Baltimore schools have come far, but not far enough


BALTIMORE has reason to cheer the improvements in students' standardized reading and math test scores this year. There also is reason to reflect.

Why did students' scores rise? Most explanations identified better teaching, more challenging curricula, focused instruction, targeted staff development, extra help for students and goal-oriented parent and community involvement.

Baltimore City Public School System officials noted the need to "stay the course" in order to continue to improve the curriculum, instruction and extra programs. Similarly, the city needs to continue to assist every school to improve its program of school, family and community partnerships.

In the past six years, Baltimore has emerged as the nation's first large, urban school system to effectively organize school-based partnership programs citywide. More than 170 schools in all nine areas of the city are working to develop research-based partnership programs that include activities for six types of parent and community involvement and that are focused on school goals for students' learning. This is significant, and it didn't happen overnight.

The partnership program works this way:

Schools may choose interactive homework in math, science, or languages to help students practice and share academic skills with family partners. They may hold attendance workshops to help parents get their children to school on time. They may organize parent and grandparent patrols to improve school safety and discipline, implement after-school programs with community partners to provide students additional learning experiences and conduct many other activities.

Since 1987, educators, families and students in city schools have been working with Johns Hopkins University's Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships and the Fund for Educational Excellence to learn what it takes to organize and sustain programs of family and community involvement.

Baltimore learned that it takes a school-based Action Team for Partnerships (including teachers, parents and an administrator) and an annual Action Plan for Partnerships linked to school improvement goals. It takes well-trained, full-time area facilitators who can help up to 30 schools plan, implement and evaluate their partnership programs.

It also takes a district-level director of family and community involvement, supportive district leaders and increasingly knowledgeable principals and teachers who are able to work more effectively with parents and community partners.

Lessons learned in Baltimore were central to the development of the National Network of Partnership Schools at Johns Hopkins University. This growing network now assists more than 1,100 schools, 130 districts and 14 state departments of education (including Maryland) to develop comprehensive partnership programs. Baltimore's practices also have been reported in professional journals and at national conferences to advise other educators about how to proceed with their work on partnerships.

Baltimore has in place the essential ingredients to enable every elementary, middle and high school to implement high-quality partnership programs.

Does this mean that Baltimore's work is done, and that every school has an excellent program of family and community involvement? Of course not.

Some schools have just started to organize their actions on partnerships. Some schools have changed leaders and need to reorient their action teams. Middle and high schools need extra help in implementing effective partnership activities. Some schools still have weak action teams, and some parents still are not involved in their children's education.

Baltimore has a thrifty program costing an average of $5 to $10 per pupil a year. What is the payoff? Research shows that schools with higher quality partnership programs are more likely to improve student attendance, behavior, homework completion and achievement from one year to the next.

A new school superintendent soon will be named for Baltimore City and other school and district changes will occur over the summer.

Baltimore should continue to invest in highly focused and challenging curricula, excellent teaching, and well-organized programs of school, family and community partnerships in all schools in order to ensure that students continue to improve their skills and scores.

Joyce L. Epstein is director and Mavis G. Sanders is assistant director of the Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships and the National Network of Partnership Schools. They are researchers in CRESPAR at Johns Hopkins University. For more information on this work visit

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