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Building Trust with Schools and Diverse Families

While increased family involvement is linked to improved student performance, it is not always fully understood and examined within schools. Different types of involvement may include parenting, communicating with schools, volunteering at schools, supporting learning at home, participating in school governance and decision-making, and taking part in school-community collaborations. In order to encourage and foster this comprehensive involvement with all families, school administrators and teachers must develop mutual trust, consider the different cultural attitudes some families may have towards schooling, and be diligent in reaching out.

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This report is one in a series of “hot topics” reports produced by the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory. These reports briefly address current educational concerns and issues as indicated by requests for information that come to the Laboratory from the Northwest region and beyond. Each booklet contains a discussion of research and literature pertinent to the issue, how Northwest schools and programs are addressing the issue, selected resources, and contact information.

One objective of the series is to foster a sense of community and connection among educators. Another is to increase awareness of current education-related themes and concerns. Each booklet gives practitioners a glimpse of how fellow educators from around the Northwest are addressing issues, overcoming obstacles, and attaining success. The goal of the series is to give educators current, reliable, and useful information on topics that are important to them.


“Students will need more than just good teachers and smaller class sizes to meet the challenges of tomorrow. For students to get the most out of school, we need to promote a partnership between parents, community leaders, and teachers… Only through partnerships can our schools keep improving and stay on the right track.”

— Susan Castillo, Oregon Superintendent of Public Instruction, Daily Astorian, June 12, 2003

During the past several decades, the benefits of parents’ and other family members’ involvement in children’s education have been well-documented. Although it isn’t the only factor in improving student learning, 30 years of research has consistently linked family involvement to higher student achievement, better attitudes toward school, lower dropout rates, and increased community support for education, as well as many other positive outcomes for students, families, and schools (Henderson & Mapp, 2002). When families are involved in learning, the research shows, “students achieve more, regardless of socioeconomic status, ethnic/racial background, or the parents’ education level” (Antunez, 2000).

Despite these findings, many schools struggle to actively engage high numbers of parents and other family members in children’s schooling. Of those families who do get involved, the majority are white and middle income, typically those whose home culture most closely matches the norms, values, and cultural assumptions reflected in the school. Minority, lower-income, and families who speak limited English, on the other hand, are often highly underrepresented in school-level decision-making and in family involvement activities — a phenomenon that speaks far more often to differing needs, values, and levels of trust than it does to families’ lack of interest or unwillingness to get involved (Antunez, 2000; Goddard, Tschannen-Moran, & Hoy, 2001; Trumbull, Rothstein-Fisch, Greenfield, & Quiroz, 2001; Young, 1998).

This booklet examines issues of trust and family involvement, focusing specifically on relationships between diverse families and schools. After providing a brief introduction to three core concepts — trust, culture, and family involvement — we offer a summary of relevant research and a discussion of common obstacles to school-family partnerships. Tips for reaching out to diverse families, profiles of several current family involvement efforts in Northwest schools, and additional resources are provided at the end.

In context: Family involvement and No Child Left Behind

“In the best of all possible worlds,” write Adams and Christenson (2000), “the family-school relationship would be based not only on two-way communication, cooperation, and coordination, but also on collaboration” (p. 478). The 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), No Child Left Behind (NCLB), signals a move in that direction. The inclusion of several new provisions related to family involvement reflect the gradual shift in U.S. educational policy and practice from viewing parents as important players to full partners in the formal education of their child.

The new provisions under NCLB, particularly those under Titles I and III, expand schools’ obligations to inform parents and to reach out to families who have traditionally been underrepresented in school activities and decision-making, such as parents of English language learners. Schools that receive Title III funding, for example, are required to:

  • implement an effective means of outreach to parents of limited English proficient children to inform such parents of how they can:
  1. be involved in the education of their children; and
  2. be active participants in assisting their children:
    1. to learn English;
    2. to achieve at high levels in core academic subjects; and
    3. to meet the same challenging State academic content and student academic achievement standards as all children are expected to meet (Title III, 3302(e) cited in Gomez & Greenough, 2002, p. 4).

Past provisions of the ESEA related to family involvement, “such as school-parent compacts, parental involvement policies, and the parental involvement funding formula,” also remain in effect (Gomez & Greenough, 2002, p. 1). In short, NCLB establishes that:

  • Parents have the right to be informed of the content and quality of their children’s education
  • Parents have the right and responsibility to participate in decisionmaking and learning at the school
  • Parents have the right to make educational choices in the best interest of their children1

Although the legislation provides guidelines and provisions for schools to follow as they develop family involvement policies, schools may also face challenges in complying with the law, especially in how to strengthen relationships with families whose needs and concerns have not been addressed. Clearly, if families and schools are to form partnerships that work, there must first be a foundation of mutual trust, confidence, and respect. The goal of this booklet is to provide some starting points for schools to address these challenges.

Core concepts: Trust, culture and family involvement

Although most of us have a general understanding of terms like “trust,” “culture,” and “family involvement,” articulating precisely what they mean can be difficult. A working definition of each term, along with a brief introduction, is offered below.


