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Developing strong community engagement

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By Janet McQueen

Developing Strong Community Engagement 

The ideas and thoughts that I am sharing come from a webinar that I listened to by Dr Joyce Epstein on  Then and Now: Developing Programs of Family and Community Involvement for  Student Success. She is a world expert in this field and her ideas are based on her latest research findings.  She does say that each school and community is different and that the design and implementation will look different in each school.

Joyce Epstein, Partnerships Then and Now
Joyce began by saying that everyone wants excellent schools, strong families and healthy communities. We need to bring these 3 spheres of influence closer together and we do this through partnerships. Partnerships are important as they help students succeed in school. 

Community engagement diagram.

We need to think in new ways about leadership for partnership as the old model of one or two people leading is not sustainable.

Normalise Partnerships and Develop an Action Team to lead the Partnership Work

It is the school‘s responsibility to reach out it is not the parents role to initiate partnerships.  Partnerships should be normalised as just being part of what the school does and every teacher is expected to do as part of their normal classroom practice across the whole school from Years 1- 13. Partnerships should be integrated with the school priorities.

Partnerships are best led by a group of people known as an Action team. The Action team is comprised of:

  • 2-3 teachers from different year levels across the school,
  • 2-3 parents/family members with students in different year levels across the school,  
  • PTA representative or BOT representative
  • 2 students from different year levels if it is a High School action team

The Focus of the Partnerships

Epstein recommends that the Action Team reviews the school goals for the year and selects:

  • 2 academic goals,
  • 1 non-academic goal
  • 1 goal for developing a welcoming school climate

From these goals, the Action Team should write a 1-year action plan for partnerships that involves the families and community in ways that contribute to the selected goals for student learning and development. The team then implement activities that align with the goals and evaluate their success; the results should focus on student achievement and success in school.  

A framework of 6 types of involvement is used by the team to develop appropriate activities and programmes which link to the identified goals. They try and develop actions that include all 6 actions for each goal. When the activities are actioned, a sub-group of the committee might lead it and at this stage they will include other teachers and parents etc. The group use a cycle of continual improvement in relationship to the partnerships, programme and practices.  

Use the Framework of 6 Types of Involvement and be goal orientated

The action group should write an annual plan which includes all 6 types of involvement listed below. After each type of involvement, there is an example that a school might use if their goal was to support reading.

The 6 Types of Involvement

  1. Parenting: On understand child development. Educators have expertise in child development and know their families. We need to use this expertise to support parents and families.  E.g. provide workshops for parents on various ways to read aloud, to and with their children.
  2. Communication: this needs to be 2-way. It focuses on school programmes and children’s progress but schools also ask parents for their opinions and invite their participation and input. Communication also involves thinking about the language we use, the way we communicate effectively and how we engage digital technology to help us do this. E.g. provide parent, student, teacher conferences where the focus is on reading goals and progress. Develop a website for parents with ideas they can use at home.
  3. Volunteering: at school, in class, at home, and as an audience. Inviting parents and the community to support school activities and programmes. Stretch the definition on volunteering and how parents and the community can contribute, not only by being in school but also from home and in the workplace.  Recognise all types of support.  E.g. Ask for reading partner volunteers, guest readers, ongoing read-with-me at home.
  4. Learning at Home: Mostly this is helping parents to know how they can best support their child at home. But also how they can build a child’s personal development, develop their other talents, course choices, employment skills etc. Help teachers to design homework that is interactive where a child can show what they can do rather than having parents teaching. E.g. provide interactive reading homework.
  5. Decision making: Encourage and provide opportunities for parents to be involved in decision making by having parents on all major school groups and committees.  e.g PTA, BOT, curriculum input etc. E.g. Provide support for a family room or parent centre to provide information on children’s reading, book swaps, books in other languages etc.
  6. Collaborate with the Community: Be Inclusive and involve resources and volunteers from many groups and agencies e.g. donations of books from business partners, books for classroom, library and for children to take home, Books in Schools programme etc.

Solve Challenges to Involve ALL families

The old model of partnership looked at barriers that needed to be overcome. Today we use a strengths based model and prevention programme. Realities, solutions sought, solutions found, solutions shared. Partnerships need to be inclusive rather than just aimed at one or two ethnic groups or one area of the school e.g. junior school. In doing this, we need to take action to ensure that all families are being communicated to, and that they are all engaged.  

For more on this in a New Zealand setting you may be interested in viewing a CEM webinar by Sarah Webster on Design the Dream-Community Engagement (using the Design Process with community). 


Evaluation is essential; you need to evaluate quality results and the progress of programmes and practices. Focus on student achievement and success in schools.

Success stories need to be shared nationally and internationally to benefit all. This is easy with the world-wide web, the Virtual Learning Network, the ESOL, Literacy and English mailing lists, blogging etc.  


A budget needs to be allocated for the activities identified and linked to the goals in your school annual plans to engage all families.

Parents are too busy

Parents don’t want to be bothered by silly stuff. The activity must be helpful to their child. They want their child to succeed and to see their child doing well. Survey parents first in order to find out what they need to know e.g. How to approach the school and ask questions, what they need help with at home etc.

Interesting Follow-Up sites

You can also access the archived webinar

Then and Now: Developing Programs of Family and Community Involvement for Student Success. Presented by Joyce L. Epstein, Ph.D., Director of the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University, Airdate: 10/8/14.

Other readings

BES case Study Develop educationally powerful connections based on relational trust. This case illustrates how a principal built trust in her senior management team and with the school’s parent community during the successful implementation of a high-impact literacy intervention Reading Together programme at St Joseph’s School, Otahuhu.

The Complexity of Community and Family Influences on Children's Achievement in  New Zealand: Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration (BES) Fred Biddulph, Jeanne Biddulph and Chris Biddulph

Reflection Questions

  1. In our school do we have a team of teachers, parents, and students (if a secondary school) representative of the whole school, responsible for leading the partnership programme? Does the group also include the Principal?
  2. Is our programme closely linked to goals identified in our school plan?
  3. Is it an expectation that all school staff is involved in partnership activities as part of their regular role expectations?
  4. Have we included all 6 of the roles of involvement in the activities developed as part of our programme?
  5. Have we made good use of digital/ICT opportunities in order to communicate and engage parents and our community? For example, Facebook, twitter, blogs, web pages, texts, emails, shared student portfolios, etc.?
  6. Do we have an adequate dedicated budget to support community engagement?
  7. Are we using an inclusive model of engagement?