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Beyond the Bake Sale: A Community Based Relational Approach to Parent Engagement in Schools



Background/Context Parent involvement in education is widely recognized as important, yet it remains weak in many communities. One important reason for this weakness is that urban schools have grown increasingly isolated from the families and communities they serve. Many of the same neighborhoods with families who are disconnected from public schools, however, often contain strong community-based organizations (CBOs) with deep roots in the lives of families. Many CBOs are beginning to collaborate with public schools, and these collaborations might potentially offer effective strategies to engage families more broadly and deeply in schools. Purpose This article presents a community-based relational approach to fostering parent engagement in schools. We investigated the efforts of CBOs to engage parents in schools in low-income urban communities. We argue that when CBOs are authentically rooted in community life, they can bring to schools a better understanding of the culture and assets of families, as well as resources that schools may lack. As go-betweens, they can build relational bridges between educators and parents and act as catalysts for change. Research Design Using case study methodology, we studied three notable school-community collaborations: the Logan Square Neighborhood Association in Chicago, Illinois; the Camino Nuevo Charter Academy in Los Angeles, California; and the Quitman Street Community School in Newark, New Jersey. Each case represents one of three types of collaboration identified in previous research: community service, community development and community organizing. Findings Although differences in context mattered, we found three common dimensions of parent engagement work across the cases. The three core elements of this community-based relational approach are (1) an emphasis on relationship building among parents and between parents and educators, (2) a focus on the leadership development of parents, and (3) an effort to bridge the gap in culture and power between parents and educators. We contrast this community-based approach with more traditional, school-centric, and individualistic approaches to parent involvement. Conclusions There are a number of lessons from this study for educators interested in broadening and deepening parent participation in schools. First, educators can benefit from taking a patient approach, building relationships over time. Second, schools may not be able to do parent engagement work alone; they can profit from the social capital expertise of community-based organizations. Finally, educators would benefit from understanding that communities bring different needs, aspirations, and desires to their children's education. If educators collaborate with community partners and help to develop parent leadership, they can form initiatives that meet the interests, values, and capacities of any particular school community.
Teachers College Record Volume 111, Number 9, September 2009, pp. 2209–2254
Copyright © by Teachers College, Columbia University
Beyond the Bake Sale: A Community-
Based Relational Approach to Parent
Engagement in Schools
Harvard Graduate School of Education
Background/Context: Parent involvement in education is widely recognized as important,
yet it remains weak in many communities. One important reason for this weakness is that
urban schools have grown increasingly isolated from the families and communities they
serve. Many of the same neighborhoods with families who are disconnected from public
schools, however, often contain strong community-based organizations (CBOs) with deep
roots in the lives of families. Many CBOs are beginning to collaborate with public schools,
and these collaborations might potentially offer effective strategies to engage families mor e
broadly and deeply in schools.
Purpose: This article presents a community-based relational approach to fostering parent
engagement in schools. We investigated the efforts of CBOs to engage parents in schools in
low-income urban communities. We argue that when CBOs are authentically rooted in com-
munity life, they can bring to schools a better understanding of the culture and assets of fam-
ilies, as well as resources that schools may lack. As go-betweens, they can build relational
bridges between educators and parents and act as catalysts for change.
Research Design: Using case study methodology, we studied three notable school-community
collaborations: the Logan Square Neighborhood Association in Chicago, Illinois; the
Camino Nuevo Charter Academy in Los Angeles, California; and the Quitman Street
Community School in Newark, New Jersey. Each case represents one of three types of collab-
oration identified in previous research: community service, community development and
community organizing.
2210 Teachers College Record
Findings: Although differences in context mattered, we found three common dimensions of
parent engagement work across the cases. The three core elements of this community-based
relational approach are (1) an emphasis on relationship building among parents and
between parents and educators, (2) a focus on the leadership development of parents, and
(3) an effort to bridge the gap in culture and power between parents and educators. We con-
trast this community-based approach with mor e traditional, school-centric, and individual-
istic approaches to parent involvement.
Conclusions: There are a number of lessons from this study for educators interested in broad-
ening and deepening parent participation in schools. First, educators can benefit from tak-
ing a patient approach, building relationships over time. Second, schools may not be able to
do parent engagement work alone; they can profit fr om the social capital expertise of com-
munity-based organizations. Finally, educators would benefit from understanding that com-
munities bring different needs, aspirations, and desires to their children’s education. If
educators collaborate with community partners and help to develop parent leadership, they
can form initiatives that meet the interests, values, and capacities of any particular school
Parent involvement in education is widely recognized as important, yet it
remains weak in many communi ties (Chavkin & Williams, 1 993;
Henderson & Mapp, 2002).
In this article, we are concerned with
schools in low-income urban communities. In these schools, a few brave
souls become active and involved; they can be seen running bake sales to
raise funds for the school. But most urban schools fail to engage families
broadly and deeply around the education of their children. Precious few
can claim large numbers of parents participating as powerful actors in
the school community.
Many of the same neighborhoods with families who are disconnected
from public schools, however, often contain strong community-based
organizations with deep roots in the lives of families. Community-based
organizations (CBOs) have long focused on rebuilding the civic infra-
structure of low-income communities in a variety of ways: providing a
range of health and human services, working to build affordable housing
and foster economic development, and organizing low-income families
to build power for their communities (Schorr, 1997). Until recently, how-
ever, few worked directly on issues of public education. With the rise in
importance of education to the economic prospects of the children in
the families these organizations serve, however, many CBOs began to
turn their attention to the failing sc hools in their communities
(Mediratta, 2004; Warren, 2005). They have sought to collaborate with
school-based educators to create partnerships that can foster both school
change and community development.
A Community-Based Relational Approach to Parent Engagement 2211
This article draws lessons from research on case studies of the three
types of collaborations identified by Warren (2005): service, develop-
ment, and organizing. In the service model, service-delivery organiza-
tions partner with public schools to open community, or full-service,
schools that typically provide a range of after-school programs, evening
classes, and health services for children and their families (Dryfoos &
Maguire, 2002). In the development model, community development
corporations, which have typically focused on building affordable hous-
ing and fostering economic development, team up with educators to
open new community-based schools, often as charter schools (Chung,
2002; Khadduri, Turnham, Chase, & Schwartz, 2003). When community
organizing groups collaborate with public schools, they take their empha-
sis on building power for social and political change into the school itself
through processes of relationship building, leadership development, and
public action (Gold, Simon, & Brown, 2002; Mediratta, 2004; Shirley,
In our research on these three types of CBO–school collaborations, we
sought to identify features that appeared important in connecting par-
ents to schools in meaningful ways. Despite some differences in empha-
sis and approach, we find that CBOs across the typology bring a
distinctive, relational approach to parent engagement, one that contrasts
in important ways to traditional understandings of parent involvement.
The three core elements of this shared approach involve (1) an empha-
sis on relationship building among parents and between parents and
educators, (2) a focus on the leadership development of parents, and (3)
an effort to bridge the gap in culture and power between parents and
educators. We ar gue that this community-based relational approach
offers the promise of broader and deeper participation by families in the
education of their children. We employ the term engagement, rather than
involvement, precisely to emphasize a more active and powerful role for
parents in schools.
We look to social capital theory for a theoretical foundation to help us
think about how to forge relationships between families and schools and
to build the trust and cooperation necessary for concerted effort on
behalf of children. Recent work in social capital theory suggests that
building relationships between and among people creates the basis for
active participation in community and school life (Noguera, 2001;
Putnam, 1995; Shirley, 1997; Warren, Thompson, & Saegert, 2001). For
our purposes here, we define social capital as a resource that inheres in
2212 Teachers College Record
the relationships between people, allowing them to act collectively to
achieve agreed-upon ends.
Schools that have higher levels of relational
trust among participants have been shown to have a greater capacity to
reform themselves and improve their practice (Bryk & Schneider, 2002).
Other research (e.g., Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992) suggests that
overcoming the racial and cultural divide between educators and families
can strengthen the work of schools by engaging the assets and contribu-
tions of families in children’s education. Finally, face-to-face relationships
between parents and school staff help to foster a more direct form of
accountability for school performance (Mediratta & Fruchter, 2003). All
these efforts could be expanded and strengthened if parents become
more active partners and leaders through the building of collaborative
relationships, or social capital.
Social capital theorists attuned to inequality emphasize that groups
vary in their access to social capital or to other resources that social con-
nections bring (Bourdieu, 1986; Stanton-Salazar, 2001). For our pur-
poses, we argue that authentic collaboration bet ween low-income
families and middle-class educators will require an explicit effort to
address the inequality in resources and power between the two groups.
Horvat, Weininger, and Lareau (2003) showed that parents in middle-
class communities can act powerfully in their children’s schools because
they have relationships with each other centered on the school, and they
possess the education and other resources that give them the confidence
to relate to teachers as equals. By contrast, they found that working-class
parents are not typically connected to other parents at the same school,
and these parents often lack the education and status to “stand up” to
school authorities as equals.
Two implications follow from this analysis. First, fostering powerful
for ms of parent engagement may require building relationships among
parents as a basis for collaborating with educators. This collective
approach stands in marked contrast to traditional parent involvement
thinking, which typically focuses on the parent as an individual (Epstein
et al., 2002). Some social capital theorists have analyzed this process in
ter ms of bonding and bridging forms of social capital. Bonding ties are
those among people like each other, whereas bridging ties are those
across important lines of difference (Putnam, 2000). People who lack
other resources may need to create bonding social capital among them-
selves before they can bridge to those of higher status by class and/or
race (Warren et al., 2001). In bonding relationships, low-income parents
can find support from those who have similar concerns and face similar
challenges in order to develop the confidence for collaboration. In other
words, if parents build relationships with each other, they have the foun-
A Community-Based Relational Approach to Parent Engagement 2213
dation to act collectively, and potentially more powerfully, as school lead-
ers (see also Delgado-Gaitan, 2001).
Second, relationships among parents are necessary but not sufficient
for strong and meaningful forms of parent participation. Although teach-
ers and parents have different roles, authentic collaboration will require
efforts to address the imbalance in knowledge and power between teach-
ers and less educated parents. The middle-class parents in Horvat et al.’s
(2003) study understood educational issues more readily because of their
own higher levels of education, and they brought the confidence that
comes with such a sense of efficacy. Efforts to engage low-income parents
meaningfully in the life of the school will need to build the capacity of
parents to be leaders in a more intentional way, focusing on the develop-
ment of relevant skills and knowledge and a sense of power and self-effi-
cacy (Henderson, Mapp, Johnson, & Davies, 2007; Hoover-Dempsey &
Sandler, 1997).
Finally, when low-income parents feel excluded from schools, many
become critical (Diamond & Gomez, 2004) and sometimes angry. Or,
there may well be cases in which parents and educators disagree about
what is best for the education of children. Strong leadership and collec-
tive action by parents therefore have the potential to lead to conflict with
educators (Cutler, 2000). Social capital theorists have not typically
addressed issues of power and conflict, but we can offer the framework
for a solution if we connect the concept of social capital to understand-
ings of relational power (Loomer, 1976; Warren, 2005). Relational power
can be contrasted to unilateral power, which emphasizes “power over”
others, the capacity to get others to do one’s bidding. Educators who fear
parent power are operating out of a unilateral power framework of win-
ners and losers. Relational power emphasizes the “power to” get things
done collectively (Kreisberg, 1992). Analysts of district-level change have
shown that this more collaborative form of power, what they call a social
reproduction model, is critical to creating the civic capacity to build and
sustain school reform (Stone, Doherty, Jones, & Ross, 1999). Taking a
more relational understanding of power, parents and educators can look
to their shared interest in advancing the education and well-being of chil-
dren to help them work through inevitable differences and conflicts.
