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Beyond the School Walls: A Case Study of Principal Leadership for School-Community Collaboration.

by Mavis G. Sanders & Adia Harvey - 2002

This case study describes how one urban elementary school in a high-reform district and state has been able to develop strong connections with community businesses and organizations as part of its program of school, family, and community partnerships. The case study identifies four factors that allowed the school to build successful bridges to its community. These factors are (1) the schoolís commitment to learning; (2) the principalís support and vision for community involvement; (3) the schoolís receptivity and openness to community involvement; and (4) the schoolís willingness to engage in two-way communication with potential community partners about their level and kind of involvement. The concluding section of the paper discusses the implications of the studyís findings for school, district, and state educational leaders.

This case study describes how one urban elementary school in a high-reform district and state has been able to develop strong connections with community businesses and organizations as part of its program of school, family, and community partnerships. The case study identifies four factors that allowed the school to build successful bridges to its community. These factors are (1) the school’s commitment to learning; (2) the principal’s support and vision for community involvement; (3) the school’s receptivity and openness to community involvement; and (4) the school’s willingness to engage in two-way communication with potential community partners about their level and kind of involvement. The concluding section of the paper discusses the implications of the study’s findings for school, district, and state educational leaders.

The sheer magnitude of what we ask of these institutions [schools] “to promote learning, prepare a workforce and create a citizenry” puts them at the heart of our communities and endows them with special status. . . . An active, engaged community—has an enormous role to play in supporting the schools’ mission.

(Melaville, 1998, p. 6)

Urban schools are under increasing pressure to improve student achievement outcomes. Threats of reconstitution and state takeover are part of a widespread climate of dissatisfaction with schools in major U.S. cities. Often under intense scrutiny and with uncertain futures, these schools are being directed to implement whole-school reform efforts that restructure school curriculum and decision-making procedures. Furthermore, as a part of whole-school reform, or in addition to it, these schools are being asked to partner with students’ communities to mobilize the human and material resources needed for academic success. However, schools, especially urban schools serving students from high-risk communities, often find themselves in the difficult position of being held accountable for initiating partnerships with students’ families and communities without additional personnel or funds and without clear guidance and direction in establishing, maintaining, and evaluating such partnerships. As a result, these schools may not develop the kinds of partnerships with communities that benefit the school, students, families, and the larger community.

This paper describes how one urban elementary school in a high-reform district and state has been able to develop strong connections with community businesses and organizations as part of its program of school, family, and community partnerships. The case school has developed community partnerships that support its efforts to improve school climate, parental involvement, and student achievement. The purpose of this study is to identify factors that supported the case school’s development and maintenance of effective school-community connections and, in so doing, inform school-community partnership practices at other schools.

This paper is divided into five sections. The first section situates the study in current literature on school-community partnerships as a school reform strategy. The second section describes the methodology used in the study. The third section describes the school and its community partners. The fourth section identifies and discusses four factors that allowed the school to build successful bridges to its community. The fifth and concluding section discusses the implications of the study’s findings for school, district, and state educational leaders.


Current educational reforms emphasize the need for schools, especially those serving poor and minority students, to partner with families and communities to create more challenging, responsive, and supportive learning environments. A U.S. Department of Education report (National Association of State Coordinators of Compensatory Education, 1996) stated that the most high-performing schools serving economically disadvantaged children distinguish themselves by finding innovative ways to connect with parents and private-sector partners. “Overall,” the report noted, high performing schools “make use of their communities and reach out beyond the schools’ walls.”

Researchers, practitioners, and policy makers in education also underscore the importance of community involvement for more effective schooling. For example, Boyd and Crowson (1993) suggest that schools must “reach out into the community in an attempt to strengthen the social capital available to children (p. 36).” Toffler and Toffler (1995) contend that school-family-community collaborations are one way to provide a caring component to today’s often large, assembly line schools. Heath and McLaughlin (1987) argue that community involvement in schools is important because, “the problems of educational achievement and academic success demand resources beyond the scope of the school and of most families” (p. 579).” The authors identify changing family demographics, demands of the professional workplace, and growing diversity among student populations as some of the reasons that schools and families alone cannot ensure that all children are provided the experiences and support needed to succeed in the larger society. Epstein’s (1992) theory of overlapping spheres of influence identifies the community as one of the primary contexts in which children learn. She contends that schools, families, and communities must work collaboratively to ensure the academic success and socioemotional well-being of all students.

Schools across the United States are partnering with their students’ families and communities to support school improvement efforts and student success. Examining data from 400 schools, Sanders (2001) found the schools linked with a variety of community partners. Ten major categories of community partners identified were (a) businesses/corporations; (b) universities and educational institutions; c) government and military agencies; (d) health care organizations; (e) faith organizations; (f) national service and volunteer organizations; (g) senior citizen organizations; (h) cultural and recreational institutions; (i) other community-based organizations; and (j) individuals in the community.

