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Home > Leadership and Policy > Linking school improvement to community organizations

Linking school improvement to community organizations
HGSE Professor Mark Warren

Are community organizations and urban school reform a match that was meant to be? That could well be the case, says HGSE associate professor Mark Warren – even if the two partners have taken a long time to find each other.

A sociologist by training, Warren has been studying a creative new approach to urban school reform. The basic idea is for local community organizations to engage as catalysts for change and improvement in the troubled urban schools in their neighborhoods. Community organizations have done this, in the schools that Warren has studied, largely through the audacious concept of cultivating parents as "agents of change" in their children's schools.

All too often, principals and teachers in urban schools see the families from which their students come as part of the problem they face as educators. But in schools where community organizations are involved in this new approach, they have helped foster "social capital" – networks of relationships based on trust – and have helped parents develop as community leaders. "The potential is tremendous," Warren says in an interview with Usable Knowledge, but the educators and the community groups have been "so disconnected."

Warren observes that after the heyday of the social movements of the 1960s, community organizations undertook economic development efforts and affordable housing projects, but did almost nothing in the field of education. Local schools, on the other hand, have tended not to seek out much connection with the community organizations. And under pressure today from the demands of the No Child Left Behind Act and high-stakes testing, they may feel less able than ever to build outside relationships.

But today community organizations are seeing that they have a stake in the success of their local schools: their neighborhoods will not prosper if those schools don't produce graduates ready for higher education or for 21st-century work. Nor will the communities retain the kind of residents they want if they can't offer good, or at least improving, schools.

The initiative in these partnerships tends to come from the community organizations rather than from the schools. But a principal who can take just a little time to get to know the organizations active in the neighborhood outside the school walls may find some partners eager to help and willing to bear the burden. More principals have become willing to collaborate because they understand that many of the problems of urban schools cannot be solved without improvements in the conditions of the communities surrounding those schools.

There's another element at work here. For many of these organizations, the "center of their being," as Warren puts it, is their interest in developing community leadership. Education turns out to be a particularly good field in which to do this. In his paper in the Harvard Educational Review, “Communities and Schools: A New View of Urban Education Reform,” Warren quoted the head of one community organization that is involved in both housing and education, who had this to say:

"Working with schools builds new constituencies. You don’t get that with housing. Some people become connected in a real way in the housing development [that his organization runs]. But for many, it’s just a place to live. Families are really connected through schools. We’ve learned how much more connected we can become to a community, and how much more we can influence its development through our school work." 1

The modest growth of this new-style community activism has occurred over the past 15 years or so, Warren says. "Part of the trend the past 15 years has been much more faith based, so that a lot of the strongest groups have roots in religious congregations," something Warren suggests that educators don't always understand. "These groups are not about pushing a particular religious agenda in the school. It's more that the congregations are really anchors for the community, it's where people gather for support."

This approach is “countercultural," Warren acknowledges, in that it departs from the customary "deficit thinking" that educators typically engage in with regard to the less-affluent families in their districts. Teachers and principals often see their students' parents in terms of limited education and financial resources, and perhaps unemployment, substance abuse, or even criminality as well. But the broad sweep of evidence over the years suggests that parents of whatever background "care deeply about their kids' education," Warren says, “and everyone has something to offer.”

Community organizers in the classic tradition like to start by focusing on concrete issues that parents care about, where their efforts can make a difference – perhaps something like school-bus safety or even the quality of food in the cafeteria. To educators, who live in a world "that's all about the instructional core," as Warren puts it, this approach is counterintuitive. In many cases, though, organizing efforts that start small with safety campaigns, lead to more ambitious efforts to improving teaching and learning in the school.

Similarly, some schools find that hiring a family coordinator is a good idea – but sometimes the family coordinator ends up being the only one who knows everyone. Better to have a coordinator who brings people together to help parents connect with one another and with teachers in meaningful ways.

By fostering connections among parents, community groups can adjust the balance of power between parents and teachers in a way somewhat akin to collective bargaining. Because education is inherently collaborative, working in the schools tends to move community groups away from the confrontational tactics they may use elsewhere.

And the payoff for the schools where parents are engaged can be great. Warren's paper quotes a principal in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood: "We don’t need metal detectors because we have networks of parents who will come quick to tell us who has a weapon."

Another example of the sort of parent involvement Warren and his assistants have studied is the Logan Square Neighborhood Association's literacy ambassador program. Warren writes:

"Teachers and parents team up and visit a host family, which typically invites two guest families to the house as well. The ambassadors bring books to read out loud, talk with parents and children about the importance of literacy, and suggest specific things parents can do to help their children with reading.… The program has a specific focus on literacy, but its purpose is also relationship-building between teachers and parents. LSNA offers host families $30 to cover food, but many families put on lavish spreads of home-cooked food to welcome the ambassadors and guest families."

Not all parents can receive the ambassadors at home. The paper cites this account by a parent coordinator: "One mother had to work, so Mr. Perez, the teacher, went to her place of employment, a pizza parlor, and held the visit there. Other people in the shop got interested and joined in too."

Whatever the venue for this kind of encounter, Warren suggests, this approach is better than lecturing to parents on how they need to read to their children. Warren’s research seeks to identify the lessons educators can learn from community organizations about how to build relationships, and how to involve parents and community members in meaningful forms of participation that can improve schooling in low income communities.

by Ruth Walker

1 Mark R. Warren, "Communities and Schools : A New View of Urban Education Reform," Harvard Educational Review, 75, 2, Summer, 2005.

For further reading, Mark Warren recommends “Community Schools and Community-Building,” published online by the National PTA, and available free at

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