This course of action can be challenging, and we suggest that parent
engagement efforts can benefit from agents like CBOs, which can act as
go-betweens to help parents and educators create a truly collaborative
Observers have increasingly noted that neighborhood-based schools
have the potential to be sites for social capital building (Driscoll, 2001),
but one that is largely unrealized. We began this research project because
2214 Teachers College Record
we understood that CBOs have been expert social capital builders
(Saegert, Thompson, & Warren, 2001; Silverman, 2004). Many have sig-
nificant experience working to reweave the fabric of urban communities
by linking residents together and developing their capacity to work with
experts to be change agents for their neighborhoods (Briggs & Mueller,
1997). When CBOs are authentically rooted in community life, they can
bring to schools a better understanding of the culture and assets of fam-
ilies (Shirley, 1997), as well as resources that schools may lack (M. E.
Lopez, Kreider, & Coffman, 2005). As go-betweens, they are well situated
to build relational bridges between educators and parents and act as cat-
alysts for change (Fruchter, 2007; Gold et al., 2002; M. E. Lopez et al.;
Warren, 2005).
Although the field of parent involvement and community–school part-
nerships has been written about extensively, the work of community-
based organizations in parent engagement is a new field of study.
Therefore, we sought to conduct a set of exploratory case studies that
would produce findings to help us begin to map the terrain of this
emerging field. We chose the qualitative approach of case study research
because it is recognized as an appropriate methodology to develop new
theory in relatively unexplored phenomena (Ragin, Nagel, & White,
2004). Case study methodology enables us to understand a phenomenon
in context as an integrated whole, allowing researchers to of fer a “holis-
tic description and explanation” (Merriam, 1998, p. 29) of each case.
Meanwhile, by using a multiple-case design, we were able to compare
across the cases to identify commonalities and differences as a step
toward identifying general themes to understand the larger phenomena
of school–community engagement (Stake, 2006).
Using purposeful sampling (Merriam, 1998; Yin, 2003), we chose one
representative case of each of the three types of community–school col-
laborations identified by previous research (Warren, 2005), as noted
above. Although each case was chosen to be broadly representative of its
type, we chose firmly established and well-developed collaborations that
would highlight the potential of the field. These cases were chosen, then,
because we believed that they offered the richest opportunities for the
creation of new knowledge (Stake, 2006). Cases were chosen through
consultation with experts on school–community collaborations; these
included researchers, practitioners, and leaders of intermediary organi-
zations and foundations. For the service model, we studied the Quitman
Street Community School in Newark, New Jersey; for the development
A Community-Based Relational Approach to Parent Engagement 2215
model, we studied the Camino Nuevo Charter Academy in Los Angeles,
Califor nia; and for the organizing model, we studied the Logan Square
Neighborhood Association in Chicago, Illinois. This selection of cases
gave us some reach across regions of the country and across racial/ethnic
groups. Although we acknowledge that studying three cases does not
enable us to generalize to all cases, we believe that choosing cases based
on pr evious mapping of the community–s chool engagement fie ld
(Warren, 2005) allows us to make some claims to representativeness.
All three case studies used the same combination of data collection
methods, including interviews, participant observation, and document
analysis. Data were collected in two rounds. The first round, conducted
in 2004, was designed to identify key features of each model through doc-
umenting the development of each case; the results have been published
elsewhere (Warren, 2005). The findings in this article build off the data
from the first round but come primarily from data collected in a second
round of fieldwork conducted in 2005, focused on processes of parent
engagement in each case.
Two researchers from a team of four con-
ducted the fieldwork together at each site.
Researchers conducted formal interviews with a total of about 20 par-
ticipants at each site, including CBO staf f, school principals, teachers,
and parents.
Through referrals by CBO staff, we selected parents active
in the principal activities sponsored by the school and CBO, and teach-
ers involved in some way with these activities. This selection was appropri-
ate because interviews were designed to understand descriptively the role
that the CBO played in engaging parents at each site and its effects.
However, during our observations of school activities—rallies, meetings,
after-school pick-up locations—we were able to conduct brief informal
interviews with a wide spectrum of parents. These brief interviews gave us
insight into how broad parent engagement was at each site and allowed
us to gather the views of parents who were not as actively engaged as
those we formally interviewed. In our research, we sought to document
how parent engagement changed over time and to identify continuing
problems and challenges. Researchers sought to reveal, in detail, the
experiences and perspectives of parents, and we sought to determine the
views of school personnel and community staff on parent engagement
as well.
Researchers also observed committee meetings and public events, a
total of about 12 at each site. These were held variously at schools and at
venues sponsored by the CBOs. We also observed settings in schools and
in CBOs. In these observations, researchers tried to look for the extent
of parent participation and its depth. We also observed the nature of
interactions between parents and professional staff to help assess the
2216 Teachers College Record
dynamics of building collaborative relationships.
Finally, researchers collected documentary material, including leaflets,
program brochures, and newspaper articles. Here we sought to gain a
better understanding of the kinds of activities in which parents partici-
pated, as well as the broader context of the work of the school and CBO.
To increase the accuracy of our analysis, we triangulated among these
data sources; in other words, wherever possible, we checked what people
told us against what we observed ourselves and what was stated in pub-
lished accounts.
Interview material and observational field notes were analyzed using
categories derived from our social capital theoretical framework and
those that arose inductively from the data. For each case, we constructed
analytical profiles in which we identified key elements of each CBO’s par-
ent engagement strategy, how this strategy was developed and imple-
mented over time, contextual factors that appeared important, effects of
parent engagement on school and community, and continuing prob-
lems, weaknesses, and challenges. To strengthen the validity of our find-
ings, we l oo ked inten tionally for dis crep an t data and alternative
interpretations for our emerging argument (Maxwell, 1996). We then
looked across the case profiles for commonalities and differences, con-
structing cross-case displays and analytical matrices (Miles & Huberman,
1994). Through this process, we were able to identify the three core ele-
ments of a commonly shared relational approach to parent engagement
and to highlight how this approach varies in some important ways across
the cases.
We now present narratives of the three cases we studied. In each narra-
tive, we set the context for the CBO–school collaboration and sketch its
overall character. We then focus on describing the parent engagement
strategy of the collaboration, how it developed over time, and what its
results have been. Within these narratives, we begin to draw out the ele-
ments of the relational approach for parent engagement we found, high-
lighting issues of relationship building, leadership development, and
efforts to close gaps in culture and power between parents and educators.
We discuss the approach in detail in the Discussion section, which follows
the narratives.
The Quitman Street Community School in Newark, New Jersey, has made
A Community-Based Relational Approach to Parent Engagement 2217
important strides in building a foundation for parent engagement in a
deeply troubled community.
When the elementary school partnered
with the Community Agencies Corporation of New Jersey (CACNJ) to
transform itself into a community school in the late 1990s, the collabora-
tion sought to make the school a center to serve families and rebuild
community. To do so, the school and CBO have had to work hard to over-
come challenges posed by extreme poverty, instability, and rapid neigh-
borhood change.
Deindustrialization and White flight left Newark’s central ward, where
Quitman is located, very poor and unstable, conditions that continue to
this day. In many ways, Quitman’s largely African American student body
represents the poorest of the poor, with over 90% of its approximately
400 students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch. Many parents
struggle to find decent-paying jobs and adequate housing. Drugs, alco-
hol, and gang involvement have become commonplace among young
people. The struggle for day-to-day survival has taken its toll on family
life; some children at Quitman are raised by grandparents or other rela-
tives, or are in foster care. Newer initiatives that have torn down many
public housing projects and older apartments have forced thousands to
relocate. Meanwhile, as older African American families have moved out,
the neighborhood has seen an influx of a diverse group of new immi-
grants from Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. Consequently, it is
not surprising that the principal reports that the school experiences a
transitory rate of about 30%–40% as students move in and out of the
Quitman School recognized that it could not adequately serve children
without addressing the complex set of needs facing students and their
families that came from these conditions. The school could become a
center for family- and community building, but it could not do so alone.
To address these multiple challenges and create a more welcoming
school environment, the Quitman School partnered with CACNJ in 1996
and adopted the model of a full-service community school. CACNJ, an
agency with roots in the neighborhood going back over 100 years, was
well placed to help the school open a full-service clinic and an after-
school program, the two key elements of the community school.
As it has done for more than 7 years now, the clinic at Quitman pro-
vides a full array of physical, dental, and mental health services to chil-
dren and their families. The after-school program offers tutoring and
after-school enrichment programs, such as dance classes and field trips to
cultural events in the city; the school also offers a summer program.
Quitman practices a holistic approach to schooling, recognizing that a
combination of factors—environmental, physical, and psychological—
2218 Teachers College Record
affect a child’s ability to learn. Meanwhile, the community school and the
access it provides to CACNJ act as a lifeline for many families, providing
assistance with jobs and housing, for example.
George Worsley, the social worker at the health clinic, provided an
example of how the clinic is a resource to the school. He described a
child who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): “The
child does poor academically because she can’t focus. If the parent got
the child diagnosed and got the proper medication to help control the
behavior, she can learn better.” In the past, many children at Quitman
went undiagnosed and were labeled as troublemakers in the classroom.
Now, the staff of the clinic with expertise in ADHD provide the support
that teachers and parents need to work together to help the child.
Quitman did not want the clinic and after-school program simply to be
“add-ons,” but rather saw the community school initiative as an effort to
strengthen and transform the entire school as a learning community.
They placed the clinic and after-school program in a central location in
the school where parents can easily access their services.
Rebuilding relationships and establishing trust. Quitman staf f recognized
right away that relationship building would prove critical to the success
of the effort. Prior to the advent of the community school, distrust per-
vaded the Quitman School community. With constant administrative
changes and high teacher turnover common in an urban school like
Quitman, teachers felt overworked and under pressure. One teacher
admitted, “It’s not a relaxed atmosphere. . . . Things are dictated to us.”
Meanwhile, parents felt alienated from the school district because they
saw changes being implemented about which they were not properly
infor med.
For example, the constant introduction of new curricula to
meet the demands of testing and standards left many parents frustrated.
Ms. Mundine, the director of the after-school program, described this
There’s not a lot of communication with what happens at the
school level and the district level. Things happen, but parents
were not at the table. You never know what’s going to happen
next year. . . . There are so many dynamics that we don’t have any
control over. It’s an endless cycle of frustration.
Because many parents who grew up in Newark did not have positive
experiences with school themselves, this sense of alienation only exacer-
bated tense relations between parents and schools.
After so many disappointments, some school staff and parents were ini-
tially wary of CACNJ; they worried that CACNJ would be just another
A Community-Based Relational Approach to Parent Engagement 2219
group of “outsiders” coming in. It helped that CACNJ had been working
in the community for a long time and that some staff members, like
Gloria Chisom and Worsley, the social worker at Quitman, were longtime
members of the community. Worsley described the feelings of many
African American parents in Newark’s central ward when he said, “A lot
of the problems that I faced as a child are still here. . . . Parents haven’t
felt welcomed and comfortable throughout the city.”
