School Action Teams Gear Up

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

School Action Teams Gear Up

The District Leadership Team, members of the PTA, MFEE, Health and Wellness and other stakeholders attended the first School Action Team training.

Relative to many other school districts, Montclair is fortunate to have an uncommonly involved parent community. PTA groups at both the school and district levels are active and productive; a broad range of free, district-sponsored workshops - whose subjects range from helping children achieve academically to understanding No Child Left Behind to promoting healthy lifestyles - attract large numbers of attendees.

In addition, partnerships like IMANI, Health & Wellness and the MFEE count on the substantial support of volunteers who give willingly of their time to sit on boards, host fundraisers, and attend committee meetings - all to support the schools.

Thanks to the long-established School Review tradition, Montclair parents and caregivers have even been able to weigh in on curriculum issues, along with school personnel and administrators.

But as fortunate as Montclair is, district leaders believe parent and community involvement can - and should - increase still more.

That's why the Montclair Public School district is introducing a new School Action Team partnership (SATp) model this year, developed under the department of Curriculum and Instruction, and District Parent and Volunteer Coordinator, Sylvia Bryant. Intended to replace the long-established School Review Council, the SATp model will increase not only the degree of involvement by parents, caregivers, families and the community, but will also extend to groups that have not traditionally been involved in district activities.

The Importance of Family & Community Involvement

"Educators have always known that families are critical to student performance," says Superintendent of Schools Frank Alvarez. "Now research is proving beyond a doubt that the more involved families and communities are in a child's school life, the better adjusted that child will be, and the better he or she will perform in school."

Generation after generation, parental involvement proves crucial, he says.

"No matter what parents say to a child [about education], it's what they do that matters," says the Superintendent. "Nothing impacts a child like a parent who takes the time to get directly involved in a son's or daughter's school life." (See sidebar at the end of this article.)

Likewise, communities and school districts that work together create an optimal environment for students to achieve. Not only do students feel more connected to their neighborhoods and towns, but outside entities can provide services that enrich a young person's life immeasurably.

In Montclair, a broad range of cooperative ventures with community members exist to support "the whole child" both in and out of school.

Mentoring programs like Sister-to-Sister and Brother-to-Brother at the high school; before- and aftercare programs for middle- and elementary-school students, sponsored by the YMCA; homework help and supervised socializing at OASIS and The Side Door; and support groups for teens at the Montclair Counseling Center are just a few of the community-based programs that seek to enhance students' well-being emotionally, physically and spiritually.

"As a lifelong resident of Montclair and a longtime staffer of the Montclair Public Schools, I can personally attest to the fact that there is an absolute wealth of community services for our students," says Felice Harrison, Assistant to the Superintendent. "Throughout the year, members of our staff attend community events like the St. Mark's Church annual breakfast, community meetings like the 4th Ward forums recently established by Township Councilwoman Renee Baskerville, and the annual NAACP Dinner."

In addition, Ms. Harrison said, the district actively reaches out to the community at large through such projects as the focus groups series focusing on the work of the Kirwan Institute.

"Our students act as ambassadors, going into community organizations all over the region, and keeping our ties active with many diverse groups," Ms. Harrison said. For instance, a student environmental group at the high school participated last year in an art recycling program that included township leaders and members of the larger arts community.

Local businesses that contribute to school fundraisers, professionals who donate their time to tutor students, and groups that host student performers -- like Madison Square Garden in New York City, a Veteran's Hospital in Orange, and a nursing home and synagogue in Bloomfield -- are just a few of the ways the schools reach out in Montclair and beyond to build strong ties with the community.

How School Action Teams Differ from School Review

The National Network of Partnership Schools (NNPS) was founded at Johns Hopkins University in 1996, based on the work of founder Dr. Joyce Epstein. Based on up-to-date research, the School Action Team model is responsive to today's social climate - the increased incidence of one-parent families, families in which both parents work full-time, immigrant or non-English speaking families, and ethnically or economically diverse families.

"America's families are changing, and schools must change to fit them," said Dr. Alvarez. "We are no longer in the situation we were in thirty-plus years ago, when School Review was established."

At that time, substantially less research existed to show the critical importance of families and communities in children's education - and by extension, in the educational success of the nation.

The NNPS website states, "The nation's schools must improve education for all children, but schools cannot do this alone. More will be accomplished if schools, families, and communities work together to promote successful students."

Thus the School Action Team model provides specialized tools and guidelines to help all participants become partners in the success of the program. Along with professional development for staff, six types of parental involvement activities will be introduced. Advisory boards to the Principal at each school will be established, consisting of up to 16 members each - allowing for a more diverse and representative group than the five-member School Review teams.

Darcy Hutchins
Darcy Hutchins, a Senior Training Specialist with the National Network of Partnership Schools, conducted the district-wide training on November 17.

"Although the long-standing School Review model in Montclair has been successful, we believe that the more structured, inclusive School Action Team approach will double or even triple that success," said Sylvia Bryant, the district's Parent Coordinator. "The outreach component of this model is so comprehensive. In particular, we are really hoping to bring in that segment of the parent population that has so far proven the most difficult to reach."

