Boston Public Schools Engage Families to Help Turn Schools Around

Strengthening the bond between parents and schools increases learning.

Three students are seated on the floor of their classroom. Two of the students work together on a project, and the third is looking up towards the not pictured teacher.

Photo Credit: US Department of Education

When family and community outreach coordinator Ana Contreras walked into John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Boston’s Jamaica Plains neighborhood in fall 2010, she knew she had her work cut out for her. The school was low-performing, and Massachusetts had provided it with a Federal School Improvement Grant to raise student achievement.

One of the main strategies for improving performance at John F. Kennedy and other low-performing schools in Boston, such as William Blackstone Elementary in the South End and Orchard Gardens K–8 Pilot School in Roxbury, was to involve parents and the community in students’ learning and the daily life of the school.

“We view parents as partners and a necessary piece of the puzzle for improving student achievement,” said Meghan Welch, director of operations at Orchard Gardens. “We want parents to be involved, so our school is open to families. Parents see teachers and know them. They see staff in action. It helps avoid misunderstandings. And if something is not going well, parents know it is okay to come in and talk because they have been here before for positive events.”

It is widely recognized by educators that parents who support their children’s learning both in school and at home, communicate regularly with teachers, and have high expectations make a big contribution to student learning. In Massachusetts, policymakers believe the potential of parent and community engagement is so great that the State insists that engagement is included as an indicator in evaluating the performance of teachers and principals.

In Boston Public Schools, educators are betting that parent and community engagement can help put entire schools that have had a history of low student achievement on the road to improvement. The district’s Office of Family and Student Engagement launched a Parent University in 2009 to support parents’ involvement in their children’s education. The district also has placed an outreach coordinator at each school to help faculty and staff build productive relationships with families and community members. Five years later, this investment is paying dividends, with schools across Boston seeing increases in proficiency rates for English language arts and mathematics.

Building Relationships

For Contreras, Welch and other leaders at the 15 Boston schools that were designated for turnaround in 2010, engaging families started with building relationships.

The coordinators met with parents to find ways to make it easier for them to take part in school activities. Blackstone Elementary held “welcome back” events at various locations and times to accommodate parents’ work schedules or lack of transportation. If parents couldn’t attend either event, teachers went to their homes or contacted
them by telephone.This text box is a quote from Meghan Wlech, director of operations at Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School in the Roxbury section of Boston, it reads: "We view parents as partners and a necessary piece of the puzzle for improving student achievement. We want parents to be involved, so our school is open to families. ... And if something is not going well, parents know it is okay to come in and talk because they have been here before for positive events."

The schools also worked to make parents feel more comfortable on campus. Blackstone, John F. Kennedy and Orchard Gardens provide citizenship and English as a second language classes, computer training and workshops on how to support students with disabilities.

“Before my son went to Orchard Gardens, I was nervous,” said Dina Cundiff, whose son entered the school as a 6th grader that fall. “He has autism and was going into special education. I thought, ‘This school is failing.’ So I went and spoke with the teachers and the principal. They showed me around, and we talked. The outcomes they wanted matched what I wanted.”

Linking to Learning

As parent participation has grown and trust increased, the work of the coordinators has shifted to focus more on learning, said Salome Briceno, director of family engagement and community partnerships at Blackstone.

Blackstone organizes an Academic Bazaar to help parents better understand what their children are learning and to provide them with strategies in literacy and mathematics that they can replicate at home. Other events give parents opportunities to see students’ work.

Every six weeks, Orchard Gardens invites parents to classroom “publishing parties” to view their students’ writing. “It’s an opportunity for parents to see that, as a result of the homework students are doing, and a long writing cycle in the classroom, their child produced this book,” Welch said.

Events such as Blackstone’s Health and Wellness Night also provide parents with additional resources to help their children. Students, families and staff can take part in exercise activities such as Zumba or yoga, tour the school health center and learn about afterschool programs. The inaugural event this year attracted between 200 and 300 people from between 80 and 100 families. “It takes over the whole building,” Principal Danielle Morrissey said.

The turnaround efforts are paying off at the three schools: the proficiency rate in English language arts at Blackstone went from 17 percent in 2010 to 23 percent in 2013, an increase of 6 percentage points. John F. Kennedy saw an increase of 16 percentage points in both English language arts and mathematics (from 26 percent to 42 percent and 37 percent to 53 percent, respectively). Orchard Gardens increased from 20 percent in 2010 to 34 percent in 2013 in English language arts for an increase of 14 percentage points and from 19 percent to 43 percent in mathematics for an increase of 24 percentage points. Orchard Gardens’ enrollment in 2013 was 833 so the increase of 24 percentage points represents 200 additional students scoring proficient in 2013.

Building Educator and Parent Capacity

The outreach coordinators initially took the lead in strengthening parents’ ties to the school. But then they helped teachers take on those responsibilities, and parents, feeling welcomed, began helping out on their own.

“Teachers and the whole administrative team really need to believe family engagement is important for student achievement,” Briceno said. “The first two years I planned This text box is a quote from Dina Cundiff, a parent at Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School in Boston. It reads: "When i joined the parent council, I thought it would be bake sales and meetings with othe rparents. But the school meant, 'We need you to give us opinions about these programs - are they working for you?"and executed every event. Now most events are planned by our teacher-leadership teams.”

At Orchard Gardens, parents on the parent council played an integral role in shaping programs. “When I joined the parent council, I thought it would be bake sales and meetings with other with parents,” said Cundiff. “But the school meant, ‘We need you to give us opinions about these programs — are they working for you?’”

As the school came out of turnaround, Orchard Garden parents became even more galvanized to find the funding to keep programs such as extended day. Parents wrote letters and testified every week at district meetings. To keep the momentum going, the school established different groups, such as an outreach committee, and activities, including a regular fathers’ brunch, during which they discussed what they wanted out of their children’s experience and how to advocate for it. Their efforts paid off: all district schools received funding for extended-day programs that school year.

Parents at Blackstone are also active in the school’s site council, and they help put out a school newsletter, work on grant applications and develop new programs.

A group of families at John F. Kennedy won a grant from the local Whole Foods grocery store to build a garden at the school. The families then worked with the school science specialist to develop lessons tied to the garden.

Improving Performance

Student performance at Blackstone, John F. Kennedy and Orchard Gardens increased enough from 2010 to 2013 for the schools to be removed from the State’s turnaround list.

Blackstone is now a pilot site for the district’s new Academic Parent Teacher Teams. Teachers will make 90-minute visits each year to the parents of children in kindergarten through second grade at home to discuss their children’s performance and set improvement goals.   And John F. Kennedy is involving parents in plans to enhance school curriculum.  In the next year, John F. Kennedy will increase its focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). To help prepare, teachers and families will take a field trip to the Windward Teacher Training Institute in White Plains, New York, which provides professional development for parents and educators.

“All three schools insisted from the beginning that family and community engagement be part of their turnaround strategy,” Dione Christy, senior director in the district’s Office of Family and Student Engagement, said. “They serve as models for other low-performing schools” and are continuing to work on keeping parents engaged.


  • Invest in engagement.  Make family and community engagement a priority in school improvement and invest the resources needed to make it happen.
  • Make engagement meaningful. Bring parents into the school to establish trust; and ensure that parent engagement activities are linked more directly to student learning.
  • Ensure everyone is responsible.  Distribute leadership by giving one staff member responsibility for coordinating outreach but ensuring that all staff and faculty understand the important role engagement plays in student achievement and have assigned roles and responsibilities in school engagement strategies.