Staff of the clinic and after-school program worked hard to build rela-
tionships and trust both with teachers and with parents. They supported
the work of teachers in practical ways and forged trust through working
together with them in teams. Meanwhile, the staff of the community
school emphasized consistency to build trust with parents. Over several
years, the community school staff was able to convince parents that they
were “here to stay” and could be trusted as partners in helping to better
educate their children.
Compared with years of feeling neglected by the city’s public institu-
tions, parents now say they find a smile and someone willing to help when
they go to the clinic or to the after-school program. For many parents, the
clinic acts as a first point of entry into the school because most families
now use the clinic as the primary care provider for their children. This
means that a child does not have to travel far to get his or her needs met,
and met quickly, which helps to build trust between the school and the
parent. Parents said they trust that the school will take care of their child
if he or she has a problem. Parents reported that staff of the community
school, specifically Mr. Worsley, the social worker, and Ms. Mundine, the
director of the after-school program, are people they will go to if there is
a problem with their child. And many adult family members now turn to
the community school staff for support when they confront issues of
abuse, chronic health problems, or death in the family.
Rather than thinking just about how to involve parents on an individ-
ual basis, Quitman community school staff have made a concerted effort
to build relationships among parents in a welcoming environment. In
fact, the clinic and after-school program have helped to create a fabric of
relationships that create a welcoming place for parents. Indeed, parents
we interviewed consistently described the school as “warm” and as a
needed alternative to the environment outside its walls. As a result, the
school has become a safe place for parents. School programs are cen-
tered in the lives of the families, programs that meet their immediate
needs and signal to parents that the school cares. When one walks into
the school on any given day, it is not uncommon to see parents dropping
off their children, talking to teachers, and hanging around the school
2220 Teachers College Record
Once parents began to enter the school to receive services, and once
they began to trust school staff, Quitman had the basis to begin to involve
parents more actively. This was not an easy process because poverty, fam-
ily instability, and long work hours can make it difficult for parents to get
involved. The clinic engages parents by organizing workshops that staff
members believe will be of interest to parents, such as how to help chil-
dren with asthma or autism. In fact, clinic workshops have addressed a
range of issues, helping many families who have suffered grief and loss
from the death, separation, or incarceration of a close family member.
The clinic has also organized support groups such as the Lean on Me
program, which gives parents the opportunity to come together and talk
about common issues that concern them. Time and time again, parents
report that they find that the community school helps to connect them
to a greater network of support in a safe and positive environment. By
meeting the needs of parents, the clinic builds relationships with parents
and brings them into the life of the school.
From involvement to engagement: fostering parent leadership. Like the clinic,
the after-school program also functions as a point of entry for parents to
more fully engage in the life of the school.
Parents see the after-school
program as supporting them because it provides a place for their chil-
dren while they are working. Parents who enroll their children in the
after-school program are required to sign a volunteer contract and attend
a certain number of workshops per year. The school tries to hold work-
shops at least once a month and designs them to meet the immediate
needs of parents. Workshops can focus on issues at the school, such as the
new math curriculum, or they can focus on family and community issues
such as gang awareness. Attendance at these workshops varies with the
topic. Over this past year, for example, one of the most highly attended
workshops focused on gang involvement. The school invited a former
gang member who had been imprisoned to come and talk to parents
about the risks that their children face. Parents find a supportive commu-
nity in workshops like these and in the Lean on Me program. As one par-
ent, Ms. Smith, noted, “Parenting doesn’t come with a rulebook,” and the
community school is now providing a place for parents to gather and
work together to raise their children. CACNJ has also provided over 200
families the opportunity to participate in weekend family conferences at
a Y camp in the Catskills. This opportunity to “retreat” together in a safe,
positive recreational environment has strengthened relationships and
helped to build a sense of caring and community around the school.
Parents at Quitman do not just come to the school to receive services.
In the context of growing trust and community, the school has begun to
build the capacity of parents to be involved in leadership at Quitman; a
A Community-Based Relational Approach to Parent Engagement 2221
group leader program plays the key role here. The after-school program
hires and trains parents as its group leaders. Over the 7-year period that
the program has been in operation, the after-school program has trained
more than 100 group leaders. Group leaders supervise children in the
after-school program and help students with a wide variety of activities—
sewing costumes for performances, assisting in classrooms, supervising
recess, tutoring and mentoring children, and doing office and data entry.
Group leaders are important adult supports for children. Ms. Hay, a
group leader, commented on their role: “We try to help the kids be more
positive. We tell them there are better ways to solve issues. A lot of these
kids don’t have parents at home or they live with a grandparent. We
tell them to come to us. They have issues that they can’t talk to in their
To help group leaders do this work, in 1999, the community school
enlisted the aid of another partner, Bank Street College, to provide them
with training opportunities to learn firsthand about child development.
Parents believe that this preparation has helped them in their work as
group leaders as well as in their role as parents to their own children. Ms.
Hay, for example, admitted that through being a group leader, she has
lear ned how to deal more effectively with her own children. Being a
group leader also presents possibilities for professional development. For
instance, Ms. Sholanda, a group leader, is now going to pursue further
education in early childhood development. In these ways, Quitman is
building the capacity of the parents to be leaders in the school and
change agents in their own lives.
These group leaders have helped close the gap between parents and
teachers at the school as they play the role of relational bridges between
school teachers and the larger population of parents. Parents say that
they often find it easier to interact first with group leaders than with
other school staff because group leaders are parents like themselves.
Meanwhile, because group leaders are on site everyday, they interact fre-
quently with the children’s teachers. Teachers commonly relay messages
to parents through group leaders. Ms. Foy, a firs t-grade teac her,
observed, “If I reach out to a group leader and talk about needing to talk
to a parent, they call me that night.” Because of their positive experience
with group leaders, teachers begin to see parents not so much as prob-
lems or troublemakers, but as resources for the school. So teachers, in
tur n, have made themselves more available to parents, often providing
parents with their personal cell phone numbers. Teachers are now
designing curricula that involve parents at home, such as a family time-
line or a family tree. Over time, the group leader program has started to
change the culture of the school to bring it closer to family and commu-
2222 Teachers College Record
nity as its presence has begun to redefine relationships between teachers
and parents.
Struggles on the path to engagement. As the community school and its
group leaders program create a new avenue for parent engagement,
questions have emerged around what form best facilitates parent voice at
the school. Some continue to see Quitman’s more traditional PTA as the
main vehicle for parent voice and power. But group leaders in the after-
school program offer a different view, as do some school staff. For exam-
ple, two members of the school staff, a teacher and Ms. Mundine, the
director of the after-school program, expressed concerns that not
enough parents sit on the PTA for it to be the voice of the Quitman par-
ents. Although Quitman welcomes parent participation in a variety of
for ms, it seems that the real engine for the development of parent
engagement now comes through the community school and its group
leaders program.
The Quitman case demonstrates that a community school can be an
important and useful model for engaging parents when services are com-
bined with opportunities for parent leadership, reflecting what Leavitt
and Saegert (1990) called “service engagement” (p. 190). Many of
Quitman’s parents struggle with day-to-day survival, and many previously
had a negative attitude toward the school. In this context, meeting the
basic needs of parents offers a necessary foundation for participation;
meanwhile, the service programs create a more positive and trusting atti-
tude among parents, also a foundation for participation. Going beyond
service provision, the after-school program values parents as leaders and
places them in position in which they can be meaningfully involved in the
life of the school.
We saw examples of continuing tension between service and engage-
ment, though, because a service model does tend to emphasize family
needs rather than family assets.
Quitman staff are aware of this dynamic.
Ms. Mundine, for example, has acknowledged that it is now time to do
another survey of parents to develop more creative programs for parents.
She admitted, “Maybe we are offending them. Not all parents want to be
told how to parent.”
The service–engagement tension, however, raises the larger question
of the extent to which parents exercise power at the school. Most of the
parents interviewed said they felt that the school was doing a good job of
engaging parents. And most of the parents interviewed also felt as
though they could speak up if need be.
Meanwhile, several school staff
observed that parents do not recognize the power they do have. However,
there is not much evidence to suggest that parents play an influential role
in schoolwide decisions. They do not, for example, seem to be exerting
A Community-Based Relational Approach to Parent Engagement 2223
influence at a policy level, at least not yet. Nevertheless, parents are
highly involved in everyday activities at the school, where they do exert
meaningful influence; and it is these everyday activities that are reshap-
ing the culture of the school. Change is percolating from the ground up
as CACNJ helps parents build relationships, develop their capacity to
lead, and forge stronger collaborative ties to teachers.
For many of the parents interviewed, Quitman is now like a school of
choice for them. They want their children to be at Quitman. They are
happy with the curriculum and the teachers, and this is quite a change
from the widespread mistrust and alienation felt 10 years ago. It’s also
quite an accomplishment given the challenges posed by concentrated
poverty and neighborhood instability. Quitman started by “meeting par-
ents where they are at,” making the school a center for family life and
community building and thereby creating a foundation for authentic par-
ent engagement.
When the Camino Nuevo Charter Academy opened its doors in the heart
of Los Angeles’s MacArthur Park, it came as an answer to the prayers of
Latino parents for a neighborhood school of their own.
Camino Nuevo
was started by the Pueblo Nuevo Development Corporation (PND), a
community development corporation in MacArthur Park. PND sought to
open a school that would embrace Latino parents who were otherwise
alienated from existing schools in the Los Angeles Unified School
District (LAUSD). Since its opening, Camino Nuevo has made strong
progress in developing the school as a community-based institution, one
in which an engaged parent body and social justice-oriented school staff
build community and actively work to foster neighborhood development.
In so doing, Camino Nuevo has created a new culture of schooling that
supports and engages Latino immigrant families struggling to survive in
the harsh reality of LA’s economy.
As a new wave of immigrants from Mexico and Central America flocked
to LA, many began to settle in MacArthur Park. Lacking skills and some-
times legal papers, many came to work in low-paid blue-collar and service
jobs. MacArthur Park became one of the poorest and most transient
neighborhoods in LA, with a poverty rate of 35% and an average median
income of only $11,475 (Farbstein, 2003). Its families faced problems of
adequate housing, crime, and neighborhood blight. But one of their
biggest concer ns was education.
MacArthur Park’s immigrants came to LA with dreams of a good edu-
cation for their children but soon expressed strong dissatisfaction with
2224 Teachers College Record
the schooling they received. A total of 16,000 children were bussed out of
MacArthur Park to attend school in other parts of LAUSD, making it dif-
ficult for parents to access their children’s schools and teachers. In addi-
tion, staff at these schools often did not speak Spanish, thereby limiting
the interaction between parents and the school. Many parents worried
that by high school, their children would drop out of school and have dif-
ficulty moving out of poverty.
