Building School-Community Partnerships: Collaboration for Student Success


Mavis G. Sanders

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    Many schools working to improve their programs of family and community involvement are struggling to find meaningful community partners. They puzzle, Where is our community? Is it around the school? Where students live? Where families work or worship? What are the community's interests in our students' success? Educators also wonder, How can we make sure that our community partners work with us collaboratively, not contentiously, to help improve the school program and increase students' success?

    In Building School-Community Partnerships: Collaboration for Student Success, Mavis G. Sanders addresses these and other questions with excellent information, examples, and advice. She explains clearly how to include school-community connections (e.g., businesses, cultural groups, senior citizens, faith-based organizations, universities, and other partners) in comprehensive programs of school, family, and community partnerships.

    Sanders has conducted groundbreaking research for over a decade, delving deeply into ways that elementary, middle, and high schools work successfully with community partners, resolve challenges, and sustain collaborations. She developed a complete catalog of community partners and identified an array of school-community activities that strengthen families, expand students' learning experiences, and improve school programs and curricula.

    Because most research on partnerships has focused on schools and families, this book on school-community connections is a welcome and timely resource for researchers, school and district leaders, and teams of school-based educators, parents, and community partners who work together to develop and improve their programs of school, family, and community partnerships. Sanders' work—sharp, insightful, and comprehensive—will guide future research and help schools and school districts improve their partnership programs.

    Joyce L.Epstein, PhD, Director, Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships and the National Network of Partnership Schools, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland


    Teachers often find themselves using their personal incomes to purchase needed classroom materials for their students or inundated with tasks that could be accomplished by school volunteers. Parents are often less than satisfied with school equipment and materials or eager to find ways to support their children's nonacademic interests. Principals struggle to find ways to fund school events or improve school-based professional development; and far too many students suffer from a lack of extended learning opportunities. Most K–12 educators can add to these examples and attest to the frustration and constraints in teaching and learning created by a lack of resources.

    Resources, then, both human and material, are at the center of educational excellence. Community involvement is one way to generate resources that are essential for effective schooling. When such resources are appropriately channeled, they can support innovative educational programs that meet the learning needs of increasingly diverse student populations and promote equity in the educational opportunities available to all students.

    Here, community involvement is defined as connections between schools and community individuals, organizations, and businesses that are forged to directly or indirectly promote students' social, emotional, physical, and intellectual development.1 Community within this definition of school-community partnerships is not constrained by the geographic boundaries of neighborhoods, but refers more to the “interactions that can occur within or transcend local boundaries” (Nettles, 1991, p. 380).2 While parent involvement can be included within the broader definition of community involvement, it is important to note that parent involvement is not a central focus of this book.

    As described in Chapter 1, however, community involvement activities can be developed to assist families in supporting their children's learning and school engagement. Furthermore, parental support can help schools to identify, attract, and maintain community connections. Schools are, thus, encouraged to think of community involvement and parent involvement as two sides of the same coin in their school improvement efforts, and to explore resources that currently exist to help schools develop and improve their outreach to parents.3

    This book is a result of five years of research and teaching in the area of school-community partnerships.4 The research included surveys of hundreds of school leaders and case studies of elementary, middle, and high schools in rural, suburban, and urban areas in the United States. At the time the studies were conducted, participating schools were members of the National Network of Partnership Schools (NNPS).5 NNPS was begun in 1996 to provide research-based support, guidance, and tools to schools, districts, and states seeking to achieve or maintain high levels of family and community engagement. The educators that have been involved in NNPS activities have been essential in generating new knowledge on the processes and outcomes of school, family, and community partnerships. I am indebted to them and my colleagues at NNPS for their hard work and cooperation over the years. Although I do not include a separate methods section in the book, when relevant, I refer to the studies on which individual chapters are based.

    The book is written to serve as a resource for educational leaders who seek to establish school-community partnerships to achieve goals for their schools and the students, families, and communities they serve. It is organized in eight chapters that when taken together offer a broad and practical overview of theory, research, and practice in the field.

