Harvard Educational Review
  1. Summer 2006 Issue »

    Editor's Review - Building School-Community Partnerships by Mavis G. Sanders

    Soo Hong
    Building School-Community Partnerships by Mavis G. Sanders
    Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2005. 144 pp. $25.95.

    In today’s legislation, public rhetoric, and educational policy, community involvement plays an increasingly prominent role in supporting school success. From the creation of community-sponsored charter schools and full-service community schools to the call for parent and community participation within school site councils, communities have expressed renewed interest in and taken on new responsibilities in school reform (Warren, 2005). Reminiscent of John Dewey’s early calls for community schools at the turn of the twentieth century and demands by parents and community groups for community control in the 1960s, school-community engagement is hardly a new concept. However, supported by recent educational policies and renewed community interest, schools and communities are finding new and familiar ways to work together.

    Bringing schools and communities together is not easy and often reflects school environments that have found it hard to engage with students’ families. Urban schools in particular have grown increasingly distant from the families they serve, leaving those schools as isolated institutions unable to communicate effectively with students and their families. In addition, while these schools’ students may be increasingly diverse in race, class, and ethnicity, many teachers and administrators are White, come from middle-class backgrounds, and have little cultural knowledge of students and their families (Noguera, 1996). These situations can often result in schools having low parent participation, or unequal power relationships between parents and school staff can leave families feeling unwelcome or uninvited to participate in their child’s education (Lareau, 1989).

    However, these disconnected schools and communities may often have access to community organizations that have built relationships and cultural knowledge of local communities and their families. In an earlier issue of this journal, Mark Warren (2005) developed a typology that identified three collaborative approaches to school-community engagement — service, community development, and community organizing — and found that they can often help schools build and sustain connections with students’ families, and in some cases change the culture of parent engagement within schools.
    If schools and communities can benefit from collaborating, how can schools and communities begin to build these relationships? This very question is at the heart of Mavis Sanders’s Building School-Community Partnerships: Collaboration for Student Success. Writing for educators, Sanders offers school practitioners research, resources, and concrete action plans for making these collaborative partnerships a reality. Based on five years of research and teaching through the National Network of Partnership Schools (NNPS), Sanders uses NNPS case studies, best practices, and research data to illuminate the ways that schools and communities can work together to create collaborative educational communities. Founded and directed by Joyce Epstein at Johns Hopkins University, NNPS has examined the relationship between school success indicators, such as student achievement and the school-based involvement of families and communities. From this research, NNPS has also produced numerous studies that improve partnership program development, working with over one thousand schools, one hundred districts, and seventeen state education departments to develop tried-and-true research-based approaches for strengthening school, family, and community partnerships (Epstein, 2005).

    Over the years, NNPS researchers have produced numerous studies that "add information on how to improve partnership program development and how family and community involvement contribute to student achievement and other indicators of success in school" (Epstein, 2005). Sanders’s Building School-Community Partnerships, however, is the first comprehensive book written to guide educators and practitioners in the practical aspects of building school-community partnerships. While participating NNPS schools and districts have benefited from the research, program development, and ongoing technical assistance provided by NNPS over the years, Building School-Community Partnerships has the potential to encourage any interested school community to consider the benefits and practical aspects of building community partnerships.

    While Sanders incorporates data from more than five years of research, the book draws heavily from case studies conducted from 2000 to 2003 to illustrate the significance of the collaborative model presented. Case study research was conducted at one urban elementary school and three high schools — one urban, one suburban, and one rural — to capture the particularities of dealing with different school communities. These case studies provide rich vignettes and descriptive support for the partnerships Sanders promotes, and readers will feel encouraged by cases that may often speak to some of the practical challenges and contextual aspects that make any kind of partnership difficult. By incorporating elements of the large-scale NNPS study with more focused case studies, Sanders captures a broad practitioner audience that is concerned with the everyday details of implementation yet cautious of any reform idea that lacks data supporting its success.

    Sanders begins the book with an overview of the field of community involvement — a rationale for its use in schools, a description of its various forms and functions, and a discussion of some of the major challenges to implementing community partnerships. Sanders defines community involvement as "connections between schools and community individuals, organizations, and businesses that are forged to directly or indirectly promote students’ social, emotional, physical, and intellectual development." She makes two important distinctions as she lays the groundwork for her book: that community is not constrained by the geographical boundaries of neighborhoods, and that parent involvement — a part of community involvement — is not the focus of her book. She then identifies five common types of community partners: businesses, universities, organizations providing youth internships, service agencies, and faith-based organizations. With support from the conceptual and empirical literature, Sanders leaves us with an understanding of how these partnerships vary and, most importantly, how they must be uniquely designed to fit each school and community.

    Sanders discusses the importance of creating partnerships that are appropriate to a school’s identity, actors, and activities, but she also outlines the necessary elements for the successful implementation of school-community partnerships in any setting. These elements are (1) a high-functioning school, (2) a student-centered environment, (3) an effective partnership team, (4) principal leadership, and (5) external support. For many struggling schools, however, attaining any of these components can be an achievement in and of itself, so the task of meeting all five essential components leaves readers wondering if already successful schools are simply poised to be even more successful in the area of school-community partnerships. In light of the varying degree to which schools may have these necessary components in place, Sanders suggests that these schools may want to "limit community outreach to only simple partnership activities . . . while they address organizational or leadership challenges or both that their schools face."