Phillip Lance, an Episcopal minister and executive director of PND,
saw an opportunity to create a new school to address the concerns of
MacArthur Park parents. In the early 1990s, Lance and PND had opened
a neighborhood thrift store and later helped janitors in the community
for m a janitorial company. By the late 1990s, PND had developed a rep-
utation for engaging the community in revitalizing the MacArthur Park
neighborhood. Taking advantage of the state’s charter law, Lance saw
opening a charter school as the next step in an effort to build and
strengthen the MacArthur Park community. Lance raised financial sup-
port from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and the Low
Income Investment Fund (LIIF), two community development financial
inter mediaries, and partnered with Excellent Education Development,
Inc., and New Visions Foundation for support with academic program-
ming and financial administration.
Camino Nuevo opened the doors of two elementary school campuses
in the fall of 2000. The academy proved immediately popular, filling to
capacity and generating a waiting list of over 1,000 students. Within a
couple of years, Camino had opened two middle school campuses and,
more recently, both a high school and a preschool.
The academy now
serves over 1,200 students across its several campuses, 65% of whom are
English language learners. Ninety-seven percent of Camino Nuevo’s stu-
dents are on free or reduced-price lunch.
Welcoming and engaging parents. PND understood that serving the edu-
cational needs of Latino children required creating a school that wel-
comed and engaged their families. Moreover, coming from a community
development perspective, Lance and his partners set out to create a
school that would operate as a center for building community and as a
social change agent. Opening as a charter school would give them the
flexibility they needed to create such a community-oriented school. They
hired teachers committed to teaching a social justice curriculum and to
getting involved in community development in the neighborhood. These
teachers, for example, have organized neighborhood clean-ups and
health fairs. But the school does not just “do for” the Latino community.
Aware of the highly transient nature of the neighborhood, Camino
Nuevo has worked hard to make the school a site for bringing parents
A Community-Based Relational Approach to Parent Engagement 2225
together and engaging them in the education of their children, thereby
strengthening the community. Camino Nuevo has tried to create a cul-
ture of schooling that values and respects families and integrates them
fully into the life of the school.
To engage parents, Camino Nuevo first sought to make the school a
place where parents would feel welcome and respected, where they could
begin to build relationships with school staff. In their previous experi-
ence with LA district schools, parents had regularly complained that they
did not feel comfortable entering the schools because there were no
Spanish-speaking staff readily at hand. So Camino Nuevo made the
Spanish language an integral part of the new school. The school made
sure to hire bilingual staff so that at least 50% of the school’s teachers,
administrators, and paraprofessionals could speak Spanish. And it started
to offer an after-school program that provides a culturally relevant pro-
gram with classes on Latino music and dance. As a result, parents began
to see that school could be a place that welcomed them and that actively
supported their culture. According to one parent, “We are proud that
this school is open for us. Doors [are] opened until 6 p.m. They also sup-
port the dance, ballet, and guitar arts of the traditional Spanish culture.”
With this foundation of cultural respect in place, Camino Nuevo’s
bilingual staff worked hard to build relationships through systematic con-
tact and dialogue with parents. School administrators make an effort to
attend all school workshops to show their commitment and accessibility
to parents. When Ana Ponce took over as executive director of the acad-
emy in 2001, overseeing all the school campuses, she immediately cre-
ated a monthly coffee time with parents. This venue, called “café con Ms.
Ponce,” has proved highly successful. Parents now organize these gather-
ings, and they provide a regular venue for parents to meet each other,
share information and concerns with Ponce, and sometimes raise impor-
tant issues to be addressed. Ponce also developed an elaborate system of
commu nication using bulletin boards, newsletters and works hops.
According to Ponce, the staff “constantly communicate ahead of time,”
and parents now are “responsive” and “come to expect” the relationships
that the staf f have established with them. Parents, for their part, report a
sense of openness in the school, in strong contrast to the alienation they
felt in LA district schools. One parent commented, “Here at this school
we can easily talk to the principals and teachers. [The] community is very
open and very easy to access.”
Once parents felt respected and welcome and had some real relation-
ships with each other and with school staff, Camino Nuevo had a stronger
basis on which to get parents to actively participate in the life of
the school. To do so, the school requires parents to sign a contract to
2226 Teachers College Record
volunteer 15 hours over the course of the year. Parents can choose to
spend time in the classroom as a classroom aide reading to students, or
around school helping with the lunches and patrolling the hallways. For
parents with a more restrictive schedule, there is an option of taking a
parent packet home, where they prepare materials for the classroom.
Attending workshops is another way for parents to fulfill their volunteer
hours. Ana Moreno, a parent, described her involvement:
Before Camino Nuevo, when we were at another school, we were
not involved in the school. [But here] at this school, there is
more parent involvement [through] meetings and activities and
workshops. There [are] a lot of projects. I get involved in the
neighborhood clean-up. I also get involved in the fairs and what
books to read.
As they fulfill their contracts in different ways, parents contribute in a
direct way to the functioning of the school. But rather than thinking of
parents just as individuals to get involved in the school, Camino Nuevo
understands these activities as an opportunity for parents to build rela-
tionships with each other and with school staff to create a community
around the school.
Building the foundation for parent leadership. As parents began to fill the
halls of the school, Camino Nuevo saw the need to help develop the
capacity of parents to be strong participants in the education of their chil-
dren. In 2001, Camino Nuevo hired a full-time parent engagement coor-
dinator, Zulma Suro, the director of Health and Parent Programs, to
develop workshops to assist parents to better support their child’s learn-
ing and growth. Parents reported the value of these opportunities. For
example, parent Fatima Mendoza felt that the parent activities allowed
her to lear n “how to communicate with [her] children.” She also learned
how “the classroom works” by being in the classroom, sitting in and see-
ing what students do. Participation has given her a better understanding
of the curriculum and how her children are progressing academically.
She reported that this knowledge made her more comfortable engaging
with the school and its staff.
Camino Nuevo parents also have some input into deciding what sup-
port the school will provide. They do not necessarily wait around for
Camino Nuevo staff to tell them what they need. Suro, the parent coor-
dinator, talks with parents on a regular basis to gauge what workshops to
bring in. She commented, “We try to get input from parents in every-
thing we do.” Suro designs surveys to ask the parents “how we are doing.”
Similarly, parent Ana Moreno noted, “At [this] school, it takes parents
A Community-Based Relational Approach to Parent Engagement 2227
into consideration when they make decisions. Parents are part of making
those goals.”
It turns out that parents’ concerns go beyond educational issues per se,
as families in MacArthur Park struggle to survive and prosper in their
new city. Rather than remaining entirely school focused, Camino Nuevo
tries to help parents with other needs, like housing, and they have spon-
sored workshops on tenant rights, for example. Ponce noted that the
workshops that were well attended by parents focused on “things they
deal with every day.” She felt that these workshops help build relation-
ships with the parents because they provide “a certain level of services
besides the education.”
Like the group leader program at Quitman, Camino Nuevo also offers
parents the opportunity to take paid positions that use their growing
body of skills and knowledge. Parents are hired as paraprofessionals to
work in the cafeteria, in the office, and as classroom aides. These posi-
tions not only offer parents employment but also opportunities to see
their children in the school context. One parent employee commented,
“I am happy with the school, my work, and the teachers. I really like work-
ing here because at the same time I am working I can be with my child.”
For parents with limited job opportunities, these positions fill an impor-
tant need, but they also foster parent engagement in the school. Like the
group leaders at Quitman, these parents serve as relational bridges
between teachers and the broader parent body at the school.
There is evidence that parent participation has increased significantly
over the 4 years since the school’s inception. According to Suro,
Before, our workshops had 10 parents; right now, the workshops
would have 100 parents. As we give more parents voice, they
spread the word. . . . We have recognized that not all parents are
the same. We know that some parents do 15 hours and that’s all;
other parents do 100 hours.
Parents seem to respond because, as many told us in interviews, they
feel that Camino Nuevo staff and teachers care about their children and
families and that the school prioritizes this work.
From the beginning, though, Camino Nuevo wanted to go beyond tra-
ditional forms of parent involvement to cultivate authentic parent lead-
ership and participation in decision making in the school. But it is taking
a while to build the foundation for that. The school-site council, a deci-
sion-making body for the school, now has some parent leaders who par-
ticipate in schoolwide policy making. But Camino Nuevo increasingly
understands the necessity and value of building the knowledge and skills
2228 Teachers College Record
of emerging parent leaders, many of whom lack much for mal education,
if they are to assert real power at the school level. Meanwhile, as they have
become more engaged, parents themselves have begun to ask for oppor-
tunities to develop as leaders. For example, parents on the school-site
council asked for more training so they could play a more equal role with
educators on the council. Suro explained, “Every year we do a little bet-
ter. This year we’re doing more on the site-based council, the whole
speeches, election, and training of the new school-site council. This is the
best year for the site council. All the prep in the beginning of the year
really helped.”
Suro, for her part, tries to create the space for parents to assert them-
selves. She said she now takes the lead from the parents. When asked
about her vision for the parents, she said, “I’m going to wait for the par-
ents [to tell me].” In this way, Camino Nuevo has started to establish a sys-
tematic way of building parent leadership by meeting parents where they
are at, building on their strengths, supporting them in taking the next
step forward, and providing a range of opportunities for participation
and leadership.
Creating a ladder of opportunities for greater participation plays an
important role in Camino Nuevo’s parent engagement work, and this has
been true since the school’s inception. In fact, the staff enlisted the help
of parents and the broader community to open the school. Here a par-
ent explained, “I worked at the thrift shop first. [I] got involved with
opening the school by helping clean the classrooms. [They then] gave
me the opportunity to continue working with the school. It opened [the]
doors to work with the community.” Parents who so choose have the
opportunity to grow and develop their leadership. Others can participate
in a way appropriate to their needs and desires at the time.
Creating a new school culture: a social justice lens. An active, engaged par-
ent body is one of the components of the new school culture that Camino
Nuevo has established; it also aligns with the community-based social jus-
tice orientation of the school. For Camino Nuevo’s founders, social jus-
tice is not just about fostering critical thinking on the part of students; it
is about parents, teachers, and students working together as community
activists. Camino Nuevo purposefully hires teachers committed to social
justice. These teachers work to foster in students a sense of responsibility
for their community. They organize students to conduct community
clean-ups and petition to have garbage cans placed on the street corners
surrounding the schools. This sense of collective responsibility then flows
outside the school block. Parents now actively watch over the neighbor-
hood and tell the principal if they see anything that looks suspicious, like
gang or drug activity. Another parent commented, “[Camino Nuevo]
A Community-Based Relational Approach to Parent Engagement 2229
gives a chance not only to the kids but also to parents to act together, to
work together. [When] the teachers motivate the students, the parents
[get] more involved.”
Camino Nuevo is working hard to create a community of learners and
doers, with the school serving as a center for community revitalization. In
fact, Camino Nuevo now wants parents not just to become leaders in the
school and immediate neighborhood but to have the opportunity to con-
nect with a larger social reform movement as well. Ponce believes that
they are moving toward that goal by talking with the Industrial Areas
Foundation (IAF) about joining its Los Angeles chapter, One LA. The
IAF is a national community organizing network that features a system-
atic leadership training program and organizes citywide around a multi-
issue agenda for low-income communities.
When PND realized that access to neighborhood quality education was
lacking in MacArthur Park, its solution was to open a school embracing
Latino parents who were otherwise alienated from existing LA schools.