Drawing on their comprehensive review of the literature on trust, Hoy and Tschannen-Moran (2003) offer the following definition:

Trust is an individual’s or group’s willingness to be vulnerable to another party based on the confidence that the latter party is benevolent, reliable, competent, honest, and open. (p. 189).

Trustworthiness, then, is typically judged according to these five main facets:

  1. Benevolence: The degree to which the other party takes your best interests to heart and acts to protect them
  2. Reliability: The extent to which you can depend upon another party to come through for you, to act consistently,
  3. and to follow through
  4. Competence: Belief in the other party’s ability to perform the tasks required by his or her position
  5. Honesty: The degree to which the other person or institution demonstrates integrity, represents situations fairly, and speaks truthfully to others
  6. Openness: The extent to which the other party welcomes communication and shares information with the people it affects

If families are to trust teachers and other school staff members, in other words, they must believe that school personnel are qualified, fair, and dependable, and have their child’s best interests at heart (Adams & Christenson, 2000; Bryk & Schneider, 2002; Young, 1998). In most cases, such trust is built over time, based on sustained interactions between the parties in question. “In the absence of prior contact,” Bryk and Schneider (2002) assert, families and educators “may rely on the general reputation of the other and also on commonalities of race, gender, age, religion, or upbringing” to assess a new person’s trustworthiness. The more parties interact over time, however, the more their willingness to trust one another is based upon the other party’s actions and their perceptions of one another’s intentions, competence, and integrity.


Another slippery term, culture can be defined as:

a way of life, especially as it relates to the socially transmitted habits, customs, traditions, and beliefs that characterize a particular group of people at a particular time. It includes the behaviors, actions, practices, attitudes, norms and values, communications (language), patterns, traits, etiquette, spirituality, concepts of health and healing, superstitions, and institutions of a racial, ethnic, religious, or social group. It is the lens through which we look at the world (Edwards, Ellis, Ko, Saifer, & Stuczynski, in press, p. 11).

Particularly for members of a majority cultural group, it may be difficult to identify certain values and norms of behavior as being connected to cultural background. As Ahearn et al. (2002) remark, “Our own culture is often hidden from us, and we frequently describe it as ‘the way things are’ ” (p. 5).

One model commonly used as an entry point into discussions about cultural differences places cultural groups along a continuum from highly individualist to highly collectivist. More individualistic cultures place higher value on “individual fulfillment and choice,” according to this framework, while cultures that are more collectivist place greater emphasis on “interdependent relations, social responsibility, and the well-being of the group” (Trumbull et al., 2001, p. 4). As these authors note in Bridging Cultures Between Home and School: A Guide for Teachers:

These two orientations of individualism and collectivism guide rather different developmental scripts for children and for schooling; and conflicts between them are reflected daily in U.S. classrooms. Keener awareness of how they shape goals and behaviors can enable teachers and parents to interpret each other’s expectations better and work together more harmoniously on behalf of students (p. 6).

For example, if schools are aware that in more collectivist communities extended family members regularly and naturally take on parenting and mentoring roles with children, then schools can work to develop relationships with all community members who are concerned about their children’s well-being.

As Trumbull et al. (2001) stress, being aware that different cultural orientations exist is extremely valuable in developing programs, policies, and activities that build on the strengths and values of a diverse school community. However, it is important not to overgeneralize or to use general information about different cultural groups to make assumptions about individual students and their families:

Members of the same culture vary widely in their beliefs and actions…. We all have unique identities that we develop within our cultures, but these identities are not fixed or static. This is the reason that stereotypes do not hold up: no two individuals from any culture are exactly alike…. Because individual differences within cultural groups are far greater than differences between cultural groups, it is both particularly crucial and particularly challenging to operationalize understandings of culture and avoid stereotyping in diverse classrooms (Ahearn et al., 2002, pp. 8–9).

Getting to know students and their family members as individuals, participating in social activities in the community, visiting families at home, and asking parents to share their views are all good ways for educators to broaden their understanding of family and cultural diversity.

Family Involvement

Also referred to as parent involvement, school-family collaboration, and school-family partnerships, family involvement refers to a wide range of activities through which parents, grandparents, older siblings, tribal members, and other members of students’ extended family contribute to and support student learning. Under the widely-used framework developed by Joyce Epstein (Epstein, 1995; Epstein et al., 1997), there are six main categories of involvement: parenting, communicating with schools, volunteering at school, supporting learning at home, participating in school governance and decision-making, and taking part in school-community collaborations, such as adult literacy classes or tutorial services. In this model, providing a quiet study environment for students at home, expressing value for learning, setting high expectations, helping with homework assignments, chaperoning school events, attending parenting classes, and serving on the school board are all considered valuable contributions to students’ learning.

