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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
April 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 7

Linking Families, Building Communities

A Massachusetts elementary school creates community in its own building through such outreach strategies as a Parent Center, Friday Clubs, and regular celebrations of learning.

One widely recognized way to improve student performance is to increase family involvement in school. Anyone attempting to figure out precisely how to do this, however, learns rather quickly that there are myriad ways to do so: charter schools, choice plans, community partnerships, and full-service schools, to name a few examples.
Each school will likely finds its own avenue for reaching out to families. As Barth (1990) has written, the problems of education are usually universal, but their solutions are (almost invariably) unique. Saltonstall Elementary School in Salem, Massachusetts, has found its own way by borrowing elements from many models. Our outreach strategies seek to enhance both the quantity and the quality of family connections with the school, with service providers, and with the community.

Connecting Families with the School

Saltonstall School is a magnet school (specializing in science and technology) in a community with a citywide choice plan. Consequently, before students ever enter a classroom for the first time, their families have already made an implicit commitment to the school's mission and to its teachers.
In addition, two aspects of the school's organization result in students' spending large amounts of time in one class with one teacher. First, because classes are organized according to multiage groupings (K–1, 2–3, and 4–5), students spend two years in the same classroom. While much has been written recently about the benefits of this arrangement to teacher-child relationships, we are also counting on the less frequently recognized, but equally important, impact on the teacher-family relationship (Hanson 1995). Students themselves also benefit greatly.
For example, last winter a 1st grader was very impatient during cooperative tasks. If a younger classmate was having trouble cutting something, for example, this child would all too often grab the scissors and say, "Oh, you're too small to do that. I'll do it." After five months in a multiage classroom—where the teacher discussed and modeled appropriate ways of helping younger children—this girl has become both sympathetic to, and helpful with, younger children.
Second, because Saltonstall is a year-round school, teachers, children, and families spend more time together. Our students attend an additional 10 days per year and an extra hour per day beyond the time required by Massachusetts state law. Moreover, because no vacation lasts longer than one month—we are in school during the latter part of June and all of July, and on vacation during the month of August—students, teachers, and families need less time to reacquaint themselves following vacations.
Other aspects of our curriculum also work to enhance connections between families and school. For example, to mark the end of each of our six learning sessions, we hold schoolwide events to celebrate and demonstrate what children have learned during a particular session. These celebrations are consistent with the school's curriculum, which is based on Gardner's (1993) theory of Multiple Intelligences. These frequent get-togethers, for which attendance is very high, strengthen the family-school connection.
At the end of the most recent learning session, the K–1 students—who had organized their curriculum around a dinosaur theme—created a museum to display what they had learned. Doing so involved solving a number of problems, such as how to make the teeth for the head of the Tyrannosaurus rex. Two children suggested making them from ice cream cones: one wanted to paint them, but the other wanted to cover the cones with vanilla frosting.
When children aren't solving their own problems, oftentimes parents and families pitch in. For example, a parent with sophisticated recording equipment helped the class create a tape of dinosaur era sounds—all made by the children themselves—to play in the background when parents visited the museum. On the night of the performance, other parents helped visitors make fossils by pressing sea shells into dough. After touring the museum, parents returned to the respective classrooms to inspect their children's portfolios.
To involve our families in school operations, we communicate with them in two specific ways. First, early in the year, all parents receive, as required by the Salem Public School System, a copy of our curriculum plans for the year. We also provide parents with copies of curriculum webs for the entire school, including the plans of our specialists in art, music, science, and technology. These webs are also on display in the school entryway for parents and visitors to see. Second, we communicate with families through a weekly newsletter sent home with our students. About 26 percent of our students come from Spanish-speaking homes, so we publish both an English and a Spanish version of the newsletter.