Since then, Camino Nuevo has made strong progress in developing the
school as a community-based institution, one where an engaged parent
body and social justice-oriented school staff build community and
actively work to foster neighborhood development. In so doing, Camino
Nuevo has changed the culture of schooling for Latino families in the
MacArthur Park area.
With the help of her staff, Ponce envisions Camino Nuevo parents play-
ing a bigger role in setting school policy, developing their leadership
skills, and advocating for their own cause one day. At the heart of this
vision lies the recognition that Camino Nuevo parents and students rep-
resent the new face and future of California and the United States more
broadly. Camino Nuevo and its PND partner have begun to create the
kind of institution through which the leadership of this new community
can emerge.
Coming from a community organizing tradition, the Logan Square
Neighborhood Association (LSNA) makes the most systematic effort to
develop parent leadership of any of the collaborations discussed in this
LSNA works collaboratively with seven elementary and one mid-
dle school in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago, focusing its
efforts on cultivating parent leadership. Its model Parent Mentor pro-
gram has served as an engine for fostering parent leadership in the
schools and in the community. Parent leaders have built a strong sense of
community and have worked with educators to launch a series of school-
2230 Teachers College Record
based programs to bring Logan Square’s schools together with the neigh-
borhood’s Latino families.
Founded in 1962, LSNA is one of Chicago’s oldest community organi-
zations. It has worked for years to foster community development in the
Logan Square neighborhood, located in the northwest part of the city.
LSNA organized residents in efforts to stabilize affordable housing in the
neighborhood and to address a range of issues like public safety, health
services, senior citizen programs, and community arts. By the 1990s, how-
ever, Latinos from Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Central America had largely
replaced the European immigrants who were living in the neighborhood.
Most public schools in the neighborhood became over 95% low income
and 90% Latino and had quickly become overcrowded.
The new Latino parents with whom LSNA was beginning to work cared
deeply about their children’s education and voiced concern about over-
crowded conditions in the neighborhood schools. As a result, the or gani-
zation decided to launch a new campaign to build more school facilities,
eventually succeeding in getting the city to open two new schools and sev-
eral school annexes in Logan Square. Meanwhile, the 1988 Chicago
School Reform Act established elected and powerful local school coun-
cils at every school, creating opportunities for more meaningful forms of
parent and community participation in neighborhood schools (Fung,
2001; see also Nakagawa, 2003).
The collaborative relationships that LSNA built with school principals
during this campaign created the possibility for LSNA to launch a novel
organizing strategy as part of its 1994 holistic plan. LSNA saw the poten-
tial for schools to become institutional sites around which to organize
parents and develop their capacity to be leaders in their children’s edu-
cation and in the broader community. Compared with MacArthur Park,
Logan Square’s Latino community, although largely composed of low-
income families, was much less transient and contained a mix of home-
owners and renters, which helped to create a more stable base of
potential parent leaders. School overcrowding was also a pressing con-
cern to most of the affected Logan Square school principals. By focusing
on a common interest of parents and administrators, as well as the lead-
ership development of parents, LSNA moved explicitly away from a more
traditional model of involvement, in which parents support school needs,
to a model of engagement. In the LSNA–school approach, parents and
school staff, along with the support of LSNA organizers, work collabora-
tively on a project of shared interest.
In 1995, Funston School principal Sally Acker proposed a parent pro-
gram that would build parent participation in the school, and LSNA
moved quickly to put it together. The new Parent Mentor program
A Community-Based Relational Approach to Parent Engagement 2231
proved popular with parents at other schools and, with the agreement of
principals, spread to seven other neighborhood schools. LSNA’s Parent
Mentor program has served as the starting point and engine for leader-
ship development over the past 10 years. LSNA raises funds to hire par-
ent mentors, who are almost all Latina mothers, to work 2 hours a day in
classrooms supporting the work of teachers. Parent mentors attend
weekly workshops on a range of educational and social issues designed to
enhance their ability to be school and community leaders. The training
is coordinated and facilitated by LSNA organizers and parents with the
support of classroom teachers. More than 100 Latina mothers work as
parent mentors each year across eight neighborhood elementary and
middle schools. Over 1,000 parents have participated in the program to
Moving from individual involvement to collective engagement. One key to the
success of the program is the supportive community that LSNA creates
among parent mentors. As parents tackle their personal goals and take
on new and often challenging roles as mentors and tutors in the class-
room, they find support from other parents in the program. In a school
environment that may feel foreign, unfamiliar, or intimidating to the
largely immigrant group of Latino parents, relationships with other par-
ents become a critical source of support that encourages involvement in
the school. Silvia Gonzalez, a parent tutor at Monroe Elementary School
whose son has received special education services from the public
schools, uses her network of parent tutors to talk about her son’s educa-
tional needs. No longer feeling as if she must manage these needs in iso-
lation, she said, “[the parent tutors] serve as a support group. We support
one another, sometimes for school issues, sometimes for personal issues.
I’ve found a lot of people I can trust and talk to.”
When parents build meaningful relationships with other parents
around the school, this can result in a greater sense of a collective com-
munity. As parents work with students as classroom tutors or as they meet
other families through school events or house meetings, they create a
community in which involved parents look out for the interests of each
other’s children—indeed, of all children at the school. When Sylvia
Gonzalez first volunteered in her son’s school prior to the Parent Mentor
program, she did not know or meet other parents. Each day she signed
in, went to the same workroom, and left without any interaction with
other parents: “Before, it was just on my own, and it really revolved
around my son’s needs.” But her experience with LSNA’s Parent Mentor
program was different:
Having more people involved, you support one another. In the
2232 Teachers College Record
mor nings when we sign in, we meet, check up on each other, talk
about the different things going on in the classroom and our
kids’ lives. That’s the difference in being involved . . . you have
other people to share the experience with.
Now, Gonzalez feels that she is involved with the school as part of a
community. “With the parent mentor program, we’re like a little family.
We do things together, and I guess that’s what really helps you and moti-
vates you.” Whereas Gonzalez’s earlier experience as an individual parent
volunteering in support of her own child reflects a common model of
parent involvement in which parents often work in isolation from one
another, LSNA explicitly designed a model of parent engagement that
promotes a sense of collective community and shared participation.
Gonzalez is not alone in this perception, and as parents make connec-
tions across schools in Logan Square, the sense of community expands.
In our observations of LSNA meetings that bring parent leaders from the
eight schools together, we observed a strong feeling of camaraderie. As
the meeting rooms fill with parents, women greet each other war mly and
start lively conversations. The informal chatter reflects a sense that these
women are connected—sharing concerns, nurturing friendships, and
supporting each other in their work as parent organizers. In fact, parents
repeatedly refer to the network of parents as “a family.”
As a result of this collective experience, Gonzalez believes that many
parents move from understanding their involvement in individual terms
to a more collective one. Knowing that many parents work long hours
and cannot support their children’s education in ways that she can,
Gonzalez said, “[I want to] make a difference in a child’s life—not just my
own but in someone else’s child. Just boosting their self-esteem and let-
ting them know they can do it. That’s what parent involvement is—help-
ing other children, not just your own.”
When parents view themselves as a collective group and their families
as a community bounded by similar interests and desires, a foundation to
act collectively and to become more powerful agents in the school
emerges. Relationships are at the core of bringing this power to parents.
But to gain the necessary power to become active participants in the
school, parents must also develop their individual capacity to be leaders
within this community.
Developing parents as leaders. The second key to the success of the Parent
Mentor program is precisely its focus on leadership development. LSNA
envisions leadership development broadly, paying attention in a more
holistic way to the personal development of each parent as a leader
within the group setting. The first thing parents do when they start as
A Community-Based Relational Approach to Parent Engagement 2233
mentors is set personal goals. The goal must be personal, concrete, real-
izable in 6–12 months, and carry real significance for the parent. Behind
this goal setting is the belief that for parents to help children succeed,
they must themselves have a sense of achievement and success. Maria
Alviso, coordinator of LSNA’s Parent Mentor program at Monroe School
In the training that I give them, the first thing and during the
whole week that I train them, what I try to do is raise their self-
esteem, to help them to reach goals. So this way what I tell them
is that if you have a good self-esteem, and you have goals, then
you will help children to do the same thing. So, in one way when
they are in the classroom, they are all ears for those children who
need it, and always they are helping children. Sometimes, you
know, children cannot talk to their parents because the parents
maybe are working the whole day, someth ing like that.
Sometimes these children have confidence to approach this par-
ent in the school, to tell them things that are happening in the
home, or things that are happening to them personally, so this is
what I’m saying, the parents help them.
Many of the parent mentors choose an educational goal—obtaining a
GED, attending college, pursuing a professional degree—that not only
serves as a model to children but also builds their own confidence and
skills as individuals.
The Parent Mentor program also builds leadership capacity by focusing
many of the training workshops on increasing knowledge of educational
practices and issues. LSNA organizers believe that parents must first have
infor mation and knowledge about school and community issues if they
are to become meaningful leaders. The Parent Mentor training curricu-
lum therefore includes sessions on such topics as the qualities of a leader,
building one-on-one re latio nships, improving communica tion with
teachers, and building children’s self-esteem. Leticia Barrera, an LSNA
organizer, explained, “The most important thing for an organizer is to
educate our people. I need people to know what they are doing and why.
It’s not just to show the numbers of people.” According to Barrera, many
parents do not understand the power they have to make decisions in the
school, and LSNA’s role is to support their development as leaders who
are committed to the community.
The combination of personal development and knowledge building
proves powerful for many Latina mothers who have few opportunities for
participation in public life outside of home-based activities. In this space,
2234 Teachers College Record
parents set new personal goals, meet other parents, and gain a sense of
confidence in their school involvement. Many then go on to further
involvement and leadership in school and community life. LSNA staff
member Lisette Moreno-Kuri explained,
When parents start in the Parent Mentor program and go on to
the Literacy Ambassadors [program], they have these goals now.
Thinking, I can really do this. They never thought they could
teach a class or read to kids. Then they realize they really need
their GED, and that’s how we encourage them to attend in the
evening to do their GED. After the Parent Mentor program, par-
ents often become more involved through the numerous oppor-
tunities to further develop their skills as leaders and organizers.
As parents become more involved and active, they may take on
leadership positions, gain the skills to take on a job as a class-
room assistant, or move into other education-related opportuni-
ties at LSNA.
In fact, as parents emerged as leaders, they began to work with LSNA
organizers and collaborate with school staff to launch a series of impor-
tant initiatives meant to address school and community needs. Parent
mentors at the Funston School developed a plan to open a community
lear ning center at their school. Other parent mentors liked the idea and
spread the model to their schools as well. LSNA now raises funds and
runs centers at six neighborhood schools, offering a range of classes in
the evening to children and adults. Some classes are more academic,
including English as a second language, citizenship, and GED programs,
whereas others involve cultural enrichment, like folkloric dancing, quilt-
ing, and cooking. Latino participants see the cultural classes as important
to maintaining their heritage. Meanwhile, some parent mentors took the
opportunity to become teachers in the centers, whereas others worked in
child care or as security guards; a for mer parent mentor directs one of
the centers. LSNA’s community learning centers were some of the first
established in the city and have been cited as a model by Chicago Public
Schools’ CEO Ar ne Duncan to encourage more schools to adopt such
Parent leaders have also initiated several other programs at Logan
Square schools. The Nueva Generación program, a “grow your own
teacher” initiative, enrolls Logan Square parents in a tuition-free college
program leading to certification as bilingual teachers. The classes are
held at the school-based community learning centers with the expecta-
tion that parent graduates will teach in Logan Square schools. LSNA’s
A Community-Based Relational Approach to Parent Engagement 2235
Literacy Ambassador program pairs parents and school teachers to visit
the homes of other parents to help them support their children’s educa-
tion. The program gets parent leaders and teachers working together col-
laboratively, and it builds closer ties between the school and community
as teachers spend an evening in the homes of their children’s families.