Epstein’s framework suggests many different ways for families to be involved in children’s education, and also challenges schools to engage in practices that reach out to diverse families. Trumbull et al. (2001) note, however, that schools may not always apply the framework in ways that reflect the needs, values, and abilities of diverse families. For example, schools that offer parenting instruction may not recognize cultural differences in child-rearing practices. Similarly, some parents may not possess the time or the skills to assist children with schoolwork at home; others come from cultures in which schooling is considered to be strictly the teacher’s responsibility. If schools are to be successful in engaging diverse families, Trumbull and others argue, they will need to reevaluate traditional models of involvement and include families in discussions of how they would most like to be involved (Mapp, 2002; Trumbull et al., 2001; Voltz, 1994). To be effective, involvement efforts must become more collaborative, more inclusive, and more culturally relevant (Gomez & Greenough, 2002).

What the research says

In their comprehensive review of 51 recent, high-quality studies* on family involvement, A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family, and Community Connections on Student Achievement, Henderson and Mapp (2002) highlight the following key findings on partnerships between families and schools:

  1. Students with involved parents, regardless of family income and background, are more likely to:
  • Earn higher grades and test scores, and enroll in higherlevel programs
  • Be promoted, pass their classes, and earn credits
  • Attend school regularly
  • Have better social skills, show improved behavior, and adapt well to school
  • Graduate and go on to postsecondary education (p. 7).
  • Family and community involvement that is linked to student learning has a greater effect on achievement than more general forms of involvement. To be effective, the form of involvement should be focused on improving achievement and be designed to engage families and students in developing specific knowledge and skills (p. 38).
  • Schools that succeed in engaging families from very diverse backgrounds share three key practices. They:
  • Focus on building trusting, collaborative relationships among teachers, families, and community members
  • Recognize, respect, and address families’ needs, as well as class and cultural differences
  • Embrace a philosophy of partnership where power and responsibility are shared (p. 7).

As the above findings suggest, trust and relationship-building are recurrent themes in discussions of family involvement. Until recently, however, trust in particular has received far less attention in the research than have other aspects of family involvement. Few studies have focused specifically on the role of trust in relationships between schools and families; fewer still have considered ways in which issues of race, class, culture, home language, family involvement, and trust intersect. Difficult to define, trust is even more difficult to measure, let alone link causally to family involvement or other outcomes for students, families, and schools. Three current, largescale studies that have taken the issue on are described below:

even after controlling for the effects of the proportion of low-income students in a school as a whole, trust still plays an important role in student achievement. In fact, the amount of trust teachers have in students and in parents outweighs the effects of poverty…. Trust seems to foster a context that supports student achievement, even in the face of poverty (p. 14).

  • Goddard, Tschannen-Moran, and Hoy’s (2001) study of 47 elementary schools in a large urban school district in the Midwest resulted in two major findings related to relationships between families and schools: one, that student achievement is higher in schools where teachers report greater trust; and two, that “poverty more than ethnicity seems to be the culprit” in hindering trust in urban schools (p. 15). In examining levels of trust among teachers, parents, and students, the researchers concluded that “trust is systematically associated with student socioeconomic status — the larger the proportion of poor students in the school, the lower teachers’ perceptions of trust” (p. 13). Further, they found that:
  • In their 10-year study of more than 400 Chicago elementary schools, Bryk and Schneider (2002) concluded that trust among teachers, principals, students, and parents is a strong predictor of student and school success. Schools with higher levels of trust are more likely to successfully implement and sustain reforms, while those with low levels of trust stand little chance of making significant gains. According to the researchers, schools demonstrating high levels of teacher-family and teacher-principal trust generally possess the following characteristics: they have a stable population; there are minimal “racial and ethnic tensions” among students, parents, and staff; and educators are able to provide parents with clear evidence “that students are learning” (p. 97).
  • Adams and Christenson’s (2000) survey of 1,234 parents and 209 teachers in a large suburban school district found that both teachers and parents believed that improving home-school communication was a “primary way to enhance trust in the family-school relationship” (p. 491). They also found that the kinds of interactions parents and teachers had were better predictors of trust than was the frequency of interactions. Additionally, family-school trust “correlated significantly with three indicators of school performance for high school students: credits earned, grade point average, and attendance (p. 491).

Although there are few studies on trust to date, these and other sources (listed in the References) provide us with an understanding of why trust is so important in building relationships and suggest ways in which schools can build trust.

Obstacles to trust: Barriers to strong family-school relationships

A common misperception about families who aren’t actively involved at school is that they simply “‘don’t care’ about their children’s education” (Mapp, 2002, p. 7). Educators who see the same small group of families helping out in the classroom, attending school events, and participating in school governance, for example, may conclude that the others in the district are not interested or do not place high value on education. In fact, most families do care a great deal about their children’s education. Although white, higher-income families tend to be more visible in many schools, the vast majority — in all ethnic, linguistic, and socioeconomic groups — support their children’s learning at home in a variety of different ways (Henderson & Mapp, 2002; Mapp, 2002). Further, studies of immigrant Latino, African American, and other underrepresented family groups have repeatedly found that they are “highly interested” in being more directly involved (Trumbull et al., 2001, p. 32).

