Boston Public Schools Engage Families to Help Turn Schools Around

Strengthening the bond between parents and schools increases learning.

Three students are seated on the floor of their classroom. Two of the students work together on a project, and the third is looking up towards the not pictured teacher.

Photo Credit: US Department of Education

When family and community outreach coordinator Ana Contreras walked into John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Boston’s Jamaica Plains neighborhood in fall 2010, she knew she had her work cut out for her. The school was low-performing, and Massachusetts had provided it with a Federal School Improvement Grant to raise student achievement.

One of the main strategies for improving performance at John F. Kennedy and other low-performing schools in Boston, such as William Blackstone Elementary in the South End and Orchard Gardens K–8 Pilot School in Roxbury, was to involve parents and the community in students’ learning and the daily life of the school.

“We view parents as partners and a necessary piece of the puzzle for improving student achievement,” said Meghan Welch, director of operations at Orchard Gardens. “We want parents to be involved, so our school is open to families. Parents see teachers and know them. They see staff in action. It helps avoid misunderstandings. And if something is not going well, parents know it is okay to come in and talk because they have been here before for positive events.”

It is widely recognized by educators that parents who support their children’s learning both in school and at home, communicate regularly with teachers, and have high expectations make a big contribution to student learning. In Massachusetts, policymakers believe the potential of parent and community engagement is so great that the State insists that engagement is included as an indicator in evaluating the performance of teachers and principals.

In Boston Public Schools, educators are betting that parent and community engagement can help put entire schools that have had a history of low student achievement on the road to improvement. The district’s Office of Family and Student Engagement launched a Parent University in 2009 to support parents’ involvement in their children’s education. The district also has placed an outreach coordinator at each school to help faculty and staff build productive relationships with families and community members. Five years later, this investment is paying dividends, with schools across Boston seeing increases in proficiency rates for English language arts and mathematics.

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New York Puts Spotlight on Teachers Engaging Parents

Teacher leads a workshop for parents during "Parent University" on May 1

With 47 workshops offered at the May 1 “Parent University,” teachers engaged parents in their children’s education. Credit: Steve Bartholomew

South Huntington schools invite parents back to school to learn about new college and career standards

When parents at the Silas Wood Sixth Grade Center in South Huntington, New York, began asking questions about the unfamiliar assignments their children were bringing home last fall, teachers thought they deserved answers. So, the teachers with the support of teacher leaders put together an evening demonstration of how the State’s new college and career ready standards had changed both how they were teaching and what students were expected to do.

On January 8, the night of the demonstration, the notorious polar vortex of the winter of 2014 slammed into Long Island, and the temperature plunged into the single digits. Undeterred, the teachers went ahead with the event and hundreds of parents braved the cold and sat through sample lessons in mathematics and English language arts to learn how to ask their children questions like those they hear in school.

“Instead of just asking their kids how their day went, they might say ‘I’m noticing that your homework is different. I wonder what you can teach me about that,’” said Stephanie Brown, a sixth grade English language arts teacher and “parent academy” organizer. “We taught them how to do a close read of text. So, when they’re home and a child has to read something, they can ask, ‘What’s the gist of the first three paragraphs?’”  

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Hawaii Zones of School Innovation Committed to Improvement

Four students pose for a photo, holding vegetables they have picked as part of an agriculture project with Makaha Farms.

Hawaii created two Zones of School Innovation to support regions with many of the state’s lowest performing schools. Schools in these zones benefit from greater flexibility and from state investments in curriculum, professional development, technology, teacher recruitment, and wraparound services such as medical care and nutrition education. Photo credit: Hawaii Department of Education

Investing in teachers, time, services and technology to close achievement gaps

Bem is a ninth-grade student who lives with his parents, cousins and grandparents, migrants from the Marshall Islands, in a sparsely populated area of the island of Hawaii, 25 miles away from Kau High School. There are many obstacles Bem faces on a daily basis to receive an education. Just getting to school regularly is a challenge, as it is for many other students in this largely rural part of the State.

But, lately, Bem has been attending school more regularly and has become more engaged in his school work. He even says he wants to get involved in student government. “He’s been coming to school every day, he’s more serious about his studies and he knows that learning is going to take hard work,” said Kau High and Pahala Elementary Principal Sharon Beck.

A comprehensive set of policies and services put in place over the past few years across the sprawling Kau–Keaau–Pahoa Complex Area of schools is starting to make a difference. Unlike every other State, Hawaii has a single, statewide school system. Complex areas function like school districts in other States. In its successful application for a Federal Race to the Top grant, Hawaii said it would make two complexes—Kau–Keaau–Pahoa on the island of Hawaii and Nanakuli–Waianae on the island of Oahu—Zones of School Innovation (ZSIs) because they each had several schools that were among the lowest performing in the State.

That meant additional flexibilities and investments for ZSI schools including:  more instructional time during the school year as well as in the summer; financial incentives to attract effective teachers and leaders to remote schools; a common curriculum; intensive support for early-career as well as experienced teachers; an infusion of technology to expand students’ understanding of the world; giving principals more control over hiring decisions; and arranging for medical care, mental health counseling, nutrition education and other services.

