (church members, neighbors, and other adults) to students, to provide learning opportunities, expectations for educational achievement, and support for overall student well-being (Cordiero & Kolek, 1996; Honig, Kahne, & McLaughlin, 2001; Yancey & Saporito, 1997).

  • Connections with educational organizations, such as museums, libraries, and cultural groups, to provide out-of-school opportunities for informal teaching and learning (Faucette, 2000).

  • Community service or service learning programs that link academic content with activities that allow students to contribute to the well-being of the community (Schine, 1996; Wang, Oates, & Weishew, 1995).

  • Tutoring and academic support in specific school subjects by community-based volunteers (Invernizzi et al., 1997).

  • Deliberative dialogue programs that bring together community members to explore issues affecting schools. These dialogue sessions provide a mechanism for two-way information sharing between the school and community (McDonnell & Weatherford, 2000).

  • Community participation in school decision-making through formal mechanisms such as school governance councils (Lewis & Henderson, 1997; Mapp, 1999; Sarason & Lorentz, 1998).

Several authors have recently attempted to categorize the different kinds of school and community connections. In one article, Cahill (1996) categorized the different types of connections by their primary purpose: a) service provision to meet youth needs, b) school-community educational partnerships, c) school-community partnerships in youth development, d) school-community economic development collaborations, and e) community redefined schools.**

A General Accounting Office (GAO) report to Congress (Shaul, 2000) identified a set of common elements found in school-community connections, including:

  • Services and activities tailored to community needs and resources, with the flexibility to change as community needs change.

  • A value for and encouragement of parent participation and individual attention from caring adults.

  • An understanding that support for the family is integral to improving outcomes for children and youth.

  • Active roles for parents, students, community residents, and organizations in guiding policy and practices through such entities as advisory committees.

  • A continuing emphasis on the importance of collaboration and communication among school and community partners.

Another comprehensive research study emphasized those connections that were “intentional and ongoing relationship(s) between a K-12 school and one or more external organizations that entails the investment of organizational resources” (Wynn et al., 2000, p. 6).

The challenge of defining school-community connections in a comprehensive way has similar consequences to the challenge of defining the full range of school-family connections. The multiple definitions make it difficult to compare studies with one another and to synthesize the results across studies. Multiple definitions also create challenges for practitioners as they attempt to select, implement, and evaluate different connection activities.

Overarching Factors that Affect Definitions

In addition to the general problem of multiple and overlapping definitions, two important factors have affected how family and community connections are currently defined in research and practice: role perception and “school-centric” practices.

Differences in perceptions of appropriate roles

Stakeholders (educators, parents, community members, students) may have opposing viewpoints about what constitutes involvement and what their roles should be. For instance, Scribner, Young, and Pedroza (1999) found that teachers tend to define parent involvement differently than parents do. Teachers tended to view a parent’s role solely as a support for academic achievement while parents viewed it as a means of supporting the total well-being of the child (i.e., social and moral development). Because school personnel and parents may conceptualize parent involvement activities and outcomes differently, there is a need to more fully explore teacher and parent perspectives about what constitutes appropriate collaboration and what role each can and should play in a child’s education (Izzo et al., 1999).

One recent publication (Jehl et al., 2001) also suggests that there are important differences in the perspectives of school personnel and staff members of community-based organizations. While schools emphasize student achievement and classroom-based learning, community organizations tend to emphasize the role of school in broader human development and in the development of personal and social skills. Schools and community organizations may also define parent involvement differently, with school personnel emphasizing school-based and school-initiated involvement that supports classroom learning, and community partners emphasizing parent involvement in decision-making and reform efforts (Jehl et al.). The researchers suggest that in order to understand these differences in perspective, one must understand the underlying history and culture of the school and community organizations and the context in which they operate. They further suggest that differences in mission, political structure, and the level of public scrutiny and accountability can lead to differences in perspective between school personnel and community organization personnel.

An emphasis on school-centered definitions of family and community involvement

While individuals within schools, communities, and families may have a range of beliefs about what constitutes appropriate school, family, and community connections, a review of the literature suggests that overall, definitions of connections that most closely reflect the priorities of schools have dominated both research and practice. Schools have largely been in the position to define what family and community involvement “is” and what the outcomes should be. These school-centered definitions of family and community involvement can be seen in both research and practice.

Honig et al. (2001) contend that “the focus of many school-linked services efforts has been on ‘fixing’ students so teachers can ‘really teach’ and removing barriers to learning, rather than rethinking the learning and teaching that occurs for students—all day, in and out of school—and the conditions, resources and supports that enable it” (p. 9). Edwards and Warin (1999) agree that parent involvement efforts sometimes operate to enlist parents as agents of the schools to meet the school’s needs—in essence turning parents into “assistant teachers”—instead of utilizing a parent’s unique strengths as a child’s motivator and nurturer. Generally, the most important goal for schools is increased academic achievement of students; therefore, educators tend to value family and community connections because of their potential for supporting this goal, sometimes at the expense of family or community member goals (Scribner et al., 1999).