Rather than assuming families are unwilling to become more active partners with schools, educators would do well to examine closely the specific causes of poor school-family relationships and low levels of involvement in their community. By examining these barriers, schools can begin to develop solutions for gaining support and trust. Some common obstacles:

In American Indian and Alaska Native communities formal education has often been imposed upon people in a degrading and destructive manner. In fact, the early efforts at education on the part of the American government and religious groups were aimed at eliminating Native cultures, languages, and traditions. Clearly, this has not left a good impression of mainstream education among many Native peoples (Meadow et al., n.d., p. 14).

In some cultures… teaming with the school is not a tradition. Education has been historically perceived as the responsibility of the schools, and family intervention is viewed as interference with what trained professionals are supposed to do.

Families from such cultures may believe that their role is to raise “respectful, well-behaved human beings” and leave the academic instruction to schools (Trumbull et al., 2001, p. 39).

  • Bad First Impressions

    The way parents and other family members are received the first time they come to the school can set the tone for the duration of their relationship. Families who feel ignored or slighted by the adults in the building are unlikely to come back, especially if they had been hesitant to come to the school in the first place.

  • Poor Communication

    Whether it is miscommunication, or a lack of communication on the part of both families and schools, these issues can create tension and distrust.

  • Past Experiences

    Family members’ prior experiences with school also have a significant impact on how willing they are to trust school staff members and become involved in their children’s schooling (Antunez, 2000; Mapp, 2002). Family members whose own experiences were negative may not feel comfortable entering the school building, or may not trust that teachers will value their input. Similarly, families who have encountered problems with another teacher or with another school their child attended may question the value of communicating with schools at all. Teachers, too, who have had previous negative experiences with families may question the value of communicating with others.

  • Family Members’ Lack of Self-Confidence

    Some may not believe that they are capable of contributing to their children’s education (Antunez, 2000; Onikama, Hammond, & Koki, 1998); others find school personnel intimidating and fear looking incompetent if they ask teachers questions about how to help. Families may doubt that they have anything to offer by participating in the classroom, working with their children on schoolwork at home, or serving on school decision-making teams (Trumbull et al., 2001).

  • Teachers’ Lack of Confidence.

    An equally powerful barrier to developing strong relationships with families is teachers’ lack of confidence. According to Hoover-Dempsey, Bassler, and Brissie (1987), “a teacher’s belief in his or her own teaching effectiveness is the strongest predictor of successful parental involvement” (cited in Onikama, Hammond, & Koki, 1998, p. 7). Newer teachers, in particular, may fear being viewed as incompetent by family members, and thus initially avoid contact with them. New and veteran teachers alike may also doubt their ability to involve families effectively (Onikama, Hammond, & Koki, 1998). Until recently, few teacher education programs offered training on working with families as partners in their children’s education. Even fewer addressed strategies for collaborating with families from diverse cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

  • History of Discrimination

    Past and present acts of discrimination — whether they occurred in school or in the larger community — remain a major barrier to family involvement and trust in schools (Antunez, 2000). As Onikama, Hammond, and Koki (1998) emphasize, “It is difficult for families to want to become involved with institutions that they perceive are ‘owned’ by a culture that discriminated against them in the past” (p. 5). It should come as no surprise that Native families, for example, are often hesitant to trust public schools:

  • Differing Expectations of Parent-Teacher Roles

    Recent immigrants to the United States may have little knowledge of the public school system, much less a particular district’s expectations regarding family involvement in their child’s education. They may also hold very different beliefs about the roles of teachers and parents than those assumed at school (Trumbull et al., 2001). As Antunez (2000) notes,

  • Lack of Confidence in the School

    Finally, and perhaps most important, families’ doubts about school effectiveness, teacher competence, and the integrity of school leaders are prime causes of mistrust and unwillingness to engage in activities related to the school. Family members who raise concerns about a problem at school and fail to see any action taken may see no reason to continue interacting with the staff. Persistent problems, such as low test scores or repeated incidents of violence and discrimination, may lead some to conclude that educators simply aren’t doing their job. As many districts have seen, negative news coverage can exacerbate this problem, especially if it is the only source of information families and other community members receive about teachers, school leaders, and school performance.

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Laying the foundation: Building trust between families and schools

A critical first step in engaging diverse families, then, is to focus on building relationships of mutual trust, confidence, and respect. As Henderson and Mapp (2002) emphasize, “When outreach efforts reflect a sincere desire to engage parents and community members as partners in children’s education, the studies show that they respond positively” (p. 66). Some places to begin:

the only time parents have contact with the school is in crisis situations such as when the student has violated school regulations. …with no previous contact …these situations often lead to nontrusting interactions and, subsequently, non-optimal results for the student. A previous time in which to signal trusting intentions is considered an essential prerequisite for handling critical issues for students (p. 482).

Teachers whose first contacts with family members are positive — notes or phone calls about something good the student did in class, for example — demonstrate to families that the school is interested in and values their child.

When a school initiates and implements programs, policies, and procedures with the express intention of seriously meeting the needs of the students, then the school can begin to develop an environment in which the community can begin to rightfully place trust in the local school and its staff (Young, 1998, p. 18).

  • Assess the Level of Trust in the School Community

    Selecting an assessment tool is a good place to start (for some examples, see the Resources section). Discuss perceptions of current school-family relationships with teachers, administrators, students, parents, and other family members; identify specific barriers to trust in your community; and solicit input from all parties on ways to address them.

  • Actively Welcome Students and Families

    Letting families know that they are welcome in the school building, greeting them when they arrive, and posting signs in their native language are just a few ways to communicate to parents that they are valued members of the school community. Hiring administrative staff who speak the same language as families is another way to not only welcome bilingual families, but to provide them with someone who can act as an interpreter. Providing a Family Resource Center, as will be discussed in the following section, is another way to demonstrate that families are welcome at school. Parents and other family members are also more likely to trust that the school values their involvement when they see people who share their cultural and linguistic background among the school staff.

  • Begin Relationships on a Positive Note

    Adams and Christenson (2000) remark that oftentimes,

  • Highlight School Successes

    Families cannot be expected to place trust in schools and teachers about whom they know very little. Identify ways to communicate with parents and other family members about student accomplishments, professional development efforts, and other school programs that reflect the school’s commitment to quality teaching and learning.

  • Improve School-Family Communication

    Too often, school-home communication is only one-way, with schools determining what information parents need and sending it to them. Opening up more and better ways for families to communicate with schools, listening to what they say, and responding seriously are essential to trust-building (Adams & Christenson, 2000). “Make sure that you convey the message to parents that their input is considered valuable” (Voltz, 1994, p. 290).

  • Demonstrate that you care

    Knowing that principals, teachers, and other school staff have their children’s best interests at heart is critical to families developing trust in schools (Goddard, Tschannen-Moran, and Hoy, 2001). Even small things, such as learning a few words in a families’ native language, make a difference.

  • Show respect for all families

    Voltz (1994) advises educators to use titles, such as Mr., Ms., or Mrs., when addressing parents, unless they tell you otherwise: “Although the use of first names in some cultures may be viewed as a means of establishing a collegial, friendly relationship, in other cultures, it is viewed as disrespectful or forward” (Voltz, 1994, p. 290). Using “a tone of voice that expresses courtesy and respect” is also important.

  • Treat parents as individuals

    “Resist the stereotyping of parents based on race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or any other characteristic. Recognize the diversity that occurs within cultural groups, as well as that which occurs between them” (Voltz, 1994, p. 290).

  • Be open with parents

    As Voltz (1994) advises, “Don’t ignore or dodge tough issues” (p. 290). Making information easily accessible to families, providing it in language they can understand, and ensuring that they know who to talk to if they have questions is a good place to start in demonstrating openness.

  • Take parents’ concerns seriously

    Listen, respond, and follow through. Depending on the situation, consider inviting families to help generate solutions. Be sure that they know what is being done to address their concerns.

  • Promote professionalism and strong teaching

    To build strong family-school trust, families must view the school principal, teachers, and other personnel as competent, honest, and reliable. Failure to remove staff members who are widely viewed to be racist or ineffective, according to Bryk and Schneider (2002), quickly leads to low levels of trust in the school and its leadership.

  • Remember that trust-building takes time

    Families whose past encounters with the school or community have been negative may have no reason to expect things will be different now. Rebuilding trust takes time and a serious commitment to establishing strong relationships.

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Next steps: Strategies for engaging all families

As the level of trust in a school increases, teachers, family members, and administrators not only become more willing to work together, but develop higher expectations for success. There is still much that can be done, however, to make opportunities for involvement more meaningful and more accessible to all. Listed below are a number of strategies suggested by practitioners, researchers, and parents for engaging families with diverse backgrounds, interests, and needs:

the nature of the relationship between themselves and parents. If parents feel uncomfortable with the school’s conceptualization of family involvement, they may be inclined to abstain from any of the ‘menu items’ made available by school personnel (Voltz, 1994, p. 290 ).

Communicating with families and asking them how they would like to be involved and how the school can facilitate that is an essential part of developing true family-school collaborations.

should be centrally located in the school, conveying the message that families are valued partners in education. Ideally, centers should be equipped with kitchens and bathrooms, soft furniture, resource information in many languages, telephone and computer access, and toys for small children. When the center welcomes the whole family — including children of all ages — parents or grandparents can access the resources available to them more easily. Even more important, making the whole family welcome displays the school’s respect for the family as a unit (Trumbull et al., 2001, pp. 43).

  • Collaborate with Families on Ways to Be Involved

    In many schools, staff members have traditionally been responsible for establishing:

  • Provide family members with opportunities to develop participation skills

    “If ethnically diverse parents feel they lack the knowledge and competence to operate within the bureaucratic structure of the school, they may involve themselves at lower levels or not at all” (Young, 1998, p. 16). Programs such as the Parent Effectiveness Leadership Training (discussed in the Northwest Sampler) can be helpful for families to understand their rights, responsibilities, and roles in the education system, and develop their leadership and communication skills.