Sanders (2001) also found that depending on their foci, school-community partnership activities were variously used as strategies for student and family support, school improvement, and community development. Student-centered activities included those that provided direct services or goods to students, such as student awards and incentives, scholarships, tutoring and mentoring programs, and job shadowing and other career-focused activities. Family-centered activities were those that had parents or entire families as their primary focus, including activities such as parenting workshops, GED and other adult education classes, parent/family incentives and awards, family counseling, and family fun and learning nights. School-centered activities included those that benefited the school as a whole, such as beautification projects and the donation of school equipment and materials, or activities that benefited the faculty, such as staff development and classroom assistance. Community-centered activities had as their primary focus the community and its citizens. The activities included charitable outreach, art and science exhibits, and community revitalization and beautification projects.

Sanders found that many schools implementing community partnerships faced obstacles commonly documented in the school improvement literature. Among these were lack of time, lack of teacher participation due to burnout, and lack of community partners. Other documented obstacles to successful school-community collaborations include territorialism (Epstein, 1995; Mawhinney, 1994) or, as noted by Boyd and Crowson (1993), “unresolved issues of information sharing, resource mingling and professional turf” (p. 152), and lack of focus.

Although some schools have been able to overcome these obstacles and develop and maintain successful community partnerships, others have failed to do so (Sanders, 2001). Stone (1995) documents how even the most well-intentioned and anticipated school-community collaborations can fail to meet their objectives. What then are the factors that support successful school-community collaborations? This case study of one urban school that has been able to develop and sustain for more than 3 years multiple connections with its community provides insights that address this question.


The data for this study were collected during a 7-month period from June to December 1999. All the data were qualitative and were collected to provide insight into the factors that support school-community partnerships at an urban elementary school.


The school selected for the study is located in a high-reform district and state in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States. The state is one of several in the country that is actively engaged in a reform process based on the Goals 2000: Educate America Act. The act encourages states to develop content and performance standards in core subject areas and to align all elements of the educational process, including family and community involvement, around these standards (Mitchell, 2000). The state holds each of its school systems accountable for student outcomes. Central to the state’s accountability system, in addition to attendance rates and basic skills test scores, is school performance on a standards-based assessment. The lowest performing schools are identified as reconstitution eligible and targeted for state takeover if sufficient improvement is not made in a designated period of time. As of 1999, there were 83 reconstitution eligible schools in the district in which the case school is located.

The district is large and urban. Most students enrolled in schools in the district are African American (87%). About 11% are White, and 2% are Asian, Hispanic, and American Indian. In 1997, the state general assembly established a city-state partnership designed to carry out educational reform in the district. As part of the reform effort, a board of school commissioners was created to develop and implement a 5-year reform plan. The plan, which was first implemented in the 1998–99 school year, outlines five objectives for school improvement, including increasing achievement levels and attendance, creating safe and orderly learning environments, and increasing levels of family and community support and involvement. Each school is responsible for developing an individualized school improvement plan that outlines strategies for addressing these objectives.

Because of the district’s current focus on school, family, and community partnerships as a strategy for school improvement, principals are evaluated on how well they reach out to parents and the larger community. Furthermore, the district provides schools with direct assistance from facilitators for school, family, and community partnerships. These facilitators help schools to plan, implement, and evaluate school, family, and community partnership programs that focus on goals outlined in the schools’ improvement plans. It is within this high reform context that the case study was implemented.


The urban elementary school selected for the case study, as well as the district and state in which it is located, are members of the National Network of Partnership Schools (NNPS). The NNPS provides theory-driven and research-based assistance, support, and training to schools, districts, and states that are committed to building permanent school, family, and community partnership programs. There is no fee to join the network. However, each school agrees to use an Action Team for Partnerships—composed of the principal, teachers, and family and community representatives—and Epstein’s framework of six types of involvement—(1) parenting, (2) communicating, (3) volunteering, (4) learning at home, (5) decision making, and (6) collaborating with the community—to develop programs for school, family, and community partnerships that will promote students’ success (Epstein, Coates, Salinas, Sanders, & Simon, 1997). District members of the NNPS agree to develop district-level partnership programs as well as facilitate partnership program development at the school level. State members agree to develop state leadership in the area of parent and community involvement and support district- and school-level partnership program development (Epstein, Clark, & Van Voorhis, 1999). The NNPS currently assists more than 1,100 schools, 130 districts, and 13 states in developing comprehensive and permanent programs of partnership (Sanders & Epstein, 2000).

The case school was selected using a three-stage process. First, the district’s facilitators for partnerships were asked to identify exemplary schools that had effective partnership programs with high levels of family involvement and strong community linkages. Seven schools were identified. These schools’ 1998–99 Action Plans for School, Family, and Community Partnerships were then reviewed to identify the types of partnerships in which the schools were engaged. Next, action team chairpersons were contacted by phone to verify the information provided in the Action Plans for Partnerships and to schedule times for in-depth telephone interviews. The final telephone interviews were semistructured and consisted of three questions about the action team chairperson’s role in coordinating the partnership program, the structure of the school’s Action Team for School, Family, and Community Partnerships, and the school’s partnerships with businesses and other groups and institutions in the community. When necessary, follow-up questions were asked to clarify interviewees’ responses. The final telephone interviews lasted, on average, 40 minutes.

