March 2021

Maximizing Your Impact: Building School-Family-Community Partnerships

By Julia Bryan, Ph.D., and Lynette M. Henry, Ph.D.
How can you maximize your impact to reach the needs of the majority, if not all, of your students? So many children have critical needs such as poverty, food insecurity, trauma, bullying and racism, and face academic, college and career and mental health challenges. One solution that school counselors often overlook to meet the needs for greater resources in their school is school–family–community partnerships.

A partnership team of diverse stakeholders from the school, family and community can work with school counselors to provide programs, services, activities, resources and other supports that counselors and schools cannot provide alone. Partnerships might include student volunteers and interns from colleges, mentors and tutors, community and faith-based volunteers, and programs and services such as mental health counseling, counseling groups and restorative circles, school-based mentoring programs, and many other resources for students and families.

Where do you begin building a partnership? How do you get partners and bring them together? How you know what types of partnership programs to build? School counselors can follow a seven-step partnership model to help provide programs that focus on protective factors for low-income children, children of color, children with disabilities, English language learners and other children who need extra support (see further reading list at the end of this article).

Here are the seven steps we use to build these partnerships.

Preparing to Partner: Where do I begin?
Begin with yourself. Start small. You cannot help everyone immediately. Ask yourself which students need the most support. Examine the data, disaggregating it by such factors as race, gender, disability and income to determine where there are disparities and inequities. Is it low-income fourth-graders who are struggling with reading? Is it first-generation college students for whom you want to increase access to college? The data will help you get buy-in from administrators and teachers. Your research on partnerships can help you build your rationale for the partnership program. Be sure to align your vision for this program with the school improvement goals to help get principal support. It’s also important to get to know the families of your students, especially the students experiencing inequities and disparities.

Assessing Needs and Strengths: How do I identify the goals of the partnership?
Next, talk to and survey parents and family members, students and teachers and ask them about the needs of and barriers for students for whom you will create programs. Also ask them about the strengths of the school, families, and community.
  • Where do students go for help in the schools?
  • Where and who are the sources of support?
  • Who within the school has high expectations for students?
Knowing the needs will help you and the partners identify goals for the partnership program, and knowing the strengths will help you locate resources, supports and people who may be valuable in forming your partnership. Ask who the cultural brokers in the community are who can help you gain families’ trust.

Coming Together: How do I bring partners together?
Your conversations during the strengths assessment will help you to identify teachers, family members, volunteers and organizations in the community who would be potential partners. Again, start small. Bring the potential partners together and share the data and needs of the students you want to help. Make sure you include family and community members representative of these students. Also make sure you include students and families of color – don't bring together only a group of middle class and affluent parents when you want to help students from a low-income community. Form a partnership leadership team (PLT) of school, family, and community volunteers who commit to helping to create the program or project. Family members from the students’ community are assets and experts who can really help the team understand the issues and create solutions that work for their children and community. Family members should be treated as mutual and equal partners.

Creating a Shared Vision and Plan: How do we get everyone on board and on the same page?
Once you have identified partners and formed a PLT, you all can now work together to develop a plan for the partnership. Discuss the best ways to support the students and meet their needs – do not assume you know what’s best. For example, if you are creating a program for students of color, check the research to see what works best for students from the racial/ethnic groups you want to support. And listen to their parents and people from their community. Discuss who are the best people to help you all implement the partnerships. Create goals for the partnership program (e.g., mentoring program), where you will find other volunteers/partners (e.g., mentors), your plan to implement the program, your timeline, and how you will evaluate the partnership program. Remember, it is very important to explore how to build antiracist and equity-focused partnerships, which would be more successful in helping students of color and low-income students.

Taking Action: What will we do and how?
This is time to get the program or event implemented. Delegate, delegate, delegate. School counselors cannot do everything and should make sure the PLT and other volunteers are actively involved in implementing the program. Team members and volunteers bring many skills to the table. Accept that some barriers and challenges will always crop up. For example, only a few parents may show up to a parent support group or education workshop. That’s OK – those parents can become partners who can help you reach other parents! Do not let barriers or challenges stop you from implementing your program.

Evaluating and Celebrating Progress: How will we measure success?
Evaluate, evaluate, evaluate! The PLT should create an evaluation program from the start. A group of partners including parents, community members and students can work with the school counselor and educators to evaluate the program. Evaluation can help you to understand the outcomes, satisfactions, experiences and recommendations for improvement of programs. Share the results and accomplishments with all stakeholders. Celebrate! Have celebrations to honor the teachers and other educators, family and community members, and partners.

Maintaining Momentum: How do we sustain the partnership?
Celebrations and sharing evaluation results help partners have a sense of shared ownership in keeping the partnership going. Consistently reaching out to family and community members, inviting them to events to learn about students’ needs and the partnership, will help in recruiting new partners. On a daily basis, whether at the grocery store or church or a community event, school counselors and other PLT members should be sharing about the partnership program. This is a great way of recruiting partners to help maintain the partnership. Communities have a lot of people who want to help schools support students, and you can show them how they can contribute to breaking down barriers and meeting students’ needs.

School-Family-Community Partnerships Process Model Note. Adapted from Bryan & Henry, 2012.
For further reading:
A model for building school–family–community partnerships: Principles and process, by J. Bryan and L. Henry (2012)
Fostering educational resilience and opportunities in urban schools through equity-focused school-family-community partnerships, by J. Bryan, J. M. Williams and D. Griffin (2020)

Julia Bryan, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Pennsylvania State University and Lynette M. Henry, Ph.D., is manager of the College Success Programs for Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia.