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Tools for Critique: Chapter 11
The Community: Engaging with Families and Neighborhoods


Chapter 11, “The Community: Engaging with Families and Neighborhoods,” first considers two dominant (and contradictory) complaints about parents—that they participate too much or not enough. The chapter then examines four traditions that inform relationships between parents and schools. Finally, the chapter argues that school cultures that work well to support all students engage families and communities as partners.  Teachers can pursue such relationships individually, as they teach and care for their students; and they can act collectively through their own and others’ organizing.

Chapter Headings

  • Removing Barriers to Constructive Parent Engagement
  • Common Complaints about Parent Involvement
    • Relationships Between Families and Schools: Four Traditions
  • Parents Supporting the School’s Agenda
  • Schools Meeting Families' Needs
    • A Legacy of Services in Low-Income Communities
    • Comprehensive Services in Today’s Schools 
    • Service, Power, and Deficits
  • Bridging the Cultures of Schools and Families
    • Learning with and from Communities
    • Bridging Students’ "Multiple Worlds"
    • Bridging Through Community Liaisons
  • Partnering with Families and Communities in Educational Activism
    • A Tradition of Parent Activism 
    • Contemporary Organizing for School Reform                        
  • Whose Agenda Is It?

Generative Questions and Activities

    The Community: Engaging with Families and Neighborhoods
  1. Mauro Bautista describes wanting to “move beyond monthly parent meetings and teacher-parent conferences.”  What valuable purposes can such meetings and conferences serve?  Why do you think Bautista finds these meetings and conferences insufficient to promote authentic engagement with families and communities?  Have you ever witnessed an example of parent involvement that went beyond the typical parent-school interaction?  Have you ever observed a teacher or administrator going out of his or her way to promote more meaningful and authentic forms of engagement with families and communities?  What made these examples particularly meaningful or significant?

  2. What can schools do to encourage more involvement and engagement?  Propose some possible actions that an individual teacher might take.  Next, propose actions for a small “team” or department.  How about the principal?  Who else in the school system, the community, and the law-making/policy worlds could have a role, and what are some possible actions they might take?

    Removing Barriers to Constructive Parent Engagement

  3. The authors explain that school failure is often attributed to cultural or genetic deficits in the students, or to a deficit of proper parenting or commitment to education. Think about a school with which you are familiar.  Describe an example of a school program that might reflect these "deficit" attitudes about students, families, or communities.  How might you modify the program to counter deficit attitudes?  Why would your new program be more effective?

  4. Although schools may perpetuate deficit thinking about the students they serve, deficit attitudes also emerge and are reinforced outside of schools.  Where in society do you receive messages that foster the idea that immigrant communities, poor parents, and parents of color do not value education?  What are the roots of these attitudes?  Why do you think these messages often go unquestioned?

  5. Many studies have reported on parents' attitudes toward schooling.  Consistently, education is a top priority for the families surveyed, including working class families and people with culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.  Given that all of these families value education so highly, why do you suppose that many teachers still believe that working class parents, parents of color, and immigrant parents don’t care about their children’s education?

  6. Imagine you are a teacher in a school that serves culturally and linguistically diverse students.  At this school, many of the teachers maintain deficit views about the students and their parents.  As a new teacher, how might you begin to challenge these views?  How can you be effective while building trusting long-term relationships with parents, students, and colleagues who might have very different views?  How might you model your approach to parent involvement for other teachers?  Describe an actual or hypothetical interaction in which you help a parent or colleague consider a different understanding of parent involvement.

  7. If you were teaching in a school with many children from Spanish-speaking families, would you embark on a program to learn Spanish?  Would your answer be different if the students’ language were Vietnamese, Armenian, Farsi, or Tagalog?  How might learning the language of your students’ families – even if you do not become completely proficient – affect parental involvement? What messages does learning students’ home language send to students and families? (Also, think back to Chapters 2 and 3 and contemplate why it is that many people in the United States seem so reluctant to learn more than one language when learning multiple languages is considered “normal” in many parts of the world.)

  8. Interview one or more teachers who are fluent in the language (other than English) that many of their students and parents speak as a first language.  Ask them about the advantages of being bilingual or multilingual. Interview one or more teachers who are not fluent speakers of the language spoken by their students or their parents.  How do their views and attitudes differ from those of the bilingual teacher?

  9. Brainstorm ways in which your school can support low-income parents, parents of color, and non-English-speaking parents in feeling more welcome and comfortable at your school site.  What resources would you need to make this a reality?  What practices would individual teachers need to implement (both in and out of the classroom)?

  10. The authors argue that in schools that serve diverse students, white, affluent parents often pressure schools in ways that undermine high-quality learning opportunities for students of color, students whose families are poor, and students who have not been designated as destined for high achievement.  Describe a situation in which affluent parents have exercised their power and privilege to manipulate the system in order to "protect" their own children.  Brainstorm ideas on how the school can institutionally respond to these types of demands in order to provide equitable learning opportunities for all students.