Schools were rated based on the number and quality of their community partnerships and the structure and effectiveness of their Action Team for Partnerships. The school with the highest rating agreed to participate in the case study. In return for its participation, the school received $1,000 to implement partnership activities during the 1999–2000 school year.


Case study methodology enables educational researchers to examine schooling processes to identify factors that influence school functioning and a variety of outcomes for students and other actors in the educational arena. Case study research typically uses a number of data collection techniques, including interviews, observations, and document analysis. In this study, we drew primarily from interview and observation data to investigate the factors that supported community partnerships at the case school.

Community Partner Interviews

The chair of the Action Team for Partnerships and the principal provided to the authors a list of the school’s active community partners, along with contact information for each partner. The school’s community partners represented businesses, senior citizen organizations, churches, educational institutions, private foundations, and health care institutions. Each of the 10 partners identified was contacted to verify his or her connection with the case school and to schedule an interview date to discuss the partnership. Each community partner agreed to an interview. Interviews took place at the partner site (i.e., the business or organization, at the school, or, in one instance, at the home of the community partner).

Interviews were semistructured and followed a protocol developed to elicit information about how the partnership was initiated, why the community partner chose to connect with the school, how the partnership developed over time, whether the partnership had achieved its desired goal(s), and the community partner’s level of satisfaction with the partnership. All interviews obtained this central information; however, participants were encouraged to discuss or explore other related issues not directly addressed in the interview protocol.

Interviews were conducted by one or both of the authors. They ranged in duration from 1 to 2 hours. All interviews were tape-recorded and transcribed for analysis. Interviews began in May 1999 and continued through July 1999.

Student Focus Groups

In September, the school principal provided the authors with class lists for Grades 3, 4, and 5. There were two classes for each of the three grade levels, with 22 to 25 students in each class. The total number of students enrolled in Grades 3 to 5 was 169. The authors randomly selected every eighth child from the class lists—six students in Grade 3 and five students each in Grades 4 and 5—to include in the focus group interviews. Selected students were given permission slips that described the study. Students who returned signed permission slips were included in the focus groups and were given a pizza party at the end of the study for their participation. Ten of the 15 students who received permission slips returned them by the scheduled date in December. Four of these students were in Grade 3, three were in Grade 4, and three were in Grade 5.

Grade-level focus groups were held in an empty staff office and were conducted by the first author. An interview protocol ensured that similar questions were asked in each group. However, as was the approach used throughout the study, participants were encouraged to discuss related topics of interest that were not directly addressed by the protocol. The interview protocol was designed to determine if students were aware of the community partnership activities in which their school was involved and whether the school’s involvement had any tangible benefits for students. Students were asked how well they liked the school, what aspects of school they liked most, what before- or after-school activities they were involved in, what aspects of the school needed the most improvement, and how they were supported as learners. Each focus group lasted approximately an hour and was tape-recorded and transcribed for analysis.

Parent Interviews

To determine the extent to which parents were knowledgeable about the community partnerships in which the school was engaged, and whether the partnerships had tangible benefits for their children, the parents of the 10 students involved in the focus group were given the opportunity participate in the study. A letter explaining the study was sent to each of the 10 parents on school stationery and signed by both the researchers and the principal. Parents were offered a $50.00 food voucher to a local grocery store in return for their participation. Three mothers, one each with a child in the third, fourth, and fifth grade, agreed to be interviewed before the scheduled deadline in December. Two parents were interviewed in an empty staff office at the school, and the third parent was interviewed by phone.

The interviews were semistructured in design. They followed a protocol that was designed to gather information about parents’ general impression of the school, the activities in which their children were engaged, and their general knowledge about the school’s activities and community partnerships. Parent interviews held at the school were taped-recorded and transcribed. One of the interviews lasted 40 minutes; the other lasted 90 minutes. The telephone interview lasted approximately 30 minutes. Extensive notes were taken during the telephone interview and analyzed along with the transcribed data. The first author conducted the parent interviews.

School Interviews

The school principal was first interviewed in May. This interview was semistructured and based on a protocol designed to elicit information regarding his approach to school-community partnerships, his definition of community, his vision for the school and for students, as well as factors, such as district support, that either supported or restricted school-community collaboration. Both authors conducted this initial interview in the principal’s office. The interview lasted approximately 1 hour and was recorded and transcribed for later analysis. A second interview with the principal was held in August before his departure for a district-level position. This interview also was semistructured. The protocol guiding the interview was designed to elicit information about the development and maintenance of particular partnerships and how he and the assistant principal, soon to be the principal, had worked to ensure that the community partnerships would continue after his departure.

In September, the new principal was interviewed. This interview lasted approximately 90 minutes and included questions from both principal interview protocols. The interview was recorded and transcribed. It was supplemented with informal talks with the principal during the several school visits made during the case study. Notes from such chats were made subsequent to school visits and were included in the analysis phase of the study.

