Show, Don’t Tell: Strategies for Family Involvement in CES Schools

he continuity of family involvement at home appears to have a protective effect on children as they progress through our complex educational system. The more families support their children’s learning and educational progress, the more their children tend to do well in school and continue their education.
”A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family, and Community Connections on Student Achievement

As partners with parents in helping students grow, Essential school educators work to include families in school life. But as they do, they grapple with questions. What sorts of parental involvement in school positively influence their children’s academic successes? How can we best listen and respond to families’ ideas and concerns? How can we make parents into allies and advocates?

To view how connections between families and educators sustain small, meaningful, and intellectually challenging schools, Horace talked with educators and family members at six Essential schools: Quest High School in Humble, Texas; Scarsdale Alternative School in Scarsdale, New York; Mission Hill School in Roxbury, Massachusetts; The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center in Providence, Rhode Island; Leadership High School in San Francisco; and Fenway High School in Boston. While these school communities differ widely from each other on many measures, they all deeply value connections with families. Each school has worked to expand conversations about standards and goals, to improve their communication strategies, and to identify ways for family members to experience school life.

Family Conferences and Family Goal Setting

Families are often engaged in schools in a variety of ways — from fundraising, to sponsoring clubs and teams, to using school-based health services and adult-education classes. But for most of our schools, the key concern is getting parents involved in understanding and supporting their children’s academic work. Joyce Epstein, Director of the National Network of Partnership Schools and the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University, observes, “In this era of accountability, there really is an emphasis everywhere on helping youngsters do better on tests, meet standards, and work toward their highest potential. This carries over into desired kinds of parental involvement.”

Building a true collaboration between school and family around academic achievement and personal goal-setting, however, is not so easy. While parent-teacher conferences can be powerful venues for conversations about academic and personal goals for students, often such in-depth conversations prove nearly impossible to schedule. When they do occur, parent-teacher conferences are often strained, full of the anxiety of unasked questions. Parents might wonder, Does this teacher understand how much is at stake with my kid, how she needs to do well in school and get into college?” And teachers might think, “Does this parent understand that how much the pressure to succeed is causing this kid stress and preventing her from trying new things?” But they talk about the student’s successes, perhaps about how hard she works or where she might go to college, and they don’t get to the common ground of underlying issues.

John Wolfe, the Learning Coach at Mission Hill School in Roxbury, Massachusetts, teaches, tutors, works with children with special needs, and meets with parents and students. In conversation, Wolfe emphasizes the importance of breaking the mold of the typical parent-teacher conference; he believes that serious talk about a student’s school experiences must include parents (or other adult care-givers) and students. Wolfe says that the practice of including students in conversations between parents and teachers increases students’ power and reduces the charges of anxiety or miscommunication. Family conferences allow insight and information to be freely shared and openly discussed. “There is nothing that the teacher could say to parents that the kid doesn’t already know. In most cases, it’s fine to discuss school matters in front of a child. Family and school may disagree about conclusions,” says Wolfe. But if they talk together, with the student who lives in both worlds, there is common ground.

Jane Eberle, Director of Volunteer Services and Business Partnerships for the South Portland, Maine schools, agrees with Wolfe’s conviction that school conferences should include parents (or other adult care-givers) and students, noting that including students gives parents a powerful incentive for participating. Many of the South Portland schools are replacing parent-teacher conferences with twice-annual student-driven goal-setting conferences in which students discuss their progress toward their personal goals and the standards set by the Maine Learning Results. “It’s much more motivating, says Eberle. “Parents recognize the importance of their child participating in creating that educational plan and setting goals for year. The kids really need to be there and leading the conversation — it doesn’t work so well for parents to go back to their kids and say, ‘Your teacher says this and that.’ Parents want to support their kids and be there when they are doing important things with their lives.”

Corresponding with Eberle’s observation, Joyce Epstein’s research on effective family involvement programs shows that the power in conversations about student progress — which are typically school-driven — needs to be redistributed. “A powerful way to link families and schools is helping students set goals for the school year and then following how the family, the school, and the student are working toward those goals,” commented Epstein. “This is very helpful, especially if the process is student centered, meaning that it’s the student’s task to set goals and plan the conference and the family is brought into the task.”

As schools reach out to include families in planning and assessing students’ academic progress, it’s useful to recall that families already have expectations about the ways their children will learn and grow. When planning to talk to parents about their kids’ learning, it’s crucial that teachers ask parents about their goals for their kids. (For an example of this kind of conversation, see “Written on the Body,” Horace 18.4, Summer 2002.) Creating opportunities for parents, educators, and students to voice their hopes and expectations promotes clear communication and prevents students from feeling caught between family and school value systems.

Finding out what is on parents’ minds requires extra eVort as students get older. A Harvard Graduate School of Education study of family-school communication in kindergarten and first grade classes reports, “When asked about their strategies for communicating with study families, the most frequent type of communication teachers reported were informal meetings with parents at the beginning or end of the school day.” In the early years of school, parents are much more likely to be present at school for pick-ups and drop-offs, making that valuable informal communication possible. But as their children gain independence, parents are less likely to appear routinely at school, and casual contact between teachers and parents diminishes.

Larry Myatt, founder and long-time Headmaster of the 270-student Fenway High School in Boston, realized that if they were going to have meaningful connections with parents, Fenway staV members had to engage parents in conversations about parents’ concerns. “We had to reach out to parents and ask, ‘What are you struggling with and how can we help?’ Many of them were facing questions about their children’s progress toward higher education, especially in families where no one had ever been to college. How do you apply? What about financial aid? Or they’ll talk about how they’re having trouble talking with their adolescents, how their previously open, communicative kids have shut down. In focus groups, by talking with parents who came into the building, in meetings, whenever we could, we plumbed the parent community for real issues.” Fenway acted on these concerns by changing the structure of its Parent Council meetings, devoting the first hour of each to discussing specific, parent-raised issues such as teen sexuality, or gang involvement, or how to help with homework.

When School And Family Goals Don’t Align

At Fenway, as at most schools, parents’ objectives and the schools’ goals don’t always align perfectly. For years, Fenway teachers sustained rigorous standards while developing their own authentic measures of learning, ability, and growth. But high school graduation in Massachusetts is determined by the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test, rather than at the school level by the people who know what individual students have accomplished on authentic tasks.

Given the link between passing the MCAS and graduating, parents, of course, are often inclined to concentrate on their children’s test results. Fenway staff members, focusing on helping students develop broader skills and habits of mind, work to help parents to understand the goals of education beyond high test scores. Myatt explains, “Test scores are the coin of the realm right now. But we need to show parents that other student accomplishments can mean a lot more. Kids will take their portfolios to college interviews or to a job interview, and it makes a powerful diffrence. We do a little better than the district high school on tests. That’s nice, but it doesn’t say enough about the accomplishments of our students. I work explicitly with parents on how we use relationships and relevance to get to the rigor.”

Sometimes, in an attempt to respond to urgent issues, schools’ efforts don’t quite intersect with families’ concerns. Jane Eberle of the South Portland schools recalled an attempt to help parents that went awry because it was ripped from the headlines, not from communication with parents. “After the Columbine shootings, we planned a middle school parent meeting about guns and violence in schools. We got the word out by advertising it in the school newsletter. We planned to talk about the schools’ safety plans and about how to communicate with their kids about what’s happening. We organized a panel discussion that included the police chief, the school psychologist, a crisis response counselor — there were nine panelists. And only five parents showed up. It was not a local issue. We went wrong by assuming that anything that’s getting a lot of attention nationally is also a local concern.”

Employing Multiple Avenues For Communication

Lawrence Kohn teaches English and is the CES Coordinator at the 235-student Quest High School in Humble, Texas, now in its ninth year. Kohn pointed out an unanticipated consequence of creating a school where students thrive: some parents, not feeling the urgent need to fight for a better school for their kids, fade away. Kohn says, “Because we’re small and highly personalized, because things appear nice, some parents say, ‘Things are fine at my child’s school. I don’t need to be as involved.’ Consequently, we have to work harder to get people involved.” Quest principal Cecilia Hawkins added, “To get parents connected, we communicate at every level: email, phone, newsletters. The more we can communicate with families about what students’ school days are like — what the expectations are, how learning takes place — the more parents are willing to embrace something very different from what they experienced and what their friends’ children are experiencing at other schools. We constantly seek opportunities for clarification.”

For all sorts of reasons — transportation limitations, language barriers, family demands, work — many involved, committed parents can’t show up at school as often as they would like. Joyce Epstein commends schools that find ways to keep communication flowing without relying solely on face-to-face meetings. “Schools can decide which activities they really want everybody to come to,” Epstein said, “And they’re going to really work to make that happen by a variety of communications, supports and incentives. We guide schools to look at the planned program for the year and figure out what events are going to be really essential meetings in the school building for everybody. Usually, it would be three or four times a year that you would even think of seeing a large percentage of parents.” Epstein’s research shows that schools that offer families a variety of ways to get involved experience the most benefit from parental participation in school life. (See “Epstein’s Six Types of Involvement” for a range of approaches that characterize successful family-school partnership programs.)

Just as schools need to be thoughtful about when and how to include parents, there may be times when parental participation isn’t appropriate. Tony Aranella, director of Scarsdale Alternative School, with seventy-five tenth, eleventh, and twelfth graders, says he feels lucky. “Our families are great, really involved.” Core groups — advisories — meet weekly for lunch at students’ homes, and as a rule, parents in the school community deeply understand and actively support the school’s mission. “We are unique in this way,” says Aranella. “We don’t have to beat the bushes. But sometimes we find we have to draw the line. We are a democratic, participatory community, and some student gatherings such as community meetings or fairness committees can be confrontational. We expect honesty from kids. Over the years, we have had parents who want to come to these meetings, but it would be the kiss of death in terms of kids’ honesty.” Parents can, and should, know the results of decisions made in school community meetings, but it’s worth considering that their presence during heated, sensitive discussions might not help. Sometimes, especially at the high school level, a school’s core structures depend on confidentiality and trust, and educators need to find a balance between open communication with parents and clear limits on family participation.

Connecting Families To Student Work

Perhaps the only true down-side of parental involvement in schools is that it can add to the demands on teachers’ time and energy. For this reason, schools have to be judicious about the frequency of after-school, after-work parent-teacher-student programs designed to help parents deepen their understanding of the school’s structure, perspective, and goals. Some schools are experimenting with showing rather than telling, finding various opportunities to immerse families in the life of the school.

Many Coalition schools use exhibitions as a way to engage parents — and to add value to the students’ intellectual experience. Nancy Diaz, principal of Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center’s Public Street Campus, explains how parents get involved not only at the exhibition itself, but in the stages leading up to the exhibition. “Parents are required to come in four times a year to talk with the advisor about their kid’s work. We discuss what they want their kid to work on, and the teacher talks about what we want the kid to work on. We give them suggestions for resources and ways that they can help. We show them the material that their kid will be using. In these meetings parents, students, and advisors create a learning plan. Then the kids present work at exhibitions. Parents should be aware of what their kid will present; it’s in the learning plan. The work shouldn’t be foreign.”

When the Met’s students present their exhibitions, their families feel the joy of watching their child succeed or the pain of her missing the mark. Public exhibitions of what students know and can do provide strong incentive for families to help their kids succeed, and including families at the start of the process creates more opportunities for involvement and support. “It does take some time for parents to understand,” admits Diaz, referring to some parents wondering why they are being asked to participate so frequently. But she feels it’s time well spent, both in terms of student learning and transforming families into advocates for the Met’s way of doing school. “We re-educate parents about education,” Diaz says.

Advisories are another structure fundamental to many Coalition schools but often utterly unfamiliar to families. Jan Halson, Parent Liaison and former parent at San Francisco’s Leadership High School, plans to bring together the families of students in the same advisory groups to increase parental connection to the school and expand their resource base. “We are constantly looking for ways to improve lines of communication. Next year, we are planning advisory-based social activities with parents. It will create synergy between parents — just knowing other parents of the same advisee group is half the battle. When you need clarification about something in your child’s life, you’ll have that many more people to turn to.” Leadership and other schools also use advisories as structures for parent involvement: as a way to select parent council or parent-teacher-student association representatives, for example, or as a way to organize phone trees and other communication paths.

Some schools seek to incorporate parents’ wisdom and experience into the academic content of the school curriculum — in ways that don’t require the parents to come to school. “A lot of our pedagogy asks students to draw in their families to give testimony,” describes Fenway’s Larry Myatt. “For a Great Depression unit, students interview their grandparents. Or we ask students to find out how their family members experienced the civil rights era. This engages families in our pedagogy — and families are the best primary source documentation. Because we do this a lot, parents feel part of the life of the school.”

Drawing Parents Into The Life Of The School: Final Thoughts

Persistent contacts with families can make a difference in students’ academic and personal lives. By collaboratively discussing standards and goals, communicating clearly, addressing what really matters to families, involving parents in exhibitions, advisories, and curriculum, and establishing thoughtful boundaries between school and home, educators at Coalition schools are creating connections between school and home and, in the process, transforming families into advocates for small, personalized, rigorous schools. Parents and educators have limited time and varied resources; these constraints demand that we be critical about family partnerships and allow time to reflect on family-involvement efforts, soliciting feedback and refining practices from year to year.

Larry Myatt observes that schools are still finding their way toward these meaningful partnerships. “We’ve excluded parents from legitimate involvement in schools,” he says. “Drawing parents into the life of school is new. We don’t know always how to behave with each other.” But learning how is well worth it.


Epstein, Joyce L., et al. School, Family and Community Partnerships, Second Edition (Corwin Press, 2002)

Henderson, Anne T. and Mapp, Karen L. A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family, and Community Connections on Student Achievement (Southwestern Education Development Laboratory, 2002). Also available online at

Weiss, Heather, et al. “Beyond the Parent-Teacher Conference: Diverse Patterns of Home-School Communication,”