    Chapter 1 provides background information on community partnerships. It describes why such partnerships are important; how they can be organized to focus on students, families, schools, and communities; and a variety of community partners with whom schools can collaborate. It also details several obstacles schools face in developing and maintaining effective community partnerships and strategies to address these obstacles.

    Chapter 2 provides in-depth information on five prevalent kinds of school-community partnerships; they are defined by the primary community partners involved: (a) businesses, (b) universities, (c) organizations that provide internships for youth, (d) service agencies and professionals, and (e) faith-based organizations. I review the conceptual and empirical literature that has been generated on each type of partnership. The review highlights key factors that influence school-community collaboration with these and other partners.

    Chapter 3 presents a model that outlines essential components for the successful implementation of school-community partnerships. These components are (a) a high-functioning school, (b) a student-centered environment, (c) an effective partnership team, (d) principal leadership, and (e) external support. When present, these components help schools to attract and maintain a variety of desirable community partners to achieve specified goals and overcome the common obstacles to effective partnership program development discussed in Chapter 1. Drawing from the efforts of one teacher-leader, Chapter 4 discusses how educators, through incremental, focused steps, can build their schools’ capacity for successful community partnerships.

    Chapters 5 and 6 include case studies that exemplify how the components described in Chapter 3 work in practice. Community partnerships at an urban elementary and rural high school, respectively, are described. These cases show how K–12 schools with different needs, goals, and student populations can develop community linkages that support school improvement and enhance students' learning.

    Chapter 7 offers several examples of school-community partnership activities being conducted in schools throughout the United States. These examples are taken from activities published in NNPS's annual collection of Promising Partnership Practices. Selected activities further illustrate the wide variety of partnership activities that can help schools achieve important goals for students' success.

    Finally, Chapter 8 provides materials that educators can use to conduct professional development workshops on school, family, and community partnerships. A sample agenda is provided, along with small-group and whole-group exercises and materials that can be used as overheads or handouts or adapted for PowerPoint presentations.

    The concluding section describes additional resources that will be helpful to readers who would like to further explore key aspects of school, family, and community partnerships. It is followed by Resource A, which includes exercises to help teams that are just beginning the partnership process or are interested in improving the quality of their current partnerships. Resource B includes sample letters that readers can use to communicate annually with community partners.

    The current reform era of high-stakes testing and accountability, alongside shrinking educational budgets, demands that schools seek bold and innovative ways to build strong learning environments for all students. Goal-oriented school-community partnerships are one way to do so. Educators can and should be in the forefront of creating opportunities for such partnerships. The resources generated can help to produce the kinds of schools that all children and youth deserve.


    Special thanks are due to the staff of the National Network of Partnership Schools; its Director, Joyce L. Epstein, a pioneer in the field of school, family, and community partnerships; and Natalie Rodriguez Jansorn, Karen Clark Salinas, Steven B. Sheldon, and Kenyatta Williams. They have individually and collectively taught me so much about this important work. Thanks also are due to members of NNPS who give school, family, and partnerships life in their daily work in schools, districts, and state departments of education. I am especially thankful to those school leaders who, with generosity and enthusiasm, have allowed me and my colleagues to share their successes, challenges, and insights with others. Thanks also are due to students in my courses on school, family, and community partnerships. Our interaction has broadened and deepened my understanding of the process and place of partnerships in educational practice.

    I also am indebted to Corwin Press, especially to Elizabeth Brenkus, Candice Ling, and Marilyn Power Scott, for their assistance in making the idea of this book a reality. I am grateful to my colleague and dear friend, Antoinette Mitchell, for reviewing early drafts of the manuscript and providing unwavering support and encouragement for any and every undertaking. Last, I am especially grateful to my parents, Grover and Vera Sanders, and my sisters Desiree, Vetta, Pamela, and Camilla who provide endless encouragement and an invaluable sense of community.

