Four years ago, PTA President Jeff Falk was searching for a way to get more parents involved in Park Avenue Elementary School—a tall order for the Danbury, Conn., school, which historically has had a very involved parent community.

But Falk wanted to reach out beyond the ring of usual suspects: upper-income parents with high-achieving kids. And he wasn't just looking for involvement in the PTA. The former research chemist turned stay-at-home dad was hoping to get parents intimately involved in the schools curriculum with an eye toward improving the performance of all the students, whether they spoke English or one of the school's nine other languages: Bulgarian, Cambodian, Chinese, French, Khmer, Pakistani, Portuguese, Spanish, and Russian.

For a model of how to involve parents in improving schools, Falk and the administration of Park Avenue Elementary turned to the National Network of Partnership Schools at Johns Hopkins University. The group provided a road map for Park Avenue to follow.

The plan showed the school how to create five action teams for reading, writing, math, behavior, and partnerships. And in just four years, the results of those teams have been dramatic. Standardized test scores have risen, and behavior problems with children have dwindled, with suspensions all but disappearing. Communication between parents and teachers has flourished, with multilingual volunteers sending newsletters and making phone calls to parents each month.

"The Network pointed the way for us," says Falk. "It allowed us to go menu shopping and look at what other schools have done and what's worked."

The Network, as it is known, may be anchored in the research laboratories of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, but in its seven years, it has grown far beyond academic studies and papers. Today, it links more than 170 schools, 160 school districts, and 20 state departments of education. They're all sharing best practices for connecting the three most important components of a child's education: school, family, and community.

"We're focused on student success," says Joyce Epstein, a sociologist and director of the Network. "We're trying to help school and district leaders create organized programs for school-family-community partnerships that will focus activities on helping students succeed in school at higher levels."

Central to the Network's mission is involving all families—particularly those that wouldn't typically join a group like the PTO because of language barriers, transportation difficulties, or scheduling conflicts for working parents.

When Epstein started her research at Johns Hopkins, she recalls, people were asking, "Which is more important in educating kids: school or family?" "But we realized that wasn't the right question to ask. The focus instead has shifted to how to combine school and family, along with community, to help children learn best."

The formal Network started in the 1996-97 school year. Prior to that, the Johns Hopkins researchers were studying school and family involvement in the elementary grades, gradually moving on to examine the impact on middle schools and then high schools. Finally, Epstein extended the studies to district and state leadership to see what kinds of programs at those levels could support family and community involvement. "We decided that we had so much information that we wanted to find a way to make it available for schools to use," she says.

At the same time, schools and school districts were searching for models of how to improve family and community partnerships, and the Network was born. It allows schools to put research topics into practice, and it lets researchers see their theories come alive. And the Network lets schools swap ideas about what works with one another.

The PTO's Role

Epstein emphasizes that PTOs and the Network complement one another. "The Network expands the typical program of a PTA or PTO to include links to what teachers do, parent-teacher conferences, homework, and course choices," she says. "The Network doesn't replace the PTO."

In fact, parent-teacher groups can be an effective part of a schools plan to communicate with parents and drum up volunteers. "We're partners with the PTA," says Gloria G. Cicero, principal of the Clover Street School in Windsor, Conn., which has been part of the Network for seven years. "We're all a part of the community of learners."

At many Network schools, PTO fundraisers foot the bill for Network projects. Often schools win grants to launch Network projects. And when grants expire, PTOs frequently provide money to keep programs on track.

In Naperville, Ill., the Highlands Elementary School has two parent groups. Home and School is the traditional parent fundraising group, and School Family Community Partnership (SFCP) focuses on extracurricular academic programs. "The two groups are complementary," says Lisa Trychta, co-chair of the SFCP. "We do services, workshops, and programs with families, and Home and School funds our budget."

Network programs, such as Highlands SFCP, go where PTOs often can't—directly into a school's curriculum. Network action teams, like those at Park Avenue Elementary, include parents and teachers and administrative staff. The team members focus on how to inform parents about what children are learning and how parents can participate in that process.

Linking Parents and Teachers

The Network helps schools develop TIPS programs that are specifically aimed at involving parents with each students studies. TIPS stands for Teachers Involve Parents in Schoolwork. Research clearly demonstrates that parent involvement in homework helps children perform better, get higher grades, and have better attitudes and higher aspirations. But many parents don't know where to begin to help children with homework, and many teachers need assistance in developing homework that creates a role for parents. The TIPS program helps with both sides of the homework puzzle.

"TIPS helps teachers design homework that requires youngsters to share what they're learning in school so their parents can give encouragement and celebrate successes and let the youngsters know that what they're doing is of interest," says Epstein.

At Park Avenue, even kindergartners have TIPS-style homework. When the 5-year-olds study patterns and shapes, for example, students must go home and have their parents help them find five items in their house that are round. Parents help students glue the objects onto paper and bring them back to school.

The homework is accompanied by a parent sheet—written in English, Spanish, and Portuguese—that parents sign and send back. There's also room on the sheet for parents to indicate whether their child understood the assignment or had difficulty and whether the parent needs to discuss any difficulties with the teacher.