  • Express high expectations for family-school partnerships

    “Teacher expectations can affect teacher-family interactions in the same way that teacher expectations can affect student-teacher interactions” (Voltz, 1994, p. 289). It is up to schools to make genuine efforts to reach out to families and assure them their contributions are valued.

  • Communicate with families in person

    In some cultures, notes sent home from the school are regarded as too impersonal and may not be interpreted as genuine invitations for parents to participate. Visiting families in their home at times that are convenient for them may be a better way to reach out.

  • Recognize diverse family structures

    “School personnel often regard mothers as the primary caregivers in the family, and therefore direct most communications about a child’s school performance to his or her mother. Under these circumstances, paternal involvement may not be encouraged, and fathers may even receive messages implying that it is not welcomed” (Onikama, Hammond, & Koki, 1998, p. 6). Don’t overlook other adults in students’ lives — grandparents, older siblings, tribal leaders, and so on — who play a central role in their upbringing (Voltz, 1994).

  • Create a family resource center in the school

    Family resource centers:

  • Make school events more accessible to families

    Providing transportation and childcare may make participation in school events possible for a number of family members who were not previously able to attend. Holding events in other places in the community that parents frequent and where they feel more comfortable is another way to encourage participation (Sosa, 1997). It may also be necessary to offer events at different times of the day or week to reach all families.

  • Don’t let language be a barrier

    As Antunez (2000) writes, “Inability to understand the language of the school is a major deterrent to the parents who have not achieved full English proficiency. In these cases, interactions with the schools are difficult, and, therefore, practically nonexistent.” There is much that schools can do to prevent language from blocking families’ involvement with the school, from hiring bilingual staff members to connecting parents with others in the community, as discussed below. Whenever possible, schools should avoid asking children to translate for their parents, as this may do more to make parents uncomfortable than to aid in communication.

  • Build connections between families who speak the same language

    Connecting recent immigrants to other members of the school community who speak their language and are more familiar with the school may be especially valuable, particularly for families with few other connections in the area. Families may also feel more comfortable attending school events if they know that other people they recognize and can communicate with easily will be there.

  • Provide opportunities for meaningful involvement

    Studies have shown that family members are generally more interested in activities that are directly connected to their child. Volunteering at a school fundraiser, for example, may be seen as less valuable to some families than receiving information on how to work with their child at home on reading or math. Further, families need to know what purpose activities serve and how they relate to overall goals.

  • Design assignments that build on families’ “funds of knowledge”

    Families offer a wealth of knowledge that can contribute to the curriculum. One teacher, for example, identified construction work as a topic with which many of her students’ families had experience. She then developed a series of assignments in which students researched and wrote about construction work, built model buildings, and gave oral reports on their projects. “By the end of the semester, 20 parents and community people had visited [the] class and shared their knowledge with her students” (NCREL, 1994). Other schools, such as Heritage Elementary in Oregon, have developed projects in which children interview their families about their culture in the classroom, and the families teach the students dances and songs. (see the Northwest Sampler for more about this project).

  • Provide staff training on working with families

    As noted earlier in the booklet, many teachers have had little experience or training on ways to engage students’ families. Others may feel intimidated by parents or worry that involving parents more directly in the classroom will be a waste of time. School leaders may need to jumpstart a school-wide family involvement initiative by providing professional development on school-family collaboration, intercultural communication, connections between culture and learning, or other topics specific to involving diverse families more directly in students’ education (Trumbull et al., 2001).

  • Consider ways to involve and build relationships with family members of high school students

    “As students move to secondary schools, parents and students are faced with the challenge of communicating and building relationships with several teachers” (Adams & Christenson, 2000, pp. 491–492). Teachers who have more than 100 students find it increasingly challenging to build relationships with all their students’ families. Under these circumstances, a school can develop relationships in such ways as inviting families to participate in activities such as student mentoring, career days, senior projects, and fundraisers. Sending short but frequent notes by e-mail to families also helps to keep the school in touch with families on a regular basis.

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To be certain, there is no set recipe for increasing trust in a school or for developing stronger relationships between families, students, principals, and teachers. As Young (1998) writes,

Each individual school, in cooperation with the community in which it serves, must reflect on its current educational program and its relationship with the community in which it is embedded. Based on this self-reflection, the school and the community must jointly determine which strategies are likely to be the most effective in creating a sense of trust…(p. 17).

Making a commitment to building partnerships with diverse families, as the schools profiled in the following Northwest Sampler demonstrate, is a good place to start.

Examples of family involvement plans in school districts

The following section describes ways that schools, districts, and parent groups in the Northwest have built trusting school-family relationships that have led to greater family participation. Though the strategies and programs may differ in design and purpose, each seeks to build strong partnerships with families.

Parent Mentors Create Bridge Between Schools and Bilingual Families

Fairbanks North Star Borough School District has a diverse student body — 60 languages are spoken in 33 schools. Almost 10 percent of the borough’s population is Alaska Native; 8 percent of students are English language learners.