Semistructured interviews also were conducted with the cochairs of the school’s Action Team for Partnerships—one a kindergarten teacher and the other a third-grade teacher. As leaders of the action team, these individuals are responsible for assisting the principal in developing and documenting family and community partnership activities and improving linkages between such activities and the school’s improvement goals. Each cochair was interviewed separately. One was interviewed in her classroom during her planning period. The other was interviewed in the teachers’ lounge. The interviews were semistructured and based on a protocol that was designed to elicit detailed information about their activities and responsibilities as cochairs of the Action Team for Partnerships, their approach to identifying and pursuing community partnerships, and their greatest accomplishments, obstacles, and supports in doing so.

Each cochair interview lasted approximately 40 minutes. The interviews were recorded and transcribed for analysis. In addition to the semistructured interviews and focus groups just described, observations of activities sponsored or supported by the school’s community partners were conducted, including an end-of-year picnic and honor-roll breakfast.


Researchers conduct qualitative data analysis in a number of ways. Some use theoretical propositions to test their data, whereas others generate categories and propositions out of the data (Strauss & Corbin, 1990; Yin, 1984). All analytical approaches, however, seek to develop reasonable conclusions based on a preponderance of the data (Merriam, 1988). In this case study, interviews were transcribed and, along with field observations, analyzed using Atlas.ti, a software program specifically designed for the analysis of qualitative data to identify factors that influenced the development of the case school’s community partnerships. Data analysis was an iterative process, which consisted of examining all of the qualitative data for propositions, categories, patterns, connections, and themes (Seidman, 1991). This process required the authors to continually move between the community involvement literature, data collected from various participants, and their field notes and observations.

The end result of this process was the identification of four factors central to the school’s successful connections with its community partners. These factors are (1) the school’s commitment to learning; (2) the principal’s support and vision for community involvement; (3) the school’s receptivity and openness to community involvement; and (4) the school’s willingness to engage in two-way communication with potential community partners about their level and kind of involvement; each is discussed in detail after a description of the school and its community partners.



The school selected for the study is one of 183 public schools serving 103,000 students in a city of approximately 600,000 residents. The school is situated in a residential and commercial section of the city. The school has an enrollment of approximately 360 students in Grades K–5. The entire student population is African American. In 1999, about 10% of the students received special education services, and 79% received free or reduced-price meals. Similar numbers of students transferred in (16%) and out (17.5%) of the school in the 1998–1999 school year.

The school’s daily attendance rate is high. Since 1994, the attendance rate has surpassed the state’s satisfactory standard of 94%. In 1999, nearly half of the student population (45.7%) missed fewer than 5 days of school. The school’s performance on the state’s standards-based exam, however, has been less notable. Since 1995, the school has consistently achieved a higher composite score on the exam than other schools in the district (in 4 of the last 5 years, the school’s composite score was nearly double the district’s average). However, the school still has fewer than 50% of its students meeting the state’s satisfactory standard of 70% (Maryland State Department of Education, 1999). The school, then, has much work to do to improve the academic outcomes of its students. It is attempting to do so with the assistance of families and community partners.


During the 1998–99 school year, the case school had 10 documented community partners. Table 1 categorizes these partners based on the framework developed by Sanders (2001). As shown, the case school has a variety of community partners that fall in all but three of the categories identified: (1) recreational and cultural institutions, (2) military and government institutions, and (3) national service and volunteer organizations. These vacant categories represent community-based agencies and institutions that the school may consider for future collaborations. Also as shown in Table 1, the school’s community partnership activities are primarily student and school focused. As the case school improves its partnership program over time, it may incorporate more community-based activities that focus on students’ families and the community beyond the school walls. By doing so, the school will meet key challenges for excellent community partnerships identified by Epstein (1995).

Each of the case school’s community partners is briefly described below.

1. A nonprofit health organization.1 The organization is affiliated with a school of medicine in the city. The organization was created to assist in the prevention of hypertension and diabetes in high-risk communities. In 1999, the organization sponsored a health-awareness event that took place on the case school campus. The event included 15 booths that were manned by health care professionals who provided information and free screenings to participants. The organization also worked with the school to survey families about their knowledge of health care issues. In addition, the organization sponsored a good nutrition poster competition and a healthy cooking competition for students and their parents.


2. A collaboration between a community-based initiative and a local church. The collaborating organizations implement an after-school program with academic, cultural, and behavioral objectives for students. Students are assisted with homework, attend field trips, and engage in recreational and cultural activities. The program begins at 2:30 p.m. and ends at 5:15 p.m., Monday through Friday. The after-school program has a predesigned parent/community involvement component, which includes a 4 hour per month volunteer requirement. Parents can volunteer or have representatives, such as older siblings, grandparents, and other family members, volunteer for them. The program is offered free of cost to its participants.

3. A health care facility. The facility provides health information to staff, students, and parents through workshops and classroom presentations. Topics have included cholesterol management, HIV prevention and treatment, Attention Deficit Disorder, parenting skills, diabetes management, and CPR certification. The organization also provides refreshments for, and volunteers to help implement, school events, such as family fun and learning nights, father and son banquets, and the end-of-year picnic. The organization also sponsors a student academic recognition program, which honors academically successful students at quarterly awards breakfasts.