The School Action Team model officially got under way November 11 with a large-group training in the George Inness Annex atrium, attended by school and district leaders, the PTA, representatives of the Health & Wellness Partnership and the MFEE, and other key stakeholders in the district.

Next step: the transition phase (see box at the bottom of this page.). According to the timeline provided by the NNPS training team, the transition from School Review to School Action Teams will be complete in June 2010.

By September 2010, the School Action Team model will be in full operation.

Visit National Network of Partnership Schools for more information about the organization. For more information about the School Action Teams model in Montclair, contact the Department of Instruction at (973) 509-4030.

How Families Help Students Succeed

An educator who began his career as a classroom teacher, Superintendent of Schools Frank Alvarez personally recalls many instances where parent involvement made the difference between students who excelled and those who hovered in the average or below-average range.

"When parents take an interest in what a child is doing in school, the child becomes more engaged. You can literally see their behavior in the classroom change," he says. "It's a cycle. Parents who read to their children end up with children who read for themselves."

A 2005 study conducted by the National Network of Partnership Schools (NNPS) at Johns Hopkins University concluded that "family involvement contributed to positive results for students, including higher achievement, better attendance, more course credits earned, more responsible preparation for class, and other indicators of success in school (Catsambis, 2001; Simon, 2004)." Scores of similar studies confirm this - indeed, family and community involvement is generally ranked among the top three indicators of student success in school.

But many parents know this instinctively - and through experience, too.

"When my daughter entered kindergarten, I was there for every recital, ice-cream social, school fair, you name it," a Montclair parent of three recalled.

"Then I took a job that involved a long daily commute, and my involvement with my daughter's schooling declined," she said. During that year, the first-grader began to exhibit reading problems. In addition, her teachers reported that she was more withdrawn in class and less willing to socialize at recess.

"The following year, I found a job closer to home," the student's mother said, "and I got re-involved in my daughter's schooling. Ever since, she's been at the top of her class, without my even having to remind her about things like homework and studying."
Her twin sons have also excelled in school, this parent reported. "All three of them do well, and they can't wait to get [to school] in the morning."

Such stories prove what educators have been saying since at least the 1970's, but perhaps more emphatically since the introduction of No Child Left Behind: it does, indeed, take a village to educate a child.

"When parents get involved, students get excited. Actually, parents get excited, too," reports Dr. Alvarez. "Often, parents come to a band concert or basketball game and find themselves getting caught up in it - sometimes to their own surprise. Later on they'll ask their son or daughter, "how's the violin coming?' or "when's the next game?' ... Sharing a child's school life brings families together."

By contrast, simply ordering students to study, or giving them instructions along the lines of, "If you want to get a good job someday, you'd better do well in school," are many times less effective, educators say.

"Telling them, "do your math homework' yields limited results; whereas going to your son or daughter's school play, or reading their book reports on great mathematicians in history, will leave a lasting impact on a student," said the Superintendent.

In sum: "There's no substitute for involvement."

Montclair Public Schools Transition from the School Review Council Model to the School Action Team for Partnership Model.

Montclair Public Schools

  • The present School Review Council has been the vehicle of the Montclair Public Schools for school based change for over thirty years. It includes five parents and five teachers in its membership.

  • In response to the Board of Education's goal of increasing family/community engagement, the district has adopted a more inclusive model for implementation in the 2010-2011 school year which would allow for a more representative and diverse membership of parents and teachers of up to sixteen members.

  • Under the new model, the School Action Team for Partnership will function as an advisory board to the principal on school based change, district initiatives and the six types of parental involvement activities.

  • "Based on more than two decades of research on parental involvement, family engagement and community partnerships, National Network Partnership for Schools tools, guidelines, and action team approach may be used by all elementary, middle and high schools to increase involvement and improve student learning and development," Dr. Joyce Epstein, 2008 - Founder and Director of National Network of Partnership Schools of Johns Hopkins University.

Montclair's Action Team Partnership Model

  • This new model has been in the planning stage for two years. The model was recommended by Montclair's Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Frank Alvarez and coordinated by Assistant Superintendent, Ms. Terry Trigg-Scales and the District Parent Coordinator, Mrs. Sylvia Bryant. The current District School Review Council meets twice a year with the Assistant Superintendent and the Department of Instruction.

Training for Team Members

  • November 11, 2009, principals, teachers, parents/caregivers and community partners, who were recommended for the School Action Team for Partnership by the principals, attended the first training session facilitated by one of the senior staff from the National Network of Partnership Schools of Johns Hopkins University.

  • Each school "s team reviewed their school goals and objectives for the current school year.

Time Line

  • Teams meet again in February and finally in June to complete their family/community involvement action plans for 2010-2011 to be sent to the National Network of Partnership for Schools and the Department of Instruction. The Action Team for Partnership will be fully implemented in the fall of 2010.

Work in Progress

  • The School Action Team for Partnership, in addition to focusing on increased parental and community involvement will also focus on school based change and district initiatives.

  • Plans are underway to revise the Board of Education Policy and Regulations for the new model.

  • The School Action Team for Partnership continues to evolve. Please refer questions to Ms. Terry Trigg-Scales, Assistant Superintendent or Mrs. Sylvia Bryant, Parent Coordinator, 973-509-4028.

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