  11. The authors describe a situation in which parents used their own status and expertise (as scientists and mathematicians) to condemn an academic program for failing to prepare their children for the rigors of the university.  It can be argued that this type of involvement undermines teachers' professionalism.  In arguing for more community empowerment, do we also open the door to this type of "overbearing” parental involvement?  Choose one side of this double-edged argument.  Stage a debate in which each side must substantiate its position regarding appropriate limits or levels of parental involvement.  Over a period of weeks or months, watch local newspapers for evidence of this type of dilemma.

  12. One cannot imagine any significant American constituency being against parent involvement.  Yet people in schools are often ambivalent about how to find proper roles for all parents.  Further, even in schools that profess a desire for parent involvement, there may be counter-efforts and attitudes that work against meaningful parent involvement.  Begin a list of what schools do in the name of parent involvement.  Then critique the many ways in which the schools might undermine or diminish the effectiveness of these involvement activities.  Generally, you might ask whether the school seems more concerned with pleasing or placating parents than with involving them.  For example, you might list “open house” as a way schools involve parents.  Your critique might suggest that an open house might not “involve” parents if parents do nothing more than listen to teachers talk for a few minutes about the curriculum.

  13. In this chapter, one first-year teacher describes a situation in which a white parent asks the teacher to move her child's seat to prevent her from sitting next to a Spanish-speaking child.  In your struggle to be a socially just teacher, how would you respond to a parent who approached you with a concern that reflects racist beliefs?  With people in your class or group, set up a role-playing demonstration in which one person acts the part of the teacher, and another takes on the role of the parent.  Do this only in an environment where there is trust, experienced “observers,” and ample opportunity to debrief when the role-play is over.

  14. It can be argued that one of the reasons affluent parents exercise their power in harmful ways is that there are limited spaces in competitive courses and higher education.  Because we cannot count on additional spots opening up at the university level, what are some suggestions for providing students with more equitable educational opportunities?

  15. Clearly, the authors believe that no one group should dominate the school’s attention when it comes to providing a fair education to all students.  Do you agree with this position?  Or do you believe that in a democratic environment the parents with the skills and gumption to make themselves heard deserve to wind up with greater influence?  Perhaps you believe that both statements are partly true.  Where do you stand on this issue, and what would schools need to do in order to act more in accordance with your beliefs?

    Parents Supporting the School’s Agenda

  16. Joyce Epstein argues that schools, families, and communities must build partnerships in order to promote learning and success among students.  What do you think "partnership" means?  What might schools do in order to build authentic partnerships with families and communities?  If schools, families, and communities did forge authentic partnerships, what might the positive outcomes be?  The negative outcomes? Use Epstein’s typology for parent involvement in Concept Table 11.1 to help you think about current thinking toward parental involvement in schools with which you are familiar and to consider new ways schools can form partnerships with parents.

    Schools Meeting Families’ Needs

  17. The authors argue that schooling is a “public responsibility,” describing the ways in which some schools serve as public resource centers where families in low-income communities can access health and social services.  To what extent do you believe that public schools should meet these public needs?  How might offering these services impact teachers’ work in classrooms?

  18. James Comer's model provides many necessary services and resources to community members, but some might argue that it is based on deficit assumptions.  In your view, does his model reflect deficit thinking?  If so, does that make his suggested remedies necessarily flawed?  What questions would you ask to help you determine whether Comer’s model escapes deficit approaches?  What modifications to the program might you suggest?

  19. Promise Neighborhoods, modeled after the Harlem’s Children Zone, currently receives considerable attention and funding. Determine whether any “Promise Neighborhoods” exist in your state, and find out more information about them. Where are they located? Who runs the various programs? Do the programs seem to be realizing their vision/mission? If possible, go visit a school within a Promise Neighborhood. What is it like? How do school personnel view the school in relation to other community efforts? Does the school seem noticeably different than a “regular” public school in the same or a similar community? Do you think the “Promise Neighborhood” model is worthwhile? Able to scale up nationally? Why or why not?

    Bridging the Cultures of Schools and Families

  20. The authors advocate a "bridge-building" model as opposed to a “service-providing” model (in which service and empowerment flow from helpers to clients). Show segments of the film Women of Summer about Bryn Mawr's Depression-era summer school for working women.  (See reference below.)  How does this documentary provide examples of the bridge-building model?  The service-providing model?

  21. Discuss Luis Moll's notion of the "Funds of Knowledge."  Draw comparisons between Addams' 1900-era ideas about visiting the homes and workplaces of community members and Moll's ideas about teachers conducting home visits.  What similarities do you notice in their ideas?  What concrete historical conditions do you suppose might account for these similarities?  How will these ideas inform how you work with your students’ families?

  22. Read the introduction to Angela Valenzuela's Subtractive Schooling, where she attributes the academic struggles of Mexican-American students to their feelings of not being cared for at school (see reference below).  W. E. B. DuBois' statement that a proper education includes a sympathetic touch champions a similar point.  Think about schools you have experienced.  Did you feel cared for?  What aspects of the school made this happen (if it did)?  Do you think this affected student learning?  Be as specific as you can.