These enormous changes have led to evidence of progress. Eight of the 18 schools in the zones identified as low-performing four years ago have now met performance targets and, in more than half, student growth is outpacing State averages in both reading and mathematics. Statewide, Hawaii public schools have narrowed the achievement gap by 12 percent, and on-time graduation has increased by seven percent.

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California Training Partnership Helps New Teachers Bring Innovative Practices to Home Communities

With the help of a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Lupita Prado Machuca has returned to her home community to teach language arts at her former middle school. Once an English language learner, she now teaches students in the community where she grew up and helps them to see the importance of an education that prepares them for college and careers.

Lupita Prado Machuca teaching her 8th Grade Language Arts class in Kern County, California

Machuca is the product of efforts in the central region of California to change the face of teacher preparation by equipping future teachers from local schools with high-quality training. California State University Bakersfield (CSUB), with funding support from a federal Teacher Quality Partnership grant, brings mentor teachers into classrooms of first-year teachers and provides teacher candidates with field experience from day one, increasing their confidence and abilities to take on their own classrooms.

The five year, $10.5 million grant, which began in 2009, supports a partnership among CSUB, California State University Monterey Bay, and California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo, along with K-12 school districts in Kern and Tulare counties. Known as Edvention Partners, their combined efforts address the diverse needs of schools, teachers, and students within a large geographical, primarily rural, area.

The training program emphasizes solutions to individual and community challenges with professional development tools for educators such as differentiated instruction, positive behavioral intervention, and the culturally responsive teaching (CRT) model. By facilitating teaching aspirations in central California communities, Edvention Partners is empowering teachers to integrate personal experience with research-based teaching practices to promote student achievement.

Local school leaders are very excited to have a talented former student return to teach. “She really has some innovative practices and ways to connect to the students,” said Language Arts Department Chair Stacie Rubinol, who taught Machuca in junior high school. “She really inspires them to learn beyond what is just in the textbook.”

Superintendent Ricardo Robles recognizes how important the Edvention Partners program has been to Machuca and his district. By keeping talented teachers in the community, students can witness an example of the importance of an education that prepares them for college and the workforce. “We’ve been very lucky to get her… Cal State has been a huge asset to our school district,” Robles said.

To learn more about Machuca’s experience, watch this video.

 

Cross-posted from the May 22, 2014, edition of The Teacher’s Edition, a weekly e-newsletter of ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach.

Parent and Community Engagement is Key Driver of School Transformation in Baltimore

A teacher leans over a students desk, helping him with an assignment.

As part of its “Expanding Great Options” initiative, Baltimore City Public Schools has employed a holistic parent engagement strategy to turn around struggling schools. One principal built relationships with parents and students by shaking hands before and after school each day. Teachers sent out flyers, knocked on doors, and made phone calls to parents to discuss their children’s performance. Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education

School turnarounds require changes in school culture and strong relationships with parents

Commodore John Rogers Elementary/Middle School is located in an impoverished neighborhood of East Baltimore that struggles with high rates of gang violence and teen pregnancy. Ninety-five percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches and many are three or more grade levels behind in reading when they enter. The school floundered academically for years. In 2010, based on its test scores, Commodore ranked 872 out of 875 schools in Maryland. It enrolled only 225 students, half of the building’s capacity. Four principals had come and gone during the previous five years.

In the past four years, however, the school’s results have improved measurably. Enrollment more than doubled, chronic absences dropped significantly, and the percentage of students proficient in reading and mathematics rose 20 percent. In 2012, the school’s mathematics performance exceeded the districtwide average.

Creating More High Quality School Options

How did this happen?

In 2010, Baltimore City Public Schools chose Commodore to participate in its “Expanding Great Options” initiative, an effort launched by former Superintendent Andrés Alonso to increase the number of high quality schools in the district. The city opened new schools, expanded the capacity of high-performing ones, closed the lowest performers, and began working to turn around struggling schools. During the first full year of the program, the Baltimore City school board approved eight new schools and moved to close nine low-performing ones. In addition, all high schools became schools of choice.

Commodore was among a group of persistently low-performing schools selected to be part of a districtwide turnaround initiative, which brought intensive support underwritten by the State’s Federal Race to the Top award and School Improvement Grant. The goal: transform school culture and dramatically accelerate learning outcomes. Interventions varied by school, but included new leadership, extra support staff, a longer learning day, new technology, more staff mentoring, and professional development for teachers.

Parent Engagement a Top Priority

Marc Martin, a seasoned school leader with a strong track record of success, became Commodore’s new principal. In addition to hiring new staff and renovating the building, Martin made parent engagement a top priority. He set out to get to know each parent personally, to build trust and hope. “I literally slept here during the summer before the school opened,” he said. “We sent out flyers, made phone calls and knocked on doors to let families know we were here.”

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