4. A nonprofit foundation. The foundation sponsors the Hundred Book Challenge program. Participating schools are provided with rotating classroom libraries with books that are color coded by level. Teachers assess students’ reading levels and assign them colors. Students select books coded with these colors and read, in class, 30 minutes each day. Students also are encouraged to take books home and read to their parents. Every book that the child reads is recorded, and after a certain number are read children receive incentives, such as pens and pencils. Students who read 100 books or more are recognized at the school’s quarterly awards breakfasts.

5. A suburban elementary school. The PTA at this elementary school has provided the case school with books for more than 2 years. The partner school also shared with the case school a book credit that allowed the school to purchase new books from Scholastic Press. The school formally adopted the case school during the 1999–2000 school year and hopes to expand their exchange and interaction.

6. A health care company. The company has a community outreach initiative, Partnership in Education Program, that includes about 42 volunteers who work with three schools. Seven volunteers from this company support the case school in a variety of ways. They act as tutors for students with academic problems. They also hold book drives for the school. During the 1998–99 school year, the company donated 600 books to the school. The company also has donated several computers to the school that are used in the school’s computer center.

7. A local church. The church has an outreach committee that provides school supplies to students in need, and also provides refreshments for school parties, including Valentine’s Day and Christmas parties. Members of the outreach committee also have worked as volunteers in the student cafeteria.

8. A local convenience store. The manager of the store sponsored recreational and crafts activities for students on Children’s Day, which was held 5 years ago on the school campus. He also has volunteered in classrooms and sat on school committees, including the PTSA, as a community representative.

9. A nursing home and rehabilitation center. The center houses 200 patients on five floors. Students provide residents with cards, decorations, and entertainment on holidays, including Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Thanksgiving. Students decorate the main hall of the building as well as residents’ rooms. They also visit with the residents and have lunch with them.

10. A community member. The community member is an employee at the state’s poison center. He regularly volunteers his time at the school to talk to students about poison prevention. He also provides students with educational materials that emphasize the importance of poison proofing their environments.

As of the 1999–2000 school year, each of these community partners had been collaborating with the school for at least 2 years. Some of the partnerships were initiated by the school through personal contacts or requests to the organizations’ outreach coordinators. This was the case for the partnerships with the elementary school, health care company, convenience store, and nursing home. Other partnerships were initiated by organizations and individuals in the community, such as the collaborations with the nonprofit health organization, the health care facility, the local church, and the community member. Still others were a result of the school applying for participation in projects such as the after-school program and the Hundred Book Challenge program. Regardless of who initiated contact (the school and community partners reported that they were equally comfortable with either party initiating contact), key factors have allowed the school to sustain these partnerships overtime. These factors are discussed in detail in the following sections.



The principal of the case school is committed to creating an academically rigorous and supportive learning environment for students. She stated:

My primary goal as school leader is to make sure that our students achieve . . . I must make sure that instruction takes place on a daily basis in every classroom and that every child is exposed to the best that we have to give them as far as the curriculum. That is my first and primary goal—achievement.

The current principal is deliberate in her actions to achieve this goal. She works diligently to ensure that teachers have the instructional materials and support that they need to be “focused and ready to do their job and fulfill their responsibilities.” She also works hard to ensure that teachers work in a secure, well-maintained and orderly environment. She states:

I make sure that the building is safe, and that everyone who works here, including cafeteria workers and custodians, works together like a well-oiled machine . . . Bills are paid, people get along, and in case of emergencies or crises, I am here to intervene.

The co-chair of the Action Team for Partnerships, who also is a third-grade teacher, described the principal as “wonderfully organized” and committed to helping teachers and parents help students succeed.

According to the students and parents interviewed for the study, the principal’s goal of creating a challenging and supportive learning environment is being realized. When randomly selected students were asked whether they believed that the school was good, the overwhelming response was yes. Students explained that what made the school good was that the principal and teachers cared about students’ learning. A fourth-grade student explained that what he liked most about the school was the class work that his teacher assigned and how she helped him to understand the lessons. When a fifth-grade student was asked what was good about the teachers at the case school, she responded, “They help all the children learn.”

Parents too described the school’s commitment to learning as its most outstanding feature, and when asked to rate the school on a scale from poor (1) to excellent (5), each parent interviewed rated the school either as very good (4) or as excellent (5). When asked to explain her rating of the school, one parent noted that teachers at the case school were always willing to work with parents to encourage students’ academic growth. She said, “The teachers will let you know exactly what your child is doing, they’ll call you at work or wherever, and tell you how your child is doing and how you can help. I like that.” Another parent stated that her daughter’s first-grade teacher was “excellent in getting the students started in reading and in disciplining them.” She also commented on the importance of the school’s parent workshops that focus on students’ learning. When discussing their impact she stated, “They helped me get back involved with my kids, and helped me realize how important my involvement for was my kids’ success.”

Parents who were interviewed were aware and appreciative of academically focused activities at the school, such as the Hundred Book Challenge and the after-school programs. Each of the parents interviewed indicated that they were kept aware of school activities and the community partners involved in the school through conversations with their children, attendance at school meetings and events, and the school’s monthly newsletter. Two of the parents worked full-time outside the home and commented that the school newsletter was an especially important source of information for them when they could not come to the school building. Students identified the many books in the classrooms and library, the volunteers who read to them as part of the school’s Hundred Book Challenge program, and their computer class as the best things about the school in addition to the principal and classroom teachers.