LSNA’s newest program is a parent tutor program in which parents are
trained to be tutors in school classrooms. And parent mentors have also
helped initi ate community campaigns around housing and health
By now, LSNA and the parent mentors have created an integrated web
of programs and, like Camino Nuevo, a ladder of opportunities for par-
ent participation and leadership at a variety of levels. By designing com-
plementary programs, LSNA provides opportunities for parents to stay
involved, develop the skills they need to become active participants in the
schools, and make a long-term commitment to their child’s education.
According to Moreno, parents view these as “seamless” programs that
have become “stepping stones in their lives.” By understanding what par-
ents need (e.g., opportunities for adult education, school knowledge,
leadership opportunities) and providing long-term solutions for parental
involvement, LSNA provides a program structure and content that fos-
ters parent capacity to participate and lead at a variety of levels. Contrary
to traditional conceptions of parent involvement in which schools often
deter mine the structure and content of parent activities, these parents
play an active role in determining and leading programmatic initiatives.
Parent mentors serve as the relational bridges between teachers and
the broader parent body that we found at Quitman and Camino Nuevo
as well. As parents become more active participants in the school, they
become more visible to students and staff, and they begin to change the
school culture. Part of the anonymity and misunderstanding that existed
between parents and teachers is replaced with a better understanding of
the culture of families and the local community. With greater opportuni-
ties to meet and work with teachers, parents feel more welcomed by the
school and more comfortable in what was previously an unfamiliar envi-
ronment. Teachers also have opportunities to get to know parents, many
of whom have a different language, culture, and background than them-
Unlocking power in relationships. It took patient relationship-building
work on the part of some school staff to overcome the mistrust of parent
participation. Even though principals have been strong supporters of
LSNA programs, teachers were initially suspicious, as Maria Alviso
explained: “Before, teachers thought the PMs [parent mentors] or any
parents were spies and were afraid to let them in. Now, teachers ask for
2236 Teachers College Record
parents, and I don’t have enough.” Sonia Acevedo, a teacher at the
Monroe Elementary School, also attested to the change in school culture
over time: “At the beginning, the teachers, they were not so happy to
share their classroom with other teachers at night, with the community
center at night, probably about people touching things. But now they
take care of things.”
New relationships among parents and newly developed leadership
capacities have brought about changes in the collective sense of power
and agency among parents. At least some parents now exert their wishes
and authority with more power as leaders and decision makers at the
school level. For example, Monroe Elementary School parents came
together to protest a school change initiated by the Chicago school dis-
trict in 2005. Because of overpopulation at Monroe, the Chicago Board
of Education decided to bus the school’s seventh- and eighth-grade stu-
dents to a nearby school. When the board announced the plan, an
uproar arose immediately from parents whose children would be
uprooted from a familiar environment and learning community. As
employees of the district, school staff largely stayed in the background as
parents organized a campaign to stop the district’s decision. Monroe par-
ents serving on the Local School Council (LSC), a governing body of par-
ents, community members, teachers, and the school principal, mobilized
parents and made appeals to city aldermen to help stop the district’s pro-
posed plan. Parent tutor and LSC member Silvia Gonzalez, who person-
ally phoned Illinois State Senator Miguel del Valle, recalled, “I spent all
of that Friday distributing flyers and making phone calls to parents.
Teachers told us we were fighting a big giant—the Board of Ed—but the
community just came out—in the first LSC meeting, we had about 200
parents come to talk about the issue.” Because of mounting opposition,
the board backed down and withdrew its proposal as parents celebrated
their victory. Monroe parents now speak excitedly about their success in
winning their demands from the district because it symbolizes the power
they have achieved to support their children’s education.
It is hard to imagine that parents would have been able to act so quickly
and with such confidence and organization if relationships had not been
built and parents did not see schools as places to exercise their leader-
ship. LSNA has provided the training and support opportunities for par-
ents that have created the possibility for them to emerge as independent
leaders. Ofelia Sanchez, a Monroe parent tutor and LSC member,
This is an example of how much the school means to the fami-
lies in the neighborhood LSNA wasn’t directly involved. In a
A Community-Based Relational Approach to Parent Engagement 2237
way, they were involved because all of the parents in the school
were with the Parent Mentor program. They [parent mentors]
are the ones who know how the school works, the environment.
They were the ones that were fighting for this.
Many Monroe teachers and administrators were also celebrating the
parents’ victory, and this fact points to an important facet of LSNA’s
approach. LSNA is careful to do its parent work in close collaboration
with educators at its eight schools. The organization works hard to
develop programs that reflect the shared interests of parents and educa-
tors and to help educators see the value of strong parent leadership at the
schools. Both educators and parents have had to grow and develop, to
lear n from each other, to make collaboration work.
Through a model of community organizing, LSNA encourages parents
to become leaders, to challenge school policies when necessary, and to
become an assertive force within the school. This is a significant change
from the situation at many schools, in which teachers and administrators
typically set the boundaries and guidelines for parent involvement.
Because a school’s culture often reflects the inequalities of power among
stakeholders such as parents, teachers, and administrators, changing a
school’s culture often requires that a culture of power (Delpit, 1988) be
challenged and transformed as well. In this case, parents who were con-
nected within a larger community, who felt a sense of collective interest
in the school community, and who had developed their talents as school
leaders are beginning to reshape a school culture into one that supports
active engagement.
By developing a core group of parent leaders, the Parent Mentor pro-
gram is the foundation that drives LSNA’s work with parents. LSNA lead
education organizer Joanna Brown sees the Parent Mentor program as a
model for leadership development for immigrant women:
Over and over again, the women themselves speak about being
transform ed by the experience. Many were isolated in their
homes by language, culture, and small children. For many, it is
their first step out into the public sphere. This works in part
because the school is the safest public institution, filled with
women and children.
There is some evidence that the collaborations and parent engagement
efforts we studied have led to gains in student learning in these three
2238 Teachers College Record
cases. Between 1999 and 2005, the percentage scoring at or above the
national norm for the Iowa reading test rose at all LSNA-affiliated
schools, from an average of 29.5% to an average of 38.9%. For math, the
average percentage rose from 32.2% to 44.3%. The percentage of stu-
dents in the lowest quartile dropped substantially as well.
Nuevo elementary school’s Califor nia API score rose from 485 in 2002 to
651, a significant increase. The elementary school still ranks 2 (low) in
comparison with all schools in California, but it now ranks 4 (out of 10)
for similar schools. Both the elementary school and middle school have
exceeded their growth tar gets, and the middle school now ranks 9 (with
10 the highest) in comparison with similar schools.
At Quitman, the per-
centage of fourth graders scoring at the “proficient” level on the lan-
guage arts literacy test of the state’s Elementary School Proficiency
Assessment rose rapidly, from 24.2% in 1999 to 61.8% in 2002, and there-
after has increased more slowly, to 66.7% in 2004. This puts the school
just under the state standard of 68% proficient but above the district aver-
age. Math scores rose significantly over the previous year, but at only 37%
proficient, they lag behind district averages.
These gains in student learning suggest that community-based forms of
parent engagement can contribute to student learning. Of course, these
schools and their districts have under gone other changes during this
period, so it is difficult to disentangle the causes for student improve-
ment. Nevertheless, the schools are aware of the importance of demon-
strating gains in standardized tests and continue to work to strengthen
their core mission in teaching and learning.
Moreover, it is now widely accepted that parent engagement has an
important impact on st udent achievement in a variety of w ays
(Henderson & Mapp, 2002; Hoover-Dempsey & Sandler, 1995). We can-
not directly compare the impact of a relational approach to parent
engagement on student achievement with the impact of more traditional
parent involvement efforts. However, some studies are beginning to sug-
gest that successful collaborations of the kind discussed here—that is,
between and among parents, teachers, principals, and community orga-
nizations—can have an important impact on student learning. A recent
study of the 144 inner city public elementary schools in Chicago identi-
fied as low achieving in 1990 that substantially increased their reading
test scores, typically to the national average for the Iowa reading test,
found that “the most consistent feature of these schools is that all adults
work as a team to improve education, including the teachers, parents,
Local School Council, principal and community agencies” (Designs for
Change, 2005, p. ii).
A Community-Based Relational Approach to Parent Engagement 2239
We now turn to a discussion of the key findings from our analysis of these
case narratives. In our view, the collaborations between CBOs and
schools discussed previously share key features. Despite their differences,
which will be addressed, the cases offer a distinct, relational approach to
parent engagement that has led to important gains in the breadth and
strength of parent participati on in schools . This commun ity-based
approach (1) highlights relationship building, (2) develops the capacity
of parents to be leaders, and (3) works to close the gaps in culture and
power between educators and parents. The three aspects are related.
Strong relationships among parents create mutual support and a sense of
community out of which parents can develop as leaders, and the asser-
tion of their leadership can produce change in power relationships and
the culture of schooling. We will discuss each of the three elements of a
relational approach to parent engagement in turn and contrast this
approach to more traditional forms of parent involvement.
In different ways and to various extents, LSNA, Quitman, and Camino
Nuevo all prioritize efforts to build relationships among parents and
between parents and educators at the school. The LSNA organizing
approach is perhaps the clearest in building relationships among parents
as a foundation from which parents can participate as equals in the
school. Parents find mutual support and encouragement from other par-
ents who are in similar circumstances and come from a similar culture. In
terms of the preceding social capital discussion, these efforts build bond-
ing forms of social ties as a basis to enter broader “bridging” efforts at col-
laboration with educators. In the context of mutual support, the more
experienced leaders, like Maria Alviso at LSNA and Fatima Mendoza at
Camino Nuevo, go on to mentor newer parents and can play a particu-
larly powerful role in inspiring them to develop as leaders.
By contrast to this relational approach, we would argue that parent
involvement is typically viewed as individualistic: It’s about a parent’s sup-
port of her own child at home or about the connection between one par-
ent and her child’s teacher. In the approach discussed here, parent
engagement becomes a shared responsibility. Individual actions, of
course, still matter, but they are set in a collective context. When parents
view themselves as a collective group and their families as a community
bounded by similar interests and desires, a potential foundation to act
collectively for the benefit of all children can emerge. Parents can enter
2240 Teachers College Record
schools not as isolated individuals standing alone on the school’s turf, but
as powerful actors.
We suggested in the Theoretical Framework section that bonding rela-
tionships might need to precede bridging ones; that is, parents might
need mutual support first to be able to collaborate as equals with educa-
tors. But our cases suggest a more complex relationship. At Quitman and
Camino, school and CBO staffers begin to build bridging relationships
with parents if not prior to, at least coterminous with, building relation-
ships among parents. Nevertheless, whatever the exact order, all these
schools pay attention to bringing parents together so that bonding social
capital is generated.
