North High hosted top national expert on
By Charles Hallman
A productive school involves effective family and community partnerships, a leading community engagement expert said last week at North High School. Although there was little family involvement in this event, some hope the educators present will spread the word that such partnerships are essential to student success.
“She is the number-one reference” in the nation for community involvement research, said Center for School Change Director Joe Nathan of Dr. Joyce Epstein, the director of the National Network of Partnership Schools (NNPS) at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
A program of Macalester College, the Center for School Change and Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) co-sponsored a November 10 two-hour evening event attended by nearly 300 educators and other professionals.
Family involvement is important “for students to do better in school,” said Epstein. She pointed out that “purposeful partnerships” must be established with both families and community entities such as businesses, churches and other groups to include them in the overall school improvement plan.
“Parents are important at all grade levels, even at Grade 12,” noted Epstein. “The goal is to involve all families and not just reach out to a few.”
She recommends “a program of school, family and community partnerships…organized by an action team” made up of teachers, parents and school administrators. This team should “work together to reach all parents in the school, and to engage them in ways that would help their children do their best job as students,” said Epstein.
The NNPS started in 1996 and worked with an estimated 1,200 schools, 150 school districts, and 22 state education departments in 42 states and in Canada last year. “Over 70 percent of the schools are Title I schools and mainly in poor communities,” Epstein said. “The diversity of racial and ethnic groups is huge across those sites.”
“The school can dramatically increase family involvement… This is borne out of 30 years of research,” said Nathan of Epstein’s over three decades of work in this area.
Student success always should be the ultimate goal, Epstein continued: “It is about the students.” Instead, she added, there is “too much finger pointing. Parents would blame the teachers for not telling them what they need to know. Teachers are blaming parents for everything.
“We are not measuring parents on our state tests. But we are responsible for helping more students reach targets, more students succeed in school and get promoted every year, more students staying in high school and graduating on time and fewer students dropping out. The results we are looking for are students’ goals and student success.”
Although the audience was mostly educators, MPS Family and Community Engagement Executive Director Scott Redd predicts that Epstein’s remarks will reach the key participants in her program — parents and other important community folk — through the educators present. “It was a great opportunity for those classroom teachers to go back and share that message…that we need to do better and partner with our families,” said Redd.
Although over half of those who attended last week’s event were from the Twin Cities area, many also came from distant localities, noted Nathan. “We had people who drove three and a half hours to get here.”
Those in attendance at last week’s event included Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, who introduced Epstein and announced that her office plans to establish a family and community engagement position. “We absolutely have to do more to engage families and communities,” especially communities of color, she told the MSR afterwards.
North High advisory committee member Kim Ellison told the MSR afterwards, “I’m very excited about the work that [Epstein] is talking about schools can do. I think it is very doable, and our parents would love it.”
“When we work with schools and districts for a while,” Epstein told the audience, “they actually do these things much better, much more organized, and much more improved, especially in reaching out to families who don’t speak much English.”
However, Francis and Phillip Cleveland of Brooklyn Center both said they aren’t convinced that Epstein’s community engagement ideas could be easily adopted by local schools.
“We do need more family involvement, and I like the way she worded it,” noted Francis Cleveland. “I hope that it would be applicable and practicable. But putting it in practice would take a lot of work.” Added Philip, “It would take a long time” to implement such a plan.
Both Nathan and Redd said that hosting Epstein’s appearance at North High last week helped put both the school and the North Side in a good light. “It was a very good night for North Minneapolis,” said Nathan.
“I felt it was extremely important to have it at North High School to show families, and the outsiders who came here, to let them know that it is alive and well, and it will be a viable school,” said Redd.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to [email protected]
Photos by James L. Stroud, Jr.