According to its community partners, the school’s visible commitment to students’ learning was one of the key factors that attracted them to the school and kept them involved. The community partner at the elementary school stated:

Just from phone calls and talks with the PTA, we’ve gotten the impression that the staff . . . [at the case school] is extremely committed to raising students’ test scores. They are doing everything that they can to improve their reading levels. . . . This commitment helps the program along. You’ve got a committed faculty and students are doing better and better.

The community partner at the health care facility was impressed by the level of family involvement in the school’s efforts to improve student learning. Based on her attendance at school events, such as the academic recognition breakfasts, the respondent commented:

The one thing that I love is the parent support. It’s not there for everybody, but it’s there. For students whose parents cannot be in the building, maybe their friend’s mother is there to give them a hug. Parents come and take pictures. It’s wonderful.

A community partner at the health care company noted that the company’s commitment to continued collaboration with the case school stemmed from the school’s goals for students’ learning and also its nurturing attitude toward students. According to the volunteer,

When you enter the school, the teachers are not yelling. I guess they know that the kids go through so much to get there in the morning that they don’t want to push them anymore. They are there for the students, they also have an after-school program for the students.

Community partners believed that through their contributions they were helping the case school to provide a richer learning environment for students. The respondent at the nonprofit foundation explained that they continued to collaborate with the case school to assist the school in improving students’ reading. She observed:

I have a stack of notes from students about the program . . . and that’s terrific. It’s helpful to the school, too. . . . We’re interested in students’ feedback so that we can improve our efforts and help the school to improve its efforts.

When discussing why the health care facility’s relationship with the case school has intensified over time, the respondent stated:

I have seen a difference since we started. When we first began our awards breakfasts we started with about 15 students and their parents, now each quarter, we have nearly 300 people in attendance!

The case school, although not the highest performing school in the district, was viewed as effective. This feature of the school was clearly linked to its success in attracting committed community partners to assist it in its school improvement efforts. Community partners wanted to be a part of an effective school that was visibly focused on students’ learning. A second factor that emerged as significant in the case school’s ability to attract and sustain community partners was the principal’s support and vision for community involvement.


Principal support for community involvement was a central factor in the case school’s success in developing meaningful community connections. In June, when the case study began, the school was experiencing a transition of principals. The principal of the school since 1995 was leaving to assume a district-level position. He was active during the summer, however, as the school’s assistant principal since 1997 prepared to become the school’s new head administrator. Based on school observations and interviews with parents, students, action team cochairs, community partners, and the principals themselves, the transition process was smooth and almost imperceptible. The smooth transition was, in large part, due to the principals’ shared support for school, family, and community collaboration as a strategy for school improvement.


The outgoing principal did not make a sharp distinction between family and community involvement. Instead he viewed the school, family, and community as a seamless web of supports and resources for students’ learning. He stated:

Part of the parent component is the community component because we are all products of the communities out of which we come . . . I really wish we didn’t have schools. I wish we would take kids out in the community and we’d learn everything out there.

The current principal makes a distinction between family and community involvement. Although she sees both as crucial to students’ learning, she views parent involvement as primary and community involvement as supplemental. She explained:

The real magic is in parents. It is their presence and approval, if you ask anyone who has done any teaching, that makes the difference. . . . When children know that their parents are interested, the students just do so much better. It doesn’t have to be mom or dad, but someone from home—it just makes a world of difference for them as far as their behavior, as well as academics. . . . There is a role for the community as well. . . . It may be secondary, but it certainly is wanted and appreciated. Community involvement lets our children know that there are other people in the community who care about them, people who are willing to work with them and do things for them.

Although their views on community involvement differed, both principals valued the role of family and community involvement in the educational process. Their beliefs translated into open and responsive attitudes toward opportunities for school-community collaboration and actions that reflected these attitudes. According to the current principal, who once questioned her ability to network with community groups to solicit support for the school,

If I find a group or an individual who is ready to do something, I am ready to tap into it. . . . We are always willing to accept things and find people to do things for our children, and make our children aware that someone is doing something special for them.


Each of the community partners described the current and former school principals as supportive of community involvement. It was this support that, in many cases, explained their ongoing partnerships with the case school and not with others in the immediate area. The community partner from the health care facility stated, “I don’t want to pinpoint any schools, but I’ve gone into some and have been totally turned off by the administration. If I’m turned off, what’s the interest in helping you, if you can’t be civil or nice to me?” The same community partner praised the case school’s former and current principals for their openness to community involvement. When speaking about the school leadership, she commented that at the case school, the administrator had “always been open to anything that will help kids and the school.” She continued, “I can’t speak highly enough of him, and the assistant principal is really nice too.”


The nonprofit foundation partner agreed that the principal was important to the initial development of successful community collaborations. However, recognizing the many responsibilities of the principal, she also contended that it was important for the principal to build the capacity of others in the school to maintain the partnerships. She explained:

The principal’s involvement in the initial stages of partnership development is crucial. Up front, we want a commitment by the principal. The principal also needs to designate somebody who’s going to be accountable for the relationship and for the program in the school.