Relationships create a sense of community and shared responsibility
for children. This finding suggests the potential for schools to serve as
institutional sites for social capital building. But to serve that role, they
can benefit from CBO partners. For example, George Worsley and Gloria
Chisom used the reputation they had built over the years through their
work in CACNJ to help begin to overcome the distrust that parents had
in Quitman School; they knew the community well and could help build
relationships at the school. In all our cases, CBOs play a key role as cata-
lysts for social capital building, both bridging and bonding.
Meanwhile, bridging relationships between parents and teachers and
other school staff provides a basis for more meaningful collaboration
(and mutual accountability) so that the school and home work together
for the benefit of children. We found a particularly important role for
parent leaders—like Quitman’s group leaders and LSNA’s parent men-
tors—to play as relational bridges between school educators and the
broader population of parents. As teachers get to know parent leaders,
they can develop a better understanding of family culture and a concrete
sense of how parents can be assets to, not problems for, the school.
Meanwhile, parents can use parent leaders, with whom they feel comfort-
able in their common identity as lay people, as go-betweens to facilitate
relationships with professionally oriented teachers.
Building collaborative relationships between parents and educators is
challenging, however, because the starting point is one of unequal knowl-
edge and power. By nature of the profession, teachers are college edu-
cated, middle class, and experts in the work of schools (Lortie, 1975). In
low-income urban areas, many parents have limited education (Lareau,
1989) and, if they are immigrants, often limited English proficiency
(Suarez-Orozco & Suarez-Orozco, 2001). They may have expert knowl-
edge about their own children, and they may have sound understandings
about many schooling issues, but they often lack sophisticated expertise
in curriculum and pedagogy (Lawrence-Lightfoot, 2003). Consequently,
A Community-Based Relational Approach to Parent Engagement 2241
working-class parents typically bow to teacher professionalism (Horvat et
al., 2003). Bonding social capital—that is, mutual support—helps build
parent confidence, but it is not enough. The other essential piece offered
by our community-based cases is leadership development.
All three collaborations that we studied try to foster the development of
individual parents—personally, professionally, and as school and commu-
nity leaders. They meet parents where they are at, helping to solve the
problems that families face in low-income communities. But fundamen-
tally, they do not focus on “deficits” (Valenzuela & Black, 2002) but rather
recognize parents as “assets” to schools. Consequently, they set out to
build the capacity of parents to be leaders. Two aspects of the approach
to leadership development appear important. The CBOs we studied pro-
vide support and mentoring to parents, understanding leadership devel-
opment in a holistic, personal way. And they sponsor structured training
around issues in education and community life so that parents develop
the skills and knowledge necessary to be participants and leaders with a
greater voice and decision-making role in the school and community.
Our cases also offer a variety of types and levels of involvement that par-
ents may choose—a ladder of engagement. This is important because all
parents are unlikely to become key school leaders. It may be better to
think about parent engagement as a pyramid, with large numbers of par-
ents participating in smaller ways at the bottom (supporting their chil-
dren in the home or in classroom activity), a sizeable group active in
larger projects in the middle (e.g., in schoolwide activities), and then a
relatively small group the most active at the top (e.g., in school policy
making). Having strong relationships throughout the pyramid ensures
that parent leaders really represent the larger parent body. Meanwhile,
having multiple leadership development opportunities gives parents the
option to move up the ladder of engagement, depending on interests
and available time.
In contrast to our cases, most public schools in low-income and urban
communities do not typically think about parents as leaders (Noguera,
2001). Although teachers are now recognized as potential leaders in
schools and much attention is paid to how they can develop their leader-
ship capacity (e.g., Task Force on Teacher Leadership, 2001), families
often remain out of the picture. Rarely recognized as potential school
leaders, parents are more typically viewed as uninterested and even as
unsupportive of school efforts. Although a few parents may step forward
to lead PTAs or serve on school-site councils and parent advisory coun-
2242 Teachers College Record
cils, these formal structures often only include a small group of parents
who participate based on whatever skill and experience they bring. As a
result, most observers agree that parents rarely attain a real measure of
power in school decision making (Cutler, 2000; Fine, 1993; Sarason,
Although we know that a parent’s sense of self-efficacy matters greatly
for her involvement (Hoover-Dempsey & Sandler, 1997), there are few
avenues in many schools through which larger numbers of parents can
develop the capacity to lead. When schools do think about increasing
parent knowledge and capacity, they typically hold workshops on peda-
gogical iss ues—for example, on a new math curricul um (Hoover-
Dempsey & Sandler, 2 007). This kind of workshop is, of course,
important, and the cases that we document also offer them. But the col-
laborations we studied work to embed this kind of knowledge building
within a more holistic approach to parent capacity development and per-
sonal growth; moreover, they work to build a group of parents who can
exert influence together.
When parents emerge as leaders, their roles change. Rather than sit at
workshops as passive recipients of knowledge and communication from
the school, they can begin to help set the agenda for educational change
and program development. Rooted themselves in more extended parent
and community networks, parent leaders can help shape initiatives that
authentically reflect the values, concerns, and needs of students and their
families, as we have seen in the cases we discuss.
Just as CBOs can help build relationships with parents in and around
schools, they can also offer a venue for parent leadership development
that schools themselves may not be well suited to offer for several rea-
sons. Typically, schools have little expertise in this area (M. E. Lopez et
al., 2005); they may want to remain focused on student learning; and they
may remain apprehensive about parent power (Fine, 1993). The best
arrangement for generating meaningful parent leadership, albeit one
not easy to achieve, may well be the kinds of school–CBO collaborations
discussed in this article.
The CBOs discussed here all make intentional efforts to change the cul-
ture of public education to create schools that incorporate the culture,
values, and interests of the communities they serve. This has not been an
easy task. But the three cases have all made some important strides and
have done so through a process that involves meaningful engagement
between parents and educators, mediated by the CBO. Parents at all
A Community-Based Relational Approach to Parent Engagement 2243
schools reported a welcoming and respectful attitude. Each school has
developed programs, like Latino cultural arts, that reflect community cul-
ture. All have parents actively engaged in the school working alongside
school staff and, in many cases, designing new initiatives with educators.
Parents at Camino Nuevo played important roles in the design of the
academy’s new high school and its preschool center. Parent mentors in
LSNA sponsored the Literacy Ambassador program that pairs parents
and teachers in doing home visits together.
More traditional school-based parent involvement efforts in which
schools set the agenda and work to include parents on an individual basis
have long been criticized for reflecting what we have called a “power
over” approach to parents. These involvement programs typically fail to
give parents any real measure of power in schools (Fine, 1993). Scholars
(Carreon et al., 2005; Diamond & Gomez, 2004; Soyoung, 2005) have
noted that parents of color often have different values for education or
different ideas about their participation, but these are not recognized in
traditional top-down approaches.
As an alternative some have looked to efforts to organize parents out-
side of schools so that they can pressure schools to take their concer ns
seriously (Delgado-Gaitan, 2001; Henig, Hula, Orr, & Pedelescleaux,
1999; Mediratta & Karp, 2003; Soto, 1997). As we have found in our study,
when parents organize collectively, they can create a sense of community
and become a more powerful force vis-à-vis schools. Yet, however impor-
tant and necessary these more “outside” efforts may be, they can remain
limited by their own attempt to generate a degree of community “power
over” schools.
The relational approach to power, reflected in the work of the CBOs
studied here, helps us get out of a dichotomy in our current understand-
ing of parent engagement, participating either passively inside or com-
batively outside schools. This relational approach recognizes the reality
of potential conflict between parents, community leaders, and educators
but invites them into a collaborative process that fosters the “power to”
create solutions together. In fact, dealing with conflict rather than avoid-
ing it can often lead to stronger collaboration (Heckman, Scull, &
Conley, 1996). Increasing parent power through collaboration does not
require that teachers lose their authority as experts in education. But it
does require that teachers enter authentic processes of relationship
building and engagement with parents and community leaders. Rather
than approaching parents with the agenda of teaching them how to be
better parents or to simply support the school’s agenda, the relational
approach engages parents around their own interests and values and
respects their contributions. In this process, both educators and parents
2244 Teachers College Record
grow and change, potentially forming a learning community together.
A key lesson of our study is the role that CBOs can play as intermedi-
aries to help create conditions for authentic collaboration between edu-
cators and parents. Our model attempts to offer an alternative “power
with” approach, in which CBOs help parents build bonding social capital
and empower themselves while also creating bridging ties and collabora-
tion with educators. Rather than ignoring or suppressing conflict, ten-
sion is seen as sometimes necessary, something to work through to get to
collaboration. However, this kind of strategy may not work everywhere.
School of ficials may fear bringing conflict out in the open (Nyberg, 1981;
Shirley, 1997) and historically have resisted sharing power with parents
(Cutler, 2000). But our cases suggest that there may be a new generation
of school leaders who see the need for a different approach. A collabora-
tive approach requires openness on the part of school officials to change
and to confront the difficult challenges of learning to share power (Crow,
1998). And it requires parents to work to overcome mistrust or percep-
tions of institutional racism to seek collaborative orientations.
To better understand the distinctiveness of the relational approach to
parent engagement, it may be helpful to contrast it with the more tradi-
tional approach to parent involvement implemented in urban public
schools in low-income communities. These more traditional programs
are certainly important. For example, the National Network of
Partnership Schools, following Epstein et al.’s (2002) six-part framework
of parent involvement, has shown the possibilities of engaging parents in
a variety of school settings. Studies of efforts like these have established
the connections between parent involvement and positive school out-
comes such as student academic achievement (Epstein, 2001; Henderson
& Mapp, 2002). But we would characterize these more traditional parent
involvement programs as individualistic, school centered, and activity
based. In other words, schools often attempt to involve parents as individ-
uals in activities determined mainly by educators (Epstein et al.).
rhetoric of the newer term family–school partnership suggests a greater
degree of mutuality between educators and parents; many authors now
stress the importance of two-way communication between parents and
teachers (see, e.g., Chrispeels, 1996; Henderson et al., 2007). But in prac-
tice, these partnerships seldom break with the traditional school-centric
and activity-based model of parent involvement.
Rather than thinking about involving the individual parent, the rela-
tional approach tries to build relationships among parents as a basis for
A Community-Based Relational Approach to Parent Engagement 2245
their collective participation. Rather than starting with an activity—for
example, getting parents to attend a math night—this approach starts
with relationships that create conversations to give parents an opportu-
nity to articulate their own concerns. Rather than having the school set
the agenda or the activities, we have highlighted the value of providing
parents with opportunities to take leadership in setting a joint agenda.
Rather than top-down communication from educator to parent, a rela-
tional approach creates opportunity for meaningful conversation and
mutual learning across the lines that divide our urban schools from the
communities they serve.
Table 1 highlights contrasting elements between the two models. For
heuristic purposes, it emphasizes the differences in these approaches. In
practice, of course, any particular school that takes a more traditional
approach may try to bring parents together as a group, or it may create
greater op portunities for parent particip ation in decision making.
Nevertheless, we think that the two approaches are quite distinct.
We have developed our relational model from a study of three cases, so
further research will be necessary to see whether it broadly reflects the
work of community-based organizations and whether it leads to similar
results in increasing the breadth and depth of parent engagement in
schools across a variety of settings.
