Parents at E. Washington Rhodes Middle School in Philadelphia became alarmed in 1996 about the high rate at which their children were being suspended from school. After some research, parents found that girls were suspended at twice the rate of boys, and many students were sent home for first-time infractions.
Today, thanks to their persistence, the 1,100-student school has an in-school suspension room and a parent-school support team that meets twice a month to devise alternatives that will keep youngsters in class.
Such changes are a small example of what can happen when parents and educators work together. They reflect a growing recognition that if urban schools are to succeed, they must reach out to the parents and communities they are a part of. "We need to redefine schools as a community anchor," says Mr. Rojas, the San Francisco superintendent. "Schools, at this point in society, are becoming the one-stop shopping center for all services to the community."
Public and nonprofit groups increasingly offer a host of services through schools, from health care and child care to parent education, job counseling, and recreation.
New Jersey was one of the first states to provide money for school-based health clinics, beginning in 1989. A 1991 Florida law encouraged the provision of integrated services through schools. Today, states such as Kentucky, Iowa, and Tennessee finance family-resource centers and youth-service centers designed to strengthen families and remove nonschool barriers to learning.
Some of the most recent initiatives are modeled after the community schools that began operating in 1989 in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. A joint project of the Children's Aid Society and the New York City school system, the schools serve children three meals a day, offer education and job-training services to parents, and give teachers extra planning time.
In Minnesota, lawmakers appropriated $3.3 million for this school year and next to encourage the creation of such community centers. They will be open 16 hours a day, every day, to offer education, recreation, health, and social services. The first three in St. Paul are expected to serve more than 1,700 children.
There's ample evidence in support of the value of school-community partnerships. Programs report that making a range of services available in schools can help reduce student discipline referrals, absenteeism, and course failures. When schools encourage parents to get involved, grades improve, test scores and graduation rates rise, absenteeism falls, and expectations for students soar. And the achievement gains are greatest for those students who start furthest behind.
"The research is very clear that when parents are involved their kids do better in schools, and the schools get better," says Anne Henderson, an education policy consultant in Washington. "Schools that have an active, engaged parent community feel accountable to that community. And they're going to do more, exert more effort, and have higher expectations for kids."
Studies also show that outside actors, particularly the business community, have been the most powerful forces in efforts to decentralize and reform district bureaucracies.
The San Antonio schools now have the equivalent of an assistant superintendent who is in charge of a Parent-Community Partnership Network. The 59,500-student system offers training and support to 69 community organizers located in schools, operates a 24-hour phone line for parents, and runs a parents' academy that offers more than 100 free classes a year.
Parents also are becoming involved in school governance through school-site councils and management teams. The most obvious example is in Chicago, where state lawmakers in 1988 required the creation of local school councils at all schools.
Some community groups also have organized low-income parents and community members to improve their schools and even to create new ones. Leaders among this push are the Industrial Areas Foundation, a national network of grassroots organizations working to restructure local schools, and ACORN--the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now--another grassroots community group.
In Texas alone there are now more than 100 schools affiliated with the IAF's Alliance Schools Initiative, which works with parents and communities to raise student achievement. Of the 89 schools in Texas involved in the program for more than a year, 90 percent have shown an increase in the percentage of students who pass the statewide tests.
"For kids who are affluent it's easier for parents to connect with what goes on in schools," says Ernesto Cortes Jr., a veteran community activist and labor organizer, who is on the national staff for the Industrial Areas Foundation and supervises projects in the Southwest. "But when you have cultural barriers between teachers and what's being taught and what's going on in the lives of kids, you have to bridge that."