Both the former and current principals have used the school’s Action Team for Partnerships to build the capacity of others to facilitate partnership program development. The cochairs of the school’s action team stated that the principal supports the team in many ways. The current principal has been a member of the Action Team for Partnerships since her arrival at the school and is actively involved in writing the school’s One-Year Action Plan for Partnerships. She ensures that the action team cochairs regularly report the team’s progress at school improvement team meetings, and, perhaps most important, she provides coverage for classrooms so that action team members can meet on the last Tuesday of every month. Regularly scheduled meetings help the school to overcome one of the most common challenges that schools face when developing partnership programs—finding time to meet (Sanders, 1999, 2001).

Although both action team cochairs are pleased with the school’s current community partnerships, they look forward to expanding and improving them. Both agree that with the principal’s continued support, the district’s continued emphasis on family and community involvement as a strategy for school improvement, and ongoing professional development on the topic, the school’s partnership efforts will thrive.



Parents, teachers, students, and community members agree that the case school is warm, friendly, and welcoming. It embodies the community school concept as described by the current principal. She observed:

This is really a community school. People always say, “You all don’t ever go home.” For a small school, we have long hours. We’re here usually from 6:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m. everyday. There are teachers and parents here. . . . They come here for meetings, and other community organizations use our grounds, or our parking lots, or our building to have meetings on the weekends. . . . I think that it is crucial, and is what makes . . . the school what it is.

The principal has worked to convey this conception of the school to her staff. She stated:

I’ve said to my staff, and I think that this is so, most parents and I would imagine members of the community are afraid of the unknown. . . .I think that they are weary of coming into school houses where they don’t feel welcome. That is the first key that people are made to feel welcomed.

The principal’s emphasis on creating a welcoming, friendly environment seems to have resonated with her staff. The community member who volunteers at the school observed that everyone in the school, from the secretary to the principal, had a welcoming attitude that was engaging. He stated, “I can honestly say that I have had good contacts with everybody that I have met at the school.” The health care facility volunteer stated:

It is definitely . . . [the school’s] spirit that is special. . . . I noticed that when I take other volunteers with me, they can’t wait to get back to [the school]. . . . it’s something about that school that really draws you to it.

The cochair of the Action Team for Partnerships who is a kindergarten teacher stated:

This is a friendly school, where teachers and the administration work together, and the parents and community are involved. . . . Everyone seems to get along, and everyone is involved and helpful to one another. . . . It’s just a nice place to be.

This sense of community within the case school’s walls (Merz & Furman, 1997; Redding, 2001) facilitated effective partnering with community agencies and organizations outside its walls.


The health care facility partner described the reception that she received at the case study school in the following way, “I was wondering how I would be received and its been wonderful. The kids, they hug me, they love me, and I love them.” The local church partner also found the school’s openness and receptivity critical to the partnership’s success. She noted that many schools are often “leery” of church partners. “Schools shouldn’t be frightened of people coming from a church,” she said, “When we go to a school, we’re going there to assist or do whatever we can for the school. We’re not going to convert students.” Both these partners had attempted to initiate collaborations with another school in the area but did not follow through because they were not met with the same reception found at the case school.

The community partners also found the case school to be appreciative of community involvement. Although they stated that formal acknowledgment was not necessary, the community partners were impressed by the case school’s expressions of gratitude. Several of the partners reported receiving thank you letters and notes from students; some reported having been thanked for their assistance over the intercom system; others reported having been stopped on the street by students and their parents and thanked for their service; many reported having been acknowledged in the school’s newsletter; and still others reported having received certificates of appreciation at the school’s end-of-year awards ceremony. However, the community partners agreed with the statement made by the nonprofit foundation partner. “Our acknowledgment,” she said, “is in the results for the students. That’s what we have our eye on.”



Lastly, the former and current principals, Action Team cochairs, and community businesses and organizations emphasized the importance of two-way communication for the success of the school’s community collaborations. Such communication is necessary to determine the most suitable kinds of involvement and to clarify the roles and responsibilities of each partner. According the former principal:

Sometimes a community partner’s ideas might not necessarily fit in with the school goals and therefore we have to help them. We have to work together to find out the best way to partner. I have found that often people come in with ideas about what they’d like to do, and what I try to do is take them on a tour of the school. They have a chance to see the students, to see the concerns that we have, and to see the strengths and weaknesses that we have. This helps to shape their ideas and then we can talk about possible partnership activities.

The current principal emphasized the importance of honesty in communications with community partners and potential partners so that each party is fully aware of the intent and expectations of the other. She has found that initial honest and up-front conversations prevent both parties from “wasting each other’s time.” The principal uses a simple measure to determine if a community partnership program is “right” for the school. The measure is whether the partnership will be positive for the students. She explained:

If I think that is something that is going to be a positive good for children, then basically that’s how I determine if the school will pursue it. I’ll listen to determine if a program is potentially beneficial to our students, how it’s monitored, and so forth, but I don’t think that there is such a thing as too much or too many. If it’s worthwhile, I say come on in.

