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How a neighborhood organization is bringing parents and schools together so the whole community benefits

Related story: Community schools -- providing multiple dividends across an entire neighborhood


Soo Hong

In low-income neighborhoods, the relationships between school staff and parents are often mistrustful if not downright adversarial. Amid the tension, student achievement suffers.

But community organizations can play a vital role in bridging the gap between home and school, finds Soo Hong, an education professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

She spent a year observing the work of a neighborhood association that dramatically improved parent involvement in nine schools in a predominantly Hispanic Chicago neighborhood.  Since, 1995, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association's Parent Mentor Program has trained more than 1,300 parents to serve as classroom assistants for struggling students.

But the training goes further — encouraging parents to take on leadership roles in the school and the community and to set personal goals for furthering their education and employment. The program, as Hong vividly describes it in A Cord of Three Strands: A New Approach to Parent Engagement in Schools, creates school cultures in which parents are viewed as partners in their children's education.

I spoke with Hong about the obstacles to parent participation in schools and how community organizations can make a difference:

What's wrong with the way that schools usually try to engage parents?

The activities that schools design aren’t always accessible, convenient or even, frankly, that interesting to parents. The most typical [ones] are pretty universal — a bake sale or a fundraiser, a parent-teacher conference, an open house at the beginning of the school year.

They aren’t ways that parents become real partners or engage in dialogue about what’s happening at the school, so schools retain all of the decision-making power.

Before I was a graduate student, I was a school teacher, and, while I found some innovative ways to manage my classroom and create curriculum, one thing I often struggled with was how to find better ways to engage families. I came into my teaching experience with those traditional activities that I just mentioned to you, and those activities didn’t give me any significant understanding about the families in my classroom.

They [parents] often wouldn’t come [to school events], they wouldn’t return my phone calls, I wasn’t sure if they were reading my newsletters. So I felt that all these techniques were helping me be hugely successful with a couple of parents in my classroom. To reach anyone else, I was completely baffled.

How did the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA) approach parent participation differently?

Their model is not satisfied with just inviting parents into the school.  They're trying to change the very nature of participation so that parents are seen as leaders and decision-makers in the school and that they’re visible role models to students every day.

And that really sets LSNA’s model apart from any other I've ever seen. If you walk into an LSNA school, you’ll see parents heading the Local School Council, standing alongside teachers in the classroom, engaged in one-on-one conversations with children in the hallway, reaching out to parents on the playground.

So you really see them playing a very central role in the life of the school.

LSNA's Parent Mentor Program starts with two weeks of intensive training that continues for two hours a week throughout the school year. How important is the training to the success of the program?

The training is essential because it allows parents to see how their individual participation is connected to the broader issues of the school.

Parents come into this experience thinking about how they can support their own children, and they leave the experience understanding that they are actually supporting the larger missions of the school. They are reading with children who have fallen behind, they are informal mentors or confidants to kids who are troubled, and they are able to invite other parents to events and activities because they know their children.

The training also allows parents to think about the ways that their work in schools can lead to their own individual and personal transformation, so that, by supporting students in the classroom, they then want to be more powerful role models.

Sometimes that means that they are motivated to get their GED, to finally take that step signing up for ESL classes, and to find ways to be involved in the larger community. They might participate in an affordable housing campaign or a rally in support of immigration reform.

These training sessions are really connecting the parents to the issues of community life which they find are fundamentally connected to the issues of education.

Deborah McCory/LSNA

It seems like it might be threatening to school staff for an outside organization to come in and encourage parents to take on more authority at the school.

LSNA had to work really hard in the beginning to [find] schools open to having parents participate in that way. Some schools are open to the possibility, and some are closed off.

But I have to say, many of the schools that now  partner with LSNA are schools that might not have warmed up to the idea from the very beginning, but over time, as school leaders have found [LSNA’s] work to be compelling and the shifts in parent involvement dramatic — that alone has sparked their curiosity.

Did the community organizing that grew out of parent training create any controversy with school staff?

The early campaigns were ones where LSNA parents and organizers fought alongside administrators and teachers to relieve overcrowding in Logan Square schools. I think it was key that, from the beginning, they wanted to work collaboratively with school staff and administrators.

There are times when they may find parents and school staff disagree [on] a campaign issue, but, since they have the collaborative relationship already, those tensions don't destroy the nature of their interactions.

What would it take to replicate a program like this in other places?

I think the community organizations are key. Good community organizations already have relationships with residents or parents of families in the neighborhood. They often understand the language, they understand the cultural norms, they know about the familial experiences.  And this is all the kind of information that schools often lack themselves.

I worry that when schools try to bring in programs in like this, without the expertise of community partners, that they'll bring in the technical aspects of the program but leave that hierarchical relationship to families intact.

[Schools tend to] think about how they can offer services to families, “How can we change them?”

Community organizations know and appreciate the talents families can bring. That’s how you create a model [for parent involvement] that’s different.

You have to really believe that parents have something vital to offer.


A Cord of Three Strands: A New Approach to Parent Engagement in Schools by Soo Hong is available at Harvard Education Press,

Posted in Chicago, Education & Early Learning

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