    To support educators in practically applying the conceptual and empirical research she builds on, Sanders offers three cases that describe the planning and implementation of these school-community partnerships. To offer support to the simple partnership activity, Sanders offers a short vignette of one teacher-leader’s efforts to create a school literacy project with participating community partners, in spite of resistance from colleagues and administrators. Two fuller case descriptions of an elementary and a high school show us how the five components of a successful school-community partnership work in practice. Given the reality that many obstacles, such as inadequate knowledge of a community, teacher constraints on time, cultural/language barriers, or inadequate funding or resources, can hamper a school’s development of partnership activities, this book would be more useful if Sanders developed a more thorough discussion of potential challenges and provided case examples that show how individuals and groups overcome these challenges. Surely, successful cases such as those presented by Sanders must have stories of struggle and setbacks as well as success. While it is reasonable to suggest that schools facing these challenges and obstacles could focus their efforts on a simple partnership activity, these schools often need collaborative strategies and activities most. Sanders’ argument would be more powerful if she highlighted some of the ways that schools have and can overcome the challenges that make these collaborations possible.

    For many practitioners who have been inspired by workshops or professional development seminars only to return to schools and classrooms without a clear understanding of those ideas or the supportive resources to put them into action, the latter part of Building School-Community Partnerships will be a refreshing change. To help individuals think about the possibilities for school-community partnerships in their schools, Sanders leaves educators with twelve partnership activities that are centered around a goal such as improving student reading or providing afterschool activities. She also provides a workshop agenda for introducing groups to the development of school-community partnerships. The agenda outlines goals, discussion points, and possible activities, and Sanders provides seventeen pages of accompanying handouts, sample letters, and sample activity plans. With this wide array of ready materials, she leaves little room for interested readers — whether they represent struggling or successful schools — to deny the practical applications of her ideas and instead encourages school groups to begin a conversation on developing collaborative practices.

    Building School-Community Partnerships can be a valuable resource for educators who are interested in engaging schools with communities. Sanders applies the research-based approaches of the National Network for Partnership Schools to deliver a persuasive argument in favor of developing school-community collaborations for the success of students. By balancing case studies with more holistic NNPS data, research with school practice, and information with practical applications, Sanders offers a book that will invite participation long after the book is read.

    There are a few places where Sanders is limited in her discussion of the implications of school-community partnerships. First, while she focuses on student success as a primary outcome of these partnerships, there are other viable results when schools and communities come together. For example, relationships between teachers and community members can develop greater understanding among families and school staff. Schools can also begin to acknowledge the expertise of other groups and institutions in understanding their students’ developmental, social, and cultural needs. These changes may challenge the way schools are typically run, encouraging spaces for teachers and parents to share power and decisionmaking in redefining the culture of schools.

    Additionally, while Sanders focuses on the wealth of material resources (playgrounds, landscaping, school libraries) that school-community partnerships can generate, she does not fully examine the potential of these partnerships to generate broader changes in the school and community. For example, partnerships can provide landscaping around a school’s front entrance or develop family centers that offer GED courses for parents or opportunities to develop parent leadership. The latter resources — though not material — have the potential to catalyze broader changes in the community and to outlast funding, the tenure of an effective school principal, or the motivation of a few committed teachers. These resources, unlike the many of those highlighted by Sanders, do not belong to a school building; rather, they become resources that stay with families and communities wherever they may go.

    Sanders challenges us to broaden our understanding of the ways schools go about educating children and providing for their successful development as students. She shows us that communities have valuable resources and commitments to schools that often go untapped. Furthermore, the task of educating children is less daunting when done in partnership with other organizations and individuals who share common educational goals. Pushing us to move beyond a mere focus on parental involvement, Sanders calls for a broader understanding of engaging the community outside the school walls.

    But how can we think about community involvement in a way that underscores the importance of parental involvement? And how can we define community partners in a way that focuses on families? While partnerships with businesses and universities may provide resources and expertise that can be valuable and much needed by schools, these relationships can often inadvertently bypass one important part of the community — families. It may indeed be easier for schools to develop relationships with other institutions that may share similar values, beliefs, and cultural norms, but the real challenge lies in identifying community partners that understand the hopes, dreams, and struggles of families.

    Reviewer: Soo Hong
  2. Summer 2006 Issue


    From the Editors: Mayoral Takeovers in Education
    A Recipe for Progress or Peril?
    The Editors
    Mayoral Leadership in Education
    Current Trends and Future Directions
    Michael D. Usdan, Michael W. Kirst, Fritz Edelstein, Kenneth K. Wong, Paul T. Hill, Warren Simmons, Ellen Foley, Marla Ucelli
    Social, Emotional, Ethical, and Academic Education
    Creating a Climate for Learning, Participation in Democracy, and Well-Being
    By Jonathan Cohen
    Educating Whole People
    A Response to Jonathan Cohen
    By Nel Noddings
    Paulo Freire in Chile, 1964–1969
    Pedagogy of the Oppressed in Its Sociopolitical Economic Context
    By John D. Holst

    Book Notes

    Going to College
    Edited by Elizabeth Evans Getzel and Paul Wehman

    The Joy of Teaching
    By Peter Filene

    Is Bill Cosby Right?
    By Michael Eric Dyson

    Johnny Mad Dog
    By Emmanuel Dongala, translated from the French by Maria Louise Ascher

    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.