Community partners also emphasized the importance of honest, open dialogue in which the school expresses its needs and the community partners express what they can offer. All community partners agreed that it was not important who initiated the dialogue but that the dialogue occurred. Without such dialogue, the local church partner noted, “We have no idea what the school needs; and the school has no idea what we have to offer. It is important to allow people to come in and sit and talk with them to determine if a partnership is possible.” The nonprofit health organization partner stated, “Our main goal is working with other groups and organizations and seeing where they are. Once we evaluate their needs, we can determine what it is that we can do to help them.” The manager of the local convenience store also emphasized the importance of open, two-way communication. He stated:

I’m a relational person. I like to sit down and talk. I like to know what is going on with the school, and what type of help is needed. I don’t want to come in and dictate anything. . . . I also don’t want anyone to tell me, “This is what we are doing, get on board or get out.” That to me is the biggest turnoff. What is important is dialogue.


Open, two-way communication was also identified as playing a major role in helping partnerships to grow, improve, and intensify over time. As the school’s needs have changed over time, both the former and current school principals reported having discussed these changes with current and potential partners so that their involvement could evolve in complementary ways or come to an appropriate conclusion. Community partners, in turn, are encouraged to communicate with the school when their foci, resources, or capabilities change so that their collaborations with the school continue to be positive. One community partner reported scheduling meetings with the school whenever the administration changed “to see what . . . [the new principal’s] needs are, and how we can best assist them.” Open, two-way communication has helped the school to avoid conflicts that might otherwise threaten the viability of the partnerships.

This was the case with the school’s after-school program. When school faculty found items missing from their rooms after the rooms were used for the program, they discussed their concerns with program leaders. The leaders then began to better monitor students participating in the after-school program. The end result was positive for all the parties involved and helped the program in its efforts to “keep trying to improve.”


The case study revealed four factors that supported one urban school’s ability to develop and maintain meaningful community partnerships. These factors were (1) a high commitment to learning; (2) principal support for community involvement; (3) a welcoming school climate; and (4) two-way communication about the level and kind of community involvement. These factors were linked to the principal’s actions as school leader. Her ability to maintain a school environment where teachers and parents focused on students’ academic success; to model for faculty and staff a genuine openness to community involvement and establish an expectation for emulation; to actively network with individuals in the community to inform them of her school’s needs; and to support others in developing leadership in the area of family and community involvement created fertile ground in which school-community partnerships flourished.

As a result of these partnerships, the school had computers that students loved to use; classrooms and a library full of books; an incentive program for honor-roll students; an after-school program; financial support for partnership activities and events; community speakers for parent workshops; and relationships with community businesses, organizations, and individuals that brought the school and its community partners a great deal of satisfaction. These partnerships, thus, supported the school’s efforts to provide a challenging and nurturing learning environment for its students. This kind of support is important for school improvement, especially for schools in high-risk, urban communities that are increasingly asked to improve students’ academic and behavioral outcomes, often without the necessary increases in material and human resources.

Unlike many such schools, however, the case school had district support for its partnership efforts. The district’s focus on school, family, and community partnerships as a strategy for school improvement allowed principals at the case school to prioritize partnerships in a way that might not have been possible or valued in a different reform context. Furthermore, district-level facilitators provided ongoing professional development. This ongoing support was identified by one of the action team cochairs as important because of faculty and student/parent mobility. It also was identified by both cochairs as important for helping the action team to maintain a clear focus on partnerships.

This case study suggests, then, that communities can play a vital role in the school improvement process. To attract useful and committed partners, however, schools need guidance and support to create appropriate contexts for partnerships. Principals need assistance in a) understanding the benefits of effective school-community collaborations, b) identifying potential partners for collaboration and appropriate collaborative activities, and c) creating school environments that encourage and support such collaborations. School staff and faculty also need professional development and staff training to understand their role in attracting and maintaining community partnerships. This kind of guidance and support from district and state leaders can help all schools, especially those in high-risk, urban communities, connect more effectively with families and communities to improve student outcomes.


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MAVIS SANDERS earned her PhD in education from Stanford University and holds a joint appointment as research scientist at the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk (CRESPAR) and assistant professor in the Graduate Division of Education, Johns Hopkins University. Her research and teaching interests include school reform, parent and community involvement, and African American student achievement.

ADIA HARVEY is a graduate student in the Sociology Department at Johns Hopkins University. Her research interests include gender identity development, community activism, and social change.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 104 Number 7, 2002, p. 1345-1368
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10994, Date Accessed: 5/22/2022 10:52:12 PM

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About the Author
  • Mavis G. Sanders
    Johns Hopkins University
    E-mail Author
    MAVIS SANDERS earned her PhD in education from Stanford University and holds a joint appointment as research scientist at the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk (CRESPAR) and assistant professor in the Graduate Division of Education, Johns Hopkins University. Her research and teaching interests include school reform, parent and community involvement, and African American student achievement
  • Adia Harvey
    Johns Hopkins University
    ADIA HARVEY is a doctoral candidate in the Sociology Department at Johns Hopkins University. Her research interests include gender identity development, community activism, and social change
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