"The TIPS program reinforces what the children are learning in school, and it shows parents what skills their children are mastering," says Falk. In addition to being parent group president for four years, Falk also sits on the school's Math Action Team, which puts on family math nights at the school and plans TIPS activities.

Since Park Avenue joined the Network, its students' scores on Connecticut standardized tests have shown marked improvement. From 1999 to 2001, the school increased the number of students meeting the state goal from 54 percent to 66 percent. Reading and writing action teams also showed dramatic results. During the same period, the percentage of students meeting the reading goal rose from 38 percent to 45 percent, and the percentage of students meeting the writing goal more than doubled, rising from 21 percent to 43 percent.

But the results haven't been just academic. Park Avenue's Right Stuff Action Team focused on developing positive character traits. Its success is measured by a startling drop in school suspensions. The year before Network programs started at the school, 20 children received suspensions in one school year. Over the past three years, only one or two children have been suspended during each school year. The action team has helped children focus on topics such as respect, friendship, and honesty. Children write paragraphs on the traits and older children are selected to read them to the school. Teachers nominate Right Stuff Kids who exemplify the traits, and those children are rewarded with buttons or ice cream in schoolwide family meetings.

Falk volunteers as a cafeteria monitor and has seen dramatic results in that typically chaotic environment. "I used to have to shout in my booming voice to quiet the room," says Falk. "Now I can just flick the lights and raise my hand, and the room goes quiet. We don't have to act like drill sergeants anymore, and we can see children treating each other with more respect. It's been a wonderful thing to watch."

A Six-Sided Approach to Involvement

Schools perform best when students are surrounded by six types of involvement, building a hexagon of virtues around the children. Joyce Epstein, director of the National Network of Partnership Schools at Johns Hopkins University, describes the most important kinds of involvement as parenting, communicating, volunteering, learning at home, decision-making, and collaborating with the community. Below is a description of each type of involvement and an example of a program created by a Network school to foster it.

Type 1, Parenting: Schools and communities should assist families with parenting and child-rearing advice about elementary through high school children. Schools also can aid families in establishing conditions in the home that help students at each age and grade level. In addition, school teachers and administrators need help understanding families.

The Parent Education Course at the Roscoe Elementary School in Sun Valley, Calif., was a 12-week parent education course to improve communication between parents and students and to reduce disruptive behavior at school and at home. In addition, teachers received a two-day training program. In all, 135 parents completed the course, and 75 percent of them reported a change in parenting techniques and their children's resulting behaviors.

Type 2, Communicating: Schools should communicate with families about school programs and student progress and make sure that parents are able to respond easily to what they are hearing.

Coffees With the Principal at Naperville (Ill.) North High School were social gatherings to help parents feel more comfortable after three principal and leadership changes in as many years. The team set up a series of informal meetings between parents and the principal at parents' homes in each elementary school district. About 150 parents attended one of the 15 coffees, which were scheduled from 7 to 8:30 p.m. (some lasted as late as 9:30). Each of the coffees helped set up a dialog between the principal and the parents.

Type 3, Volunteering: Schools should improve the recruitment and training of parent volunteers, and they should work to have flexible scheduling to accommodate working parents.

Calling All Males at The Clover Street School in Windsor, Conn., focused on drumming up volunteer fathers and male relatives. The elementary school sent out fliers announcing bimonthly meetings for men. The group spearheaded three activities: a Santa visit, a family skating party and fundraiser, and a family fun night, which attracted 150 people to play basketball and bowl on a Monday evening.

Type 4, Learning at Home: Schools should encourage families to assist children with their home and curriculum-linked activities and decisions.

A Family Fun Math Night at Cottonwood Elementary School helped Cincinnati parents understand what children needed to learn to be proficient in math.

A team of parents and teachers created a series of math contests and games based on the fourth-grade math proficiency test. Students and parents competed together, and Professor Mathman—a parent decked out in a wig and full costume—was a lively master of ceremonies. The evening excited children about math, taught parents about what the kids were learning, and showed everyone that math can be fun.

Type 5, Decisionmaking: Schools should include families in school decisions and governance through PTAs/PTOs and other parent organizations.

A Parent Council at the West Carrollton (Ohio) Early Childhood Center helps that school ensure that it's tapping parents to their fullest potential. The school's Family and Teachers for Children group is divided into five smaller councils that reflect five of Epstein's principles: parenting, communication, volunteering, learning at home, and collaborating with the community.

Each of these councils meets monthly, as does an advisory council, which includes a representative from each group. The structure allows parents to choose their particular types of involvement according to their own strengths and interests.

Type 6, Collaborating With the Community: Schools should coordinate resources and services for families and students with business and other groups to provide community services.

The Quilting Project at Galena (Md.) Middle School has brought together sixth-graders and families, community members, and teachers. Students learn about measuring, geometric patterns, sewing, and social skills while making handmade quilts for hospitalized children.