  23. Mariana Pacheco provides an example that emphasizes the need to reinforce families' cultural beliefs and practices while supporting their children to succeed academically.  She does this by discussing with parents her own experiences in higher education.  Brainstorm additional characteristics that are valued in higher education but may reflect white, middle-class preferences and/or values that place students of color at a disadvantage.  What are some strategies for addressing these issues with low-income parents of color in the way that Mariana suggests?

  24. Zeba Palomino discusses her success at getting parents to attend Back to School Night by personally calling to invite them and being able to communicate with them in Spanish.  What are some strategies that you might use to make parents feel comfortable in your classroom if you do not speak their language?  Suggest some ways to involve parents more profoundly—that is, taking it further than merely inviting them to your classroom.

  25. Benjamin Chang refers to a curriculum that reflects parent and community values.  Design a lesson plan and/or thematic unit that incorporates parent knowledge and expertise without imposing the white, middle-class expectations/values that Benjamin describes.  What rationale would you provide if your administrator asked you to justify teaching this particular lesson/unit?  Next, think about how this lesson/unit plan might change if parents/community members were actually involved in helping you develop it.  What guidelines would you follow if you worked together with community members to co-create this lesson/unit plan?

  26. Currently, there are principals who separate parents into ethnic or racial groups to discuss issues such as standardized test scores.  Some have argued that such practices are patronizing and racist.  Miriam Rogers, an African American parent, however, believes that WRAAP, an African American parent group, is necessary and powerful.  Although race-specific groupings can easily generate concerns and suspicions, describe some circumstances in which such groupings might be beneficial.

    Partnering with Families and Communities in Educational Activism

  27. Why do you think the PTA and many other parent organizations seek to “improve” schools as they are rather than challenging schools to undertake reforms that are more consistent with social justice ideals?  A dilemma for social-justice teachers is whether to try to work within these powerful organizations or to place their energies in groups that do not have an official connection with the schools.  Can and should teachers try to affect the goals of these parent organizations?  In your view, is it possible to work both within such official organizations and on a more grassroots level?

  28. Attend one or more evening meetings of a parent or community group that deals with community issues.  If school representatives or people with a special interest in the community’s schools are present, what roles do they play?  Does the group seem to be working with the schools to greatest advantage?  What are members doing to accomplish this work, and what might they do differently?  Is the group well informed about conditions and problems at schools—including political, cultural, resource, and academic conditions?

  29. Describe a project for engaging parents at a school you attended or where you work(ed).  Were the three elements of the Ganz model (relationship, common understanding, and action) employed?  If so, how?  If not, how could the project be modified to include these components?

  30. The authors argue for a radically different approach to linking working class parents with schools.  They propose to engage low-income families and community members in critically examining their children's schooling opportunities and in taking action that promotes change.  However, this creates unique difficulties both for teachers of color and for white teachers.  What challenges might be shared by both groups of teachers?  What particular challenges might white teachers face?  Teachers of color?  In your view, what would be the best way for teachers to confront these respective challenges?

  31. Who, at a school with which you are familiar, is most responsible for involving parents?  Interview this person (consider an e-mail exchange if you know of someone out of town) to determine how this person views his or her responsibilities.  Does this person go beyond the expectations associated with his or her job description?  If so, why?  What strategies and practices has this person successfully used to involve parents?  What advice would he or she give a beginning teacher who wants to promote parent involvement?

  32. Multicultural education finds its roots in the Civil Rights Movement, Afro-centric schools, and social activism.  Examine a multicultural lesson or unit (or design your own) that incorporates social action while emphasizing academic rigor.  What opportunities are there to ensure that the learning is embedded in social action and reflects the needs of the community?  How will you balance state-mandated standards and content frameworks with community input?

  33. The authors argue that an important part of reaching out to parents is emphasizing the idea that parents should focus their efforts towards ensuring an excellent education for all children rather than just their own.  What can teachers do to promote this attitude among parents?  Among other teachers?

  34. The Parent Empowerment Law (PEL), also known as “The Parent Trigger,” allows parents to petition to implement major changes in their children’s school, but the authors note that the law in California has been a source of major controversy. Research the “parent trigger” law to learn more about the controversies surrounding cases in California – and perhaps other states. What groups (e.g., parents, teachers’ unions) are involved in the debates? Who has the power to change schools? Why have parental efforts to change schools through this law not been successful (yet)? Is there a problem with the policy or with its implementation? Consider other options that would give parents’ voice and agency in their children’s schools and also foster collaboration among stakeholders. 


    Bauman, S. & Heller, R. (Producers and Directors) (1986). The Women of Summer: The Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers, 1921–1938. New York: Women of Summer, Inc.; Filmmakers Library [distributor], 1985. One videocassette (55 min.): sd., col. with b&w sequences. (A history of the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers (1921–1938) as seen through the eyes of its alumnae and other participants fifty years later, using unearthed diaries, letters, and historical film footage along with oral histories.)

    Valenzuela, A. (1999) Subtractive Schooling: U.S.-Mexican Youth and the Politics of Caring. Albany: State University of New York Press.
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