Nevertheless, there is some evidence
that elements of the community-based approach to parent engagement
we’ve sketched here are gaining wider currency as a broader range of
community-based and civic organizations have sought to influence pub-
lic education. For example, the Prichard Committee for Academic
Excellence, a statewide advocacy group in Kentucky, has worked for years
to improve schools in part through fostering parent leadership in its
Commonwealth Institute, and it has published a series of reports advocat-
ing the need for parent leadership (e.g., Henderson, Jacob, Kernan-
Schloss, & Raimondo, 2004). Meanwhile, some scholars and analysts have
stressed the importance of relationships for building a foundation
for authentic and powerful parent participation in schools (Mapp, 2003),
or they have stressed the importance of relational trust for school
Table 1. A comparison of school-centered and community-based models
Traditional School-Centered Model Community-Based Model
Activity based Relationship based
Parents as individuals Parents as members of community/collective
Parents follow school agenda Parents as leaders and collaborators in setting agenda
Workshops that provide information Training for leadership development and personal growth
School to parent communication Mutual exchange of relational power
2246 Teachers College Record
improvement (Bryk & Schneider, 2002; Tschannen-Moran, 2004). And a
variety of analysts of parent participation in culturally diverse communi-
ties have stressed the importance of bridging the gap in culture and
power between schools and the communities they serve and have
searched for collaborative models (Comer, 1996; Moll et al., 1992).
In this ar ticle, we have worked to show how these three elements are
interrelated and can be combined into a new paradigm for parental
Although parent engagement represents a key piece of the puzzle of
school change and student improvement, it should not be considered a
magic bullet. In the context of demands for a quick fix to the problems
of urban schools, a strategy for parent engagement is one of long-term
investment. Our concern is to foster extensive and meaningful engage-
ment by parents in children’s learning and the life of the school, and,
beyond that, for parents to become active agents in the transformation of
their schools and communities.
Despite our emphasis on commonalities across the three cases we stud-
ied, we did find some important variation in parent engagement.
Quitman School in Newark places the most central emphasis on meeting
the service needs of children and families, making the school a center for
the support of families and community. Although Quitman has made
important gains in developing parent leadership, LSNA is virtually a lead-
ership generating machine, cultivating a large number of strong parent
leaders who have initi ated an impre ssive arr ay of programs. Like
Quitman, Camino Nuevo has made the school a center for community,
but one more oriented to community development and social justice.
And Camino has been able to establish a consistently strong culture
throughout its schools that is closely aligned with the community.
Contextual factors appear to help explain this variation and therefore
have important implications for how parent engagement can develop.
Where communities are the most troubled and families struggle to sur-
vive on a daily basis, as in Newark’s central ward, parent engagement may
have to start by meeting people’s basic needs. Perhaps services have to
precede an emphasis on stronger forms of parent engagement.
Nuevo also serves a highly transient community in which it is not unusual
for parents to lack legal documents, and it has also worked hard to meet
family needs. Compared with Newark’s central ward and even Camino
Nuevo’s MacArthur Park, the Logan Square neighborhood is more
mixed in income and more stable, with higher rates of home ownership,
A Community-Based Relational Approach to Parent Engagement 2247
perhaps providing a stronger foundation for moving directly to a focus
on leadership development.
Race may also matter. Quitman’s parent body is largely African
American, whereas Latinos predominate at both Camino Nuevo and at
seven of eight LSNA schools. There is some evidence that low-income
African American parents have more conflictual relationships with
schools (Diamond & Gomez, 2004; Lareau & Horvat, 1999). We did find
evidence of a higher level of mistrust surrounding relationships at largely
Black Quitman compared with the other schools, and this may suggest
that building parent leadership in collaboration with educators may be
more difficult to achieve. Given the higher level of need at Quitman and
the greater initial mistrust, the community school’s accomplishments in
building a foundation for parent engagement are perhaps all the more
impressive. But more study of CBO–school collaborations across differ-
ent racial groups would help clarify if and how the approach varies.
Variation in the mission, purpose, and orientation that the CBO brings
to collaboration with schools can also help explain differences across our
cases. Service organizations like CACNJ at Quitman are, of course, likely
to specialize in service delivery rather than leadership development per
se. Organizing groups like LSNA are experts in leadership development;
after all, that is their express purpose. Nevertheless, service and organiz-
ing strategies that work to transform existing schools have to work hard
to change school culture so that schools can become more closely tied to
families’ cultural traditions and be more open to sharing power.
Meanwhile, community development organizations like PND who
decide to start a new school can establish from the beginning a culture
that values the traditions of families and their community and that wel-
comes their participation on more equal terms. PND’s Camino Nuevo
was able to hire staff at the new school who held its community develop-
ment and social justice values from the beginning. So it is perhaps not
surprising that Camino Nuevo has done the most to organize the school
around the culture of its community and to make the school work
directly to foster community development.
We did not set out to construct a replicable model of parent engagement
to implement directly in other schools. However, we do think that there
are a number of lessons from this study for educators interested in broad-
ening and deepening parent participation in public schools in low-
income urban communities. First, educators can benefit from taking a
patient approach, building relationships over time. School leaders often
2248 Teachers College Record
“rush” to hold workshops that they think are important to school reform
goals, but few parents attend. This should not be surprising because a
large body of scholarship consistently shows that people come to partici-
pate in social action events of all sorts most often when someone they
know asks them to go (Diani & McAdam, 2003). In other words, relation-
ships matter to participation. Investment in parent engagement, then,
should be about creating the relationships that provide a foundation for
long-ter m and sustainable change in schools, not a quick fix to any
school’s problems.
Second, educators can look for opportunities to collaborate with com-
munity partners who have strong roots among the families whom the
school serves. Schools may not be able to do parent and community
engagement work alone (Schutz, 2006); they can profit from the social
capital expertise of CBOs that have long worked with families and com-
munities. Moreover, we have seen some benefits to having independent
CBOs serve as relational bridges between schools and families and as cat-
alysts for change (see also M. E. Lopez et al., 2005; Warren, 2005).
Finally, educators can benefit from understanding that communities
bring dif ferent needs, aspirations, and desires to their children’s educa-
tion. We have not tried to detail a particular program that can be scaled
up to work across all schools. LSNA’s Parent Mentor program, for exam-
ple, strikes us as a model initiative from which others can learn. But we
do not offer it as universally applicable to all communities. Too often,
model programs have disappointing results when imposed on school
communities rather than when they emerge from a deeply rooted
process of engagement (Coburn, 2003). We urge educators to seek an
authentic process of meaningful conversation with families and commu-
nity partners. If educators collaborate with community partners and help
to develop parent leadership, they can form collaborative initiatives
that meet the interests, values, and capacities of any particular school
In a way, our relational paradigm encompasses traditional parent
involvement activities. But we have tried to suggest the possibility to go
beyond involvement to offer an alternative framework for thinking about
more powerful forms of parent engagement in schools. An expanded
role for parent leadership lays the basis for developing meaningful col-
laborations to shift the culture of schools and for bringing schools into
better alignment with the families they serve.
More broadly, these cases challenge us to think about new relationships
between public schools and low-income urban communities. They ask us
to go beyond the “within the four walls” mentality in which the school
floats like a ship in a sea of community change. Instead, they suggest an
A Community-Based Relational Approach to Parent Engagement 2249
approach in which schools and communities can learn from each other
and can combine their efforts to link school improvement to community
1 We use the term parent in this article, but we recognize that many children are cared
for by extended family or other adults.
2 Weak and ineffective parent participation may be the reality in many kinds of
schools, but the focus of this article is on schools in urban low-income communities of
color. Any comparisons across race and class need to be made carefully. For example, there
is evidence that African American and Latino/Latina parents show higher rates of involve-
ment in school when compared with White and Asian American parents of similar socioe-
conomic status (Kerbow & Bernhardt, 1993), although some of this involvement may be
around problems their children are having with the school.
3 Others (e.g., Carreon, Drake, & Barton, 2005) have also employed the term engage-
ment. For a more extensive discussion of the contrast between parent involvement and par-
ent engagement, see Shirley (1997).
4 Social capital can also serve as a resource for individuals, including children in
schools, but we are concerned with collective action in this article; for a fur ther discussion,
see Coleman (1988), Putnam (1993, 2000) and Lin (2001).
5 The second round of data collection also served as a validity check for the study. We
were able to replicate the findings published from the first round in the interviews and
observations conducted a year later in the second round.
6 We quote almost all subjects by their real names. In a few cases in which subjects
requested anonymity, we refer to subjects by their position (e.g., parent volunteer).
7 For additional information on the development of the Quitman Community
School, see Warren (2005) and Dryfoos (2003). The school’s Web site can be found at
8 Although there has been improvement in this regard, parents continue to report
this as a problem.
9 Family involvement in after-school programs more generally has been shown to con-
tribute to family involvement in schooling (Harris & Wilmer, 2004).
10 Some critics of the service model argue that it reinforces an asymmetrical power
relationship between those serving and those being served and is ultimately disempowering
to parents (Keith, 1996; Merz & Furman, 1997; Smrekar & Mawhinney, 1999), but we argue
that Quitman’s model of “service engagement” represents a more balanced approach to the
situation at the school.
11 Some parents, however, admitted that they felt hesitant to speak up for fear that
their children would lose their placement in the school.
12 For further information on the development of the Camino Nuevo Charter
Academy, see Warren (2005) and Farbstein (2003). The academy’s Web site can be found
13 Data for this case discussion come from fieldwork at the two elementary schools and
one middle school campus.
14 The IAF’s Web site can be found at
15 Further information on the development of the education work of LSNA can be
found in Warren (2005) and Blanc, Brown, Nevarez-La Torre, and Brown (2002). LSNA’s
Web site can be found at
2250 Teachers College Record
16 More details about the Nueva Generacion and Literacy Ambassador programs can
be found in Warren (2005) and Gold et al. (2002).
17 The percentage in the bottom quartile in reading dropped from an average of
41.1% in 1997 (except Ames School, which is 1999) to 24.5% in 2005; the percentage in the
bottom quartile in math dropped from 40% to 22.5%. Data were derived from Chicago
Public Schools Web site (
18 The middle school API scores rose from 590 in 2002 to 654 in 2005, with a ranking
of 3 compared with all schools. Data were drawn from California Department of Education
Web site (
19 Data were drawn from New Jersey Department of Education Web site
20 PTA-type volunteerism occasionally offers a venue for collective action, but one that
is typically limited to fund-raising and other activities in support of a school-defined agenda.
21 None of our cases included high schools in a central way either, or schools that were
not primarily neighborhood based. How the model would apply in those cases requires
study as well.
22 In a study of migrant communities, Lopez, Scribner, and Mahitivanichcha (2001)
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MARK R. WARREN is associate professor at Harvard Graduate School of
Education. He studies the role of community organizing in school
reform and the relationship between community revitalization, school
reform, and civic engagement more broadly. Warren is the author of Dry
Bones Rattling: Community Building to Revitalize Democracy (Princeton
University Press) and “Community and Schools: A New View of Urban
Education Reform” (Harvar d Educational Review).
SOO HONG is an Assistant Professor in the Educ