    Corwin Press gratefully acknowledges the contributions of the following individuals:

    • Julie Boyd, Principal
    • Ashburn Elementary School
    • Ashburn, VA
    • Diane Dorfman, Research Associate
    • Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory
    • Portland, OR
    • Nora Friedman, Principal
    • South Grove Elementary School
    • Syosset, NY
    • Dolores Gribouski, Principal
    • Columbus Park School
    • Worcester, MA
    • Benjamin Ngwudike, Assistant Professor
    • Jackson State University
    • Jackson, MS
    • Barry Stark, Principal
    • Norris Middle School
    • Firth, NE
    • Paul Young, Corwin Author, Executive Director
    • West After School Center
    • Lancaster, OH

    About the Author

    Mavis G. Sanders, PhD in education from Stanford University, holds a joint appointment as research scientist at the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk and associate professor in the Graduate Division of Education at Johns Hopkins University. She has published and presented numerous papers on the processes and outcomes of school, family, and community connections, including articles appearing in Urban Education, Journal of Negro Education, Educational Leadership, and the Elementary School Journal. She is coauthor of School, Family, and Community Partnerships: Your Handbook for Action, which provides tools and information to assist schools, districts, and state departments of education to plan and implement programs of partnership. A recent book, Schooling Students Placed at Risk: Research, Policy, and Practice in the Education of Poor and Minority Adolescents, includes several chapters that highlight the importance of family and community involvement for the school success of all students. Her research and teaching interests include school reform, parent and community involvement, and African American student achievement.


    This book is dedicated to my husband, Jeffrey to whom I turn for support, and our children, Shori Vera and Jeffrey Ojia, to whom I turn for inspiration.

  • Resource A: Sample Activities

    Resource B: Sample Letters


    1. I also use the terms school-community partnerships and school-community collaboration to account for such connections. For the purposes of this book, I use these terms interchangeably and not to denote differences in the intensity or complexity of the connections.

    2. For an extended discussion, see Nettles's (1991) article.

    3. The research on which this book is based was supported by grants from several funding sources, including the Spencer Foundation, The Dewitt-Wallace Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, and Institute of Education Sciences. The opinions expressed are the author's and do not necessarily represent the positions or policies of the funding agencies.

    4. For more information on NNPS, visit the organization's Web site at

    5. Of the 443 schools in the sample, about one third were located in large cities (34%), over one quarter were located in suburban areas (27%); 20% were located in small cities, and about 19% were located in rural areas. The majority (70%) was elementary schools serving only students from prekindergarten to Grade 6; 14% were middle schools that include only students from Grades 4 through 9; 7% were high schools with students between Grades 9 and 12; and 9% were schools that serve students from a range of grade levels. Sixty-five percent of the schools in the sample receive some Title 1 funds, and 43% were schoolwide Title 1 programs. One third of the schools reported that their students' families spoke between two and five languages other than English. For a full description of the study, see Sanders (2001).

    6. While the model in this chapter was derived from over five years of research in the field, I draw heavily from case studies conducted during 2000–2003 to illustrate the significance of the components described. The research was conducted at an urban elementary school (see Sanders & Harvey, 2002) and three high schools—one urban, one suburban, and one rural (see Sanders & Lewis, in press-a). The case schools were selected based on the length and quality of their community partnerships. Names have been changed to protect anonymity and confidentiality. See the references mentioned for more information on the methods used in these studies.

    7. Pseudonyms are used to ensure participants’ anonymity and confidentiality.

    8. For a discussion of the evolution of a team approach to partnership program development, see Sanders and Epstein (2000).

    9. Janet is a pseudonym for a young teacher that I had the opportunity to work closely with on a leadership project for school, family, and community partnerships. Through our close contact over two years, I witnessed firsthand how a teacher-leader can build a school's capacity for successful community partnerships.

    10. To read more about these high schools, see Sanders and Lewis (in press-a, in press-b).

    11. To review more activities submitted by NNPS schools, visit the Web site at


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