Many researchers, theorists, and practitioners in the field agree that school-centered definitions do not fully express the range of connections that can and do exist (Edwards & Warin, 1999; McWilliam, Maxwell & Sloper, 1999). A continued emphasis on school-centered connections can limit the development of the entire field and its ability to identify and forge new directions for greater impact on student outcomes. Jordan, Averett, Elder, Orozco, and Rudo (2000) define “collaboration” as an arrangement in which partners establish joint goals and priorities, as well as shared responsibility for success. Partnerships that do not define a common mission are rarely able to sustain the long-term collaborative relationship and sharing of resources necessary to accomplishing substantive goals.

This emphasis on school-centered definitions of connections can also create a significant power imbalance in the school-family-community relationship. Schools are generally backed up by powerful and stable institutional structures that support the school’s definition of the roles parents and community members should play. This institutional structure infuses power into the position of “the principal” and “the teacher” in the education of the child, while the family or community member role is not automatically infused with similar power (Hulsebosch & Logan, 1998).

Need for Considering Expanded Definitions

Much of the emerging theory and practice of family and community connections with schools encourages a rethinking of our understanding of how children develop and how the various people and contexts fit together to support that development. A new orientation is emerging in the field, from a school-centric focus toward the creation of reciprocal connections among schools, parents, and community members. These connections are mutually beneficial and reflect the shared goals of all stakeholders.

Several of the authors reviewed also argue for the need to develop an “asset” model, in which parents and communities are considered equal contributors to the education process and are viewed by school personnel as resources instead of as obstacles (Hulsebosch & Logan, 1998; Honig et al., 2001; Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993). They suggest there might also be a need to re-conceptualize roles that various people play in the life of a child: not as positions or functions, but rather as the natural product of an individual’s strengths and assets, regardless of whether it is a parent, a teacher, a community member, or a religious leader. As the field begins to explore these expanded definitions, there are several key components to consider.

• Moving definitions beyond family and community involvement “programs”
Research in this field has emphasized “partnership programs” in which schools provide parenting classes or formal “adopt-a-school” partnerships with businesses over more seamless, interconnected approaches and perspectives. As a result, research has not adequately captured and defined the reciprocal connections between schools, families, and communities. Several of the authors reviewed point out that there is a need for definitions that include relationship and collaboration elements (Hirota, Jacobowitz & Brown, 2000; Mapp, 1999). Community organizers for school reform have also called for the development of descriptions with rich details of “how to do it” that reflect both the outcomes and the process and greatly emphasize the “relationship building” of their work (Lewis & Henderson, 1998).

• Including theories, concepts and ideas from beyond the field of education
In order to truly understand family and community connections and reform in schools, we must look to other fields of study and be open to theories used outside the established intellectual education tradition (Lagemann, 1999, as cited in Arum, 2000). Family and community involvement is based on forming alliances and connections beyond the traditional school system; therefore, drawing on perspectives, theories, and research methodology from other fields is integral to understanding the variety of purposes and impact of the connections among various stakeholders.

• Looking at culturally-appropriate definitions of parent involvement
While the school, family, and community connections field has traditionally paid much attention to cultural diversity issues, there is still more to be done to define and clarify “parent involvement” that occurs within various cultural and ethnic groups. Recent research studies have found that families often practice forms of parent involvement that mainstream school personnel may not always recognize. For instance, a study of marginalized migrant families of highly academically successful students in South Texas found that parents were not involved in the traditional parent involvement activities, such as volunteering at the school or attending school functions. However, they were very involved in that they instilled a strong work ethic in their children and shared their own experiences to emphasize the importance of a good education (Lopez, 2001). Instead of trying to get diverse families to adopt more dominant cultural approaches to involvement, research suggests the need to capitalize on existing cultural traditions (Lopez; Peña, 2000; Tapia, 2000; Scribner et al., 1999). Researchers need to build understanding about how involvement varies among different cultural groups and adequately capture those experiences in new definitions of family and community connections.

• Family-centered definitions
The concept of family-centered practices can represent a new way for schools to think of working with families and community members. According to McWilliam et al. (1999), family-centered practices are defined as friendly, respectful partnerships that extend beyond the partnerships commonly described in education literature. The authors suggest that the early intervention concept of family-centered practices, frequently found in early childhood research and practice, is not well known in elementary school education. These family-centered practices emphasize support to families as an important goal in and of itself, not just as a means of supporting the child. In this view, families are seen as the primary decision-makers for their children, they are supported as key decision-makers in all aspects of school services, and their needs beyond the education of the child are also considered (McWilliam et al.).


Both in research and practice, family and community connection activities are often bundled together in ways that may affect how the activities are conducted and how they are measured. Narrowing down these complex concepts to one single definition is not likely or even necessarily desirable. However, without a clear understanding of the way the concept is defined, it is difficult to understand how to create and sustain those connections that will achieve the intended results for students, schools, communities, and families. As Cahill (1996) suggests, we need to clarify the goals and underlying assumptions of various types of collaborations in order to have a positive impact on school improvement and student success. Working to create this “common language” in the field of family and community connections will support future research and practice so that it is clear and achieves intended results.

* For purposes of this report, the terms “connection” and “involvement” may sometimes be used interchangeably. Also, the term “school, family, and community connections” and its variants are synonymous with “family and community connections with schools.”

** Cahill (1996) describes community redefined schools as redefinitions of schools by communities, “away from professionalized, bureaucratic, centralized models, to communities of learning governed at the level closest to students, families, teachers and community members” (p. 9).

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