Parent and Community Engagement is Key Driver of School Transformation in Baltimore

A teacher leans over a students desk, helping him with an assignment.

As part of its “Expanding Great Options” initiative, Baltimore City Public Schools has employed a holistic parent engagement strategy to turn around struggling schools. One principal built relationships with parents and students by shaking hands before and after school each day. Teachers sent out flyers, knocked on doors, and made phone calls to parents to discuss their children’s performance. Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education

School turnarounds require changes in school culture and strong relationships with parents

Commodore John Rogers Elementary/Middle School is located in an impoverished neighborhood of East Baltimore that struggles with high rates of gang violence and teen pregnancy. Ninety-five percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches and many are three or more grade levels behind in reading when they enter. The school floundered academically for years. In 2010, based on its test scores, Commodore ranked 872 out of 875 schools in Maryland. It enrolled only 225 students, half of the building’s capacity. Four principals had come and gone during the previous five years.

In the past four years, however, the school’s results have improved measurably. Enrollment more than doubled, chronic absences dropped significantly, and the percentage of students proficient in reading and mathematics rose 20 percent. In 2012, the school’s mathematics performance exceeded the districtwide average.

Creating More High Quality School Options

How did this happen?

In 2010, Baltimore City Public Schools chose Commodore to participate in its “Expanding Great Options” initiative, an effort launched by former Superintendent Andrés Alonso to increase the number of high quality schools in the district. The city opened new schools, expanded the capacity of high-performing ones, closed the lowest performers, and began working to turn around struggling schools. During the first full year of the program, the Baltimore City school board approved eight new schools and moved to close nine low-performing ones. In addition, all high schools became schools of choice.

Commodore was among a group of persistently low-performing schools selected to be part of a districtwide turnaround initiative, which brought intensive support underwritten by the State’s Federal Race to the Top award and School Improvement Grant. The goal: transform school culture and dramatically accelerate learning outcomes. Interventions varied by school, but included new leadership, extra support staff, a longer learning day, new technology, more staff mentoring, and professional development for teachers.

Parent Engagement a Top Priority

Marc Martin, a seasoned school leader with a strong track record of success, became Commodore’s new principal. In addition to hiring new staff and renovating the building, Martin made parent engagement a top priority. He set out to get to know each parent personally, to build trust and hope. “I literally slept here during the summer before the school opened,” he said. “We sent out flyers, made phone calls and knocked on doors to let families know we were here.”

Martin and his staff held focus groups with parents to hear their concerns and feedback. Hundreds of families came to barbecues and ice cream socials during which teachers and administrators told them about the changes they could expect to see at the school.

Building relationships with parents and students continued to be a priority when school opened that fall.  “I started out every morning shaking kids’ hands and being available to families,” he said. “They could see there wasn’t anything I was hiding. My staff and I did the same thing every day at dismissal to signal that we were available to our families.”

This figure shows the percentage of students that scored proficient or advanced on the State assessments in mathematics and reading at Commodore John Rogers Elementary/Middle School. The assessment scores shown on the graph are for two years – 2010 and 2013 -- and assessment scores improved in each mathematics and reading. For mathematics, 47 percent of students were proficient or advanced in 2010 and 62 percent of students were proficient or advanced in 2013. For reading, 49 percent of students were proficient or advanced in 2010 and 72 percent of students were proficient or advanced in 2013.

Source: Baltimore City Schools, Commodore John Rogers School Profile

Carolyn Baker, whose grandson, Maurice, is a third grader, said she appreciates all of the efforts to keep her informed. “I like that they communicate with me and let me know what’s going on,” she said. “I get phone calls from Maurice’s teachers letting me know about something good my grandson did. I like those kinds of phone calls.”

One time, when Ms. Baker was ill, a staff member helped out. “When I was sick and couldn’t get my grandson to school, he [Commodore staff member] would pick him up and bring him home,” she said. Another staff member who works with families came over during the holiday season with an outpouring of gifts and clothes.

Ms. Baker said she frequently attends events focused on academics.  Commodore invites parents to three conferences each year at which time students present evidence of their academic progress. At least 95 percent of parents attend these conferences regularly. In addition, the Baltimore City Schools’ Office of Engagement provides a wide range of workshops for parents, teachers and school leaders focused on strengthening parent engagement. Workshop topics include “Getting Involved in Your Child’s School,” “Building Successful Relationships that Benefit Student Success” and “Hosting Meaningful Parent-Teacher Conferences.”

Parents also are involved in making decisions about the school’s progress and plans for improvement. Three Commodore parents sit on the School Family Council, an advisory group composed of parents, teachers, and community members who meet monthly to review the school improvement plan and the budget. Every school in the district has a School Family Council, as defined in Baltimore City Schools’ Family and Community Engagement Policy.

While Principal Martin is heavily involved in getting parents engaged in the school, he has help in implementing the school’s community outreach strategy from the school’s family and community engagement specialist. Every school in the district now has someone in this role.

Solid Gains Across Baltimore Schools

Commodore is one of many Baltimore City schools where positive change is evident. Since the Expanding Great Options initiative launched in 2008, student achievement has been trending upward districtwide, with reading proficiency up by 20 percent and mathematics proficiency by 18 percent. Dropout rates are declining and high school graduation and college enrollment rates are on the rise. While there is still a long way to go, City Schools has created a solid foundation of continuous improvement—and involving parents and community members is a big part of it.


School level

  • Establish clear roles and encourage ownership. City Schools found that hiring dedicated, talented engagement staff and giving them the support and freedom to own their work is important.
  • Get to know parents and be accessible. Commodore Principal Marc Martin found that making himself available to parents and establishing relationships with them as individuals built trust and engagement. “You need to know every parent’s name. What do you know about what they’re interested in? How can you relate to them? How can you have a sense of humor with them?”
  • Be responsive to parents. Spend time listening and respond quickly and consistently to concerns and feedback.
  • Keep the focus on what is best for students. If parents believe you’re really concerned about serving their children well, you have a lot more room to maneuver.

System level

  • Start by creating an informed school community. Parents need to understand school quality and have the tools to make informed choices.
  • Make transparency and consistency key. Be clear about which schools are slated for interventions, how those schools fit into the districtwide reform strategy and what options exist for students and families.
  • Recognize success. Acknowledge “early wins” and hard work that school staff are doing, even when progress is slow.