The Parent Mentor Program provides new parents with a parent mentor who speaks their language and orients them to the school building and staff. One of the main functions of the parent mentor is to check in with new families on a weekly basis and see how things are going. When families cannot be reached by phone, the mentors visit their homes. If there is an attendance problem, for example, parent mentors tell families that they miss the child and ask if there is anything they can do to help.

Parent mentors provide positive, welcoming outreach services in many other ways, a well: they are on hand to welcome families as they drop off and pick up their children from school; they meet children as they get off the bus; they send out greeting cards, invitations to meetings, and other communications to bilingual families; they call absentee children; and they participate in meetings and conferences as interpreters. The duties and function of mentors vary depending on the school and the structure the principal creates. One principal has created a structure for the mentor and specific tasks like keeping a journal and keeping track of parent contacts. A parent resource specialist coordinates the program and helps the mentors with any concerns and questions.

Nancy Castillo, a parent resource specialist at James B. Ryan Middle School, emphasizes to mentors the importance of taking the time to build trust. “When I oriented the parent mentors to the role, I told them that the most important thing they can do is to treat families like I treat you — with respect.” A simple thing Castillo and all the mentors do is make communications personal — either by handwriting notes on printed flyers, making phone calls, or paying home visits. “The children love to see us in their own communities,” Castillo says.

Carmen Fernandez, a Spanish-speaking parent mentor, discusses one of the breakthroughs she had with a parent on one of her home visits. “The first two times we visited her home, we talked through the door, because the mother was ashamed that she didn’t have furniture. A third time, she invited us in for coffee and we talked about how important it is for her son to be in school. From that day on, she has come to school every day to make sure her son is there. She also makes sure his homework is in on time.”

Fernandez said this incident really made her realize the impact that talking directly with a family can have. Yelena Linse, a parent mentor who speaks Russian, talks about how thankful a Russian parent was when Linse contacted her and started speaking her native language. She had many questions and Linse was able to provide her with a list of helpful agencies. Linse even offered to go with the parent to help.

Family communication always begins as positive and welcoming, so that if there is a problem down the road that needs to be communicated, a positive relationship between the mentor and family has already been established. Parents are encouraged to contact mentors if they have questions or concerns throughout the year. Mentors also encourage other parents to volunteer at the school. Sometimes mentors watch other parents’ children in the parent resource room while those parents volunteer.

Lucy Glora, who was a Spanish-speaking parent mentor, was recently hired to be the bilingual secretary for the district’s Title III office. She explains that she was motivated to become a parent mentor because she remembers how it felt to be new to the district and to be frustrated that the teachers could not speak her language. “Now I want to help other families who don’t speak English — I understand how they feel.”

Mary Mathis, another Spanish-speaking parent mentor, explains that her most important role is to put families at ease and orient them to the school. One of the first things she does for new families is to introduce them to the teachers and principal. “I say to the families, I am here to help you, interpret for you, and if I can’t help you, I will find another staff person who can.” Mathis also makes phone calls home to families on teachers’ behalf, to invite them to a school function, for example. “This works better that just sending a flier home, which could get lost.” Mathis also encourages families to help their children as much as they can with learning. She offers some suggestions to school staff members on how they can be more welcoming to families who don’t speak English:

  • Make sure that families can visit the school at times that are convenient for them.
  • Be aware that your body language and facial expressions are important to parents’ first impressions of the school.
  • Your smile as they come through the door will put them more at ease in a potentially intimidating environment.
  • Introduce new families to the principal.

Although the program was at first funded by Title I money, now it is funded primarily from Title III (limited English proficient) dollars and a Development and Implementation Grant, so parent mentors work at both Title I and non–Title I schools. Because of budget cuts, parent mentors this year work fewer than 20 hours a week. Although the parent mentors provide orientations to all new families in the district, there are only some schools that have mentors, so they are very busy. In previous years, parent mentors were trained to be certified translators and regularly translated enrollment forms and family communications into several languages.

Because No Child Left Behind stipulates that districts implement an effective means of outreach to parents of limited English proficient children and provide information such as individual achievement on state assessments in an “understandable format,” these parent mentors serve a very important purpose. Now, the state is attempting to have uniform statewide forms translated into at least 15 languages, so mentors can spend their time doing more outreach activities.

“One challenge to this program,” says Sipe, “has been finding parents who are bilingual, willing to work less than 15 hours a week, and feel comfortable with the school environment themselves, and who are able to take a leadership role to be able to help others who feel less comfortable and intimidated.”

Family Workshops

In addition to the parent mentor program, the grant also funds workshops for families to assist in providing educational enrichment at home. The workshops are open to all parents, but families that have children in the ELL program are specifically invited.