Connecting Families with Service Providers

As experienced educators, we know that there are parents in every class who, without being asked, will find ways to become involved with their child's school. Other families are extremely difficult to reach, no matter what we do. To connect with these parents, we've established a Parent Center in a room originally used as a classroom.
Our Parent Center, a 900-square-foot room on the first floor, is an inviting space with a couch, comfortable chairs, sewing machines, local newspapers (The Salem Evening News and El Pointa), toys for young children, and a pot of coffee warming on the stove. On hand is a full-time paid parent coordinator, who is available to meet with parents and refer them to the appropriate services. Currently, we are fortunate to have in this position a woman who is a long-term resident of the city who speaks both Spanish and English.
We have contracted with two local agencies, North Shore Children's Hospital and KIDNET, to provide services to students and families in need. These contracts allow the school and the respective social service agency to share information. Because the Parent Center is linked with the school's networked computer system, we can also share appropriate information with teachers who are involved with the students.
At Saltonstall, we individualize services as much as possible through a "wraparound" approach adapted from the mental health services arena (Eber and Stieper 1993). This approach calls for interested parties to address children's needs in the school on an as-needed basis. If a teacher identifies a problem, he or she will become the first link in (what may eventually be) a chain of people who respond to that child's or family's needs. By working with families early on, we hope to prevent minor problems from becoming major ones.
Recently, for example, two fathers and their sons visited the Parent Center to discuss an incident that had occurred between the two boys. This discussion, which began with the principal and the coordinator describing the incident, soon became a conversation between the two fathers on the challenges of managing their boys' behavior. It ended with one father giving some very sound parenting advice to the other father—advice that was appreciatively received. In other words, while some problems in our school may be addressed by social workers or school psychologists, other solutions may just as easily be found among our network of caring individuals—be they teacher, paraprofessional, parent, or neighbor.
When social services are needed, however, we offer a full-service school approach (Dryfoos 1994). By providing assistance in a known and comfortable setting, we try to offer convenience for parents and a minimally disruptive schedule for their children.

Connecting Families with the Community

Finally, we seek to establish connections between our families and the community at large. Our school's links with the surrounding community began before the school opened its doors for the first time. Saltonstall School is the product of a collaborative planning process that began with Salem city officials, faculty from Salem State College, and Salem public school teachers. This collaboration eventually included, in its later stages, parents of incoming students, representatives of the local teachers union, and local business people.
Although we are not a charter school, we did write our own charter. We abide by the (appropriately negotiated and amended) union contract and by the guidelines of the Salem Public School System, and we follow the state testing requirements. The parties that collaborated to write this charter remain connected by their service on the state-mandated School Council, which advises the principal on all aspects of school operations. This council includes teachers, parents, college personnel, and local business people.
In addition, a number of community partners (representing both business and non-business organizations) provide in-kind contributions and sites for our students to visit. Many of these partners participate in our Friday Club. Every Friday from 8 to 10 a.m., while teachers cooperatively plan lessons, community volunteers engage students in informal activities. In the Build-a-House Club, a local business partner helps students construct doll houses from wooden shells. Children in grades 2-5 paint and attach the doors, shutters, and window frames. They also decorate the interiors with wallpaper, paint, and varnish. (Eventually, Saltonstall will raffle off the doll houses to benefit our students.) Another business partner, a loan officer at a local bank, teaches the children how to play soccer. The Baking Club, led by a parent, recently served ice cream sundaes to the entire school.
We also have clubs in basketball, leadership (led by local police officers), stage design, problem solving (for example, Odyssey of the Mind), Spanish for beginners, designing a computer, sewing, designing your own T-shirt, and martial arts. We hope that eventually students from Salem's high school and middle school will, with adult assistance, lead some Friday clubs.

The School as Community

The proverb "It takes a village to raise a child" is difficult to achieve today because few of us live in cohesive communities. Given these circumstances, perhaps we must adapt Dewey's (1897) call for a 20th century modern America to create "embryonic" communities in the classroom. As postmodern America enters the 21st century, schools need to create community in the school building itself, and not just in the classroom. We must do so not only for the children, but for families as well, because our links with one another have been both eroded and distanced by the technological triumphs of this passing century.

Barth, R. S. (1990). Improving Schools from Within: Teachers, Parents, and Principals Can Make a Difference. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Dewey, J. (January, 1897). "My Pedagogic Creed." The School Journal 54 3: 77-80.

Dryfoos, J. G. (1994). Full-Service Schools: A Revolution in Health and Social Services for Children, Youth, and Families. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Eber, L., and C. Stieper. (1993). "Interagency Collaboration Through a School-Based Wraparound Approach: A Systems Analysis Summary of Project WRAP." (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. 372-523, pp. 241-249).

Gardner, H. (1993). Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice. New York: Basic Books.

Hanson, B. J. (November 1995). "Getting to Know You—Multi-Year Teaching." Educational Leadership 53, 3: 42-43.

R. Clarke Fowler has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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