The district has offered many workshops for parents: family math, math games, Raising Your Child Bilingual, and Make and Take workshops. The Make and Take workshops have been especially successful in engaging parents. Teachers from around the district demonstrate an activity they can use at home. After the demonstrations, teachers go around to centers and help families create a learning tool. Some examples of activities last year were:

  • Bean bag toss math game in which the families sewed their own bean bags and put numbers 0–9 on 10 plastic cups that are held together with popsicle sticks
  • Tactile phonics board for preschool and kindergarten children created with colored hair gel, zippered plastic bags, and squarecut cardboard
  • Electroboards that can be used for almost any content with tag board, electrical wire, brass fasteners, and continuity testers that light up when the correct connection is made
  • Laminated graphic organizers that are blank on one side and have examples on the other side, so that kids can fill them in with dry erase markers and wipe them off when they are finished
  • Portfolios for children to collect and organize their best school work with stickers and colored papers to decorate them
  • Flip chute made with a milk carton that kids decorated to use when they are working with flash cards

Shannon Sinclair, the Title III Staff Development Coordinator says that mailing out flyers, the usual avenue to get families involved in workshops, wasn’t working. “We tried a couple different things, such as having workshops at a school rather than the district office, and providing workshops for the whole family, rather than just parents.” Sending translated invitations to families, posting flyers at schools, and having parent mentors and ELL tutor instructors give flyers to families are other strategies that have worked to increase attendance.

As families began to attend the workshops more frequently, they were asked to fill out a needs assessment to find out how workshops could be made more useful and how to encourage more families to attend. From these results, the days of the workshops were adjusted, and continued to offer activities for children while parents were learning, or activities that families could do together. Another important finding of the survey, says Sinclair, was to be sure to include food at the workshops!

Parents for African American Students

Bellevue is a large urban district located 10 miles east of Seattle, Washington. The district has 15,207 students, and is diverse culturally, ethnically, and linguistically, with Asian students 21 percent of the student body, African Americans 3 percent, Hispanic students 8 percent, and white students 68 percent.

Bellevue School District offers families many opportunities to partner with individual schools. Says Newport High School’s Principal Patty Siegwarth: “We work diligently to engage all our students and parents in the educational process. We invite parents to gatherings using invitations written in their native language and have interpreters available.” Each school has a PTSA as part of the districtwide PTSA, and Newport High School has the Program Delivery Council — a decisionmaking body of families, teachers, students, and the principal. Some schools hold family forums at which family members can ask administrators questions about the curriculum.

A unique family-initiated district group is the Parents for African American Students. This grass-roots organization formed when Rose Mayfield, a parent and employee in the district, brought some concerns to the attention of the new district superintendent. Many of these concerns had to do with the perceived lack of communication about important matters or events being conveyed to families of color. The superintendent asked if other families had the same concerns, and did the families network? “Because African American families especially are few and spread out in the various schools, we had not at that point done much networking,” says Mayfield. With the superintendent’s support, several parents formed a group to begin networking between families, so that they could share information, and voice concerns collectively. About 30-50 families were invited to an initial meeting to share their concerns. The superintendent asked if he could attend the meeting, and the group agreed. “This was a very emotional meeting for the families,” remembers Mayfield. “The superintendent was very receptive to us, and we were able to fill him in on the history of the families’ concerns with the district.”

After the meeting, a group of parents presented the superintendent with a list of their concerns. Although not all concerns have been resolved, the group members decided that they would do what they could to work on particular concerns. At the moment, the group is looking at ways to encourage students to stay in school, graduate, and consider higher education. One way to do this, they felt would be to have a fundraiser to provide money for college scholarships. The group partnered with several other parent groups in the district to do this. This kind of partnering, says Mayfield, worked really well because all the small groups could pool their resources.

The Parents for African American Students have also planned more networking social events for families, and especially for the children and young adults, who don’t often see each other since they are spread throughout the district. An evening was planned where families played board games together; former students were invited to visit. “It was an amazing event,” says Mayfield. “We plan to do more such events, such as movie nights a few times a month. We want to create an opportunity for families and students to connect.”

Although the group was asked to join the district’s PTSA, Mayfield explains that they declined the invitation because they wanted to address their own concerns first. In the past, explains Mayfield, “some of us didn’t feel the PTSA needed us.” This does, however, leave the door open for future collaboration between the groups for the advancement of all children in the district. Mayfield is very excited about the progress so far. “At first, our idea for the purpose of the group was to share information between us. If we could do just that much, it would be great; if we could do more, it would be even better.”

*For the full text of Title I and III guidelines see the NCLB Web site at in a new window).

*Studies selected for inclusion in A New Wave of Evidence (2002) were reviewed to meet the following standards: “1. Sound methodology: experimental, quasi-experimental, or correlational design with statistical controls. For qualitative studies, such as case studies [the authors] looked for sound theory, objective observation, and thorough design. 2. Study findings that matched the data collected and conclusions that were consistent with the findings” (Henderson & Mapp, 2002, p. 13). For more information about these studies, a database of more than 200 articles, and more research on family involvement see the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory Web site at in a new window).

© Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory. Further reproduction prohibited without permission of NWREL (
Brewster, C. and Railsback, J. (2003). Building Trust with Schools and Diverse Families: A Foundation for Lasting Partnerships.(opens in a new window) Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory.