Engagement without Judgment: Building Effective School, Family, and Community Partnerships for African American Learners

A Primer for Teachers and Administrators

Toni Milton Williams
Assistant Professor
University of South Carolina,

Kim D. Pemberton
Assistant Professor
Winston-Salem State University
Winston Salem, North Carolina

Cherrel Miller Dyce
Assistant Professor
Elon University
Elon, North Carolina


For African American families and communities, especially those with high rates of poverty, engagement in schooling has been complicated and difficult because of a number of historical, institutional, and cultural factors. Barriers to engagement for African American families and communities include: isolation (Brandon, 2007), time, socioeconomic status, parents’ educational levels, low expectations from school personnel (Trotman, 2001), institutionalized racism, and cultural disconnections between schools and families (Calabrese Barton, Drake, Perez, St. Louis, & George, 2004).  A case is made for teachers and administrators to understand how to build effective engagements with African American families and communities without prejudging the socio-cultural practices, mores, experiences, daily realities, and historical memory of this community.  We provide culturally sensitive, responsive, and community appropriate strategies for teachers and administrators to more effectively engage African American families and communities for the betterment of African American learners.

Key Words:  African American learners; community engagement; culturally responsive pedagogy; family involvement


The research literature has well documented the importance of family, school, and community involvement in the academic success of children (Constantino, 2003; Epstein, 1995; Moll, Amanti, Neff & Gonzalez, 1992; Smith, Atkins, & Connell, 2003). Family and community engagement is strongly aligned with positive school outcomes, greater teacher effectiveness,  increased student academic achievement, attendance, and a deeper appreciation of children’s socio-cultural experiences (Epstein, 2005; Lim, 2008; Sanders, 2001). For African American families and communities, engagement in schooling has been complicated and difficult because of historical, institutional, and cultural factors (Perry, Steele, & Hilliard, 2003).  While collaboration between families and schools is crucial for engaging African American learners, the structure within schools is often problematic. Barriers to engagement include isolation (Brandon, 2007), time, socioeconomic status, educational levels, low expectations from school personnel (Trotman, 2001), institutionalized racism, and cultural disconnection between schools and families. Despite pervasive deficit views surrounding African American family and community engagement in schools, Trotman (2001) counters, “…like other ethnic groups, African American parents want their children to achieve academically” (p. 275). Armed with this perspective, it is important for teachers and administrators to understand how to build effective engagement with African American families and communities without pre- judging their socio-cultural practices, mores, experiences, daily realities, and historical memories. 

The purpose of this article is to provide culturally responsive and relevant community strategies which can be used by teachers and administrators to more effectively engage African American families and communities for the betterment of African American learners.  We provide a comprehensive model for teachers and administrators to engage students, families, and their communities.  First, we discuss the need for critical, socio-cultural perspectives for understanding family, school and community engagement.  Second, we present our definition of culturally responsive pedagogy and discuss the need for culturally responsive parent/community models which are intended to engage families who are least likely to be involved.  Third, we discuss how to use culturally practical tools for increasing family and community engagement. Here we present a process for examining school activities and the direct effect they can have on promoting student learning and familial and community involvement.  Fourth, we will present a culturally responsive model of engagement, which consists of three parts:  1) a school/family/community diagnostic process; 2) the ABC (Alternate arrangements, Being flexible, Creating opportunities for partnerships) engagement approach; and 3) critical teacher reflection.   The ABC model was developed by one of the authors, Cherrel Miller Dyce, in response to helping mostly White preservice teachers understand the complexities of teaching and interacting with African American learners and their communities.  Additional details about the model will be provided later in the article.

Critical Sociocultural Perspectives for Understanding Family, School and Community Engagement

Based on the relationship many researchers have identified between family involvement and increased academic achievement (Crozier, 2001; DePlaney, Coulter-Kern, Duchane, 2007; Epstein, 1995; Stevenson & Baker, 1987), recent educational policies such as the No Child Left Behind (2002) legislation have included strategies designed to promote parental/family school-based involvement. Accordingly, some schools address family involvement by developing 

additional pathways for families to become involved in the school lives of their children. Schools still offer the regular open houses, Parent-Teacher Associations (PTA), and parent-teacher conferences designed to inform and involve families. However, given the daily challenges of many families from non-mainstream backgrounds (e.g., parents from lower socioeconomic backgrounds), they may encounter difficulties (e.g., availability of hours, time off, fear of being fired, etc.) which prevent them from attending school meetings (Jeynes, 2003; 2005), may lack adequate transportation and may not have affordable childcare arrangements (Cotton & Wikelund, 2001). To complicate matters further, many of these parents may be distrustful of schools because of previous negative experiences as students themselves (Eccles & Harold, 1993; Hill & Taylor, 2010; Walker, Wilkins, Dallaire, Sandler & Hoover-Dempsey, 2005).  In order to broaden the opportunities for more parents to visit schools, many also offer activities such as school carnivals, parent lunch invitations, talent shows and book fairs. While these activities continue to attract a large attendance by mainstream families with higher achieving students, few, if any, families of color with limited financial resources are likely to attend (Grolnick and Slowiaczek, 1994; Hoover-Dempsey, Walker, Sandler, Whetsel, Green, Wilkins, & Closson, 2005).

Many school officials may assume that limited involvement indicates families’ lack of care and concern for the education of the children and fail to examine the avenues of opportunity being offered by schools. However, most of the activities are traditional and based on the assumption that families’ schedules, finances, and preferences are the same as those of educators in the schools. Additionally, many activities are based on deficit models of involvement, which are not bi-directional in nature. That is, many school activities aim at involving families are based on the assumptions that information and wisdom should only emanate from schools rather than from parental and familial input and insights.  Most parent involvement activities are not culturally responsive since they rarely consider the cultural backgrounds and interests of parents when devising family involvement efforts.  The next section discusses what culturally responsive pedagogical insights might add to parent and family engagement efforts.

Culturally Responsive Pedagogy

A critical tool in the efforts to increase involvement of African American families and communities in schooling is the use of culturally responsive pedagogy. Culturally responsive pedagogy centers learning and engagement on the cultural diversity and ethnic background of students.  Scholars such as Ladson-Billings (1995), Villegas and Lucas (2002), Ware (2006), Gay (2010), and Howard (2010), have engaged in countless discussions about the importance of putting the culture of students in the center of learning.  This notion of using student experiences, diversity and culture as a means of learning has been coined many terms including: culturally relevant teaching, culturally congruent, and warm demander pedagogy.  Culturally responsive pedagogy and its foundational principles are of crucial importance to teachers and administrators.  It teaches to and through the strengths of students (Gay, 2010) as well as encourages teachers to empower students through teaching and learning. Some characteristics of culturally responsive pedagogy include, but are not limited to, validation and empowerment of self, the ability to act as change agents and social transformation. Teachers and administrators who embody these characteristics can galvanize them to build a bridge with African American families and communities in order to increase academic success of the African American learners in their classrooms.

Ladson Billings (1995) contends that culturally relevant teaching focuses on three key dimensions: 1) academic achievement; 2) cultural competence; and 3) sociopolitical awareness.  Inclusion of these three dimensions is needed to contribute to the success for all students, particularly African American students.    Howard (2010) described the rudimentary purpose of culturally relevant teaching by noting that itembodies a professional, political, cultural, ethical, and ideological disposition that supersedes mundane teaching acts; it is centered in fundamental beliefs about teaching, learning, students, their families, and their communities, and an unyielding commitment to see student success become less rhetoric and more of a reality. (p. 67)

Actively learning about diverse lifestyles and values, encourages students to offer their perspectives while teaching them to question themselves and their beliefs.  Furthermore, culturally relevant instruction helps students sharpen critical thinking skills. Relationships between home and school cultures are crucial when engaging students.  Tatum (2005) ascertains, “Teachers and students must learn how to navigate whatever cultural differences exist in a respectful way and in an atmosphere of mutual trust” (p. 74).  Culturally responsive pedagogy is the center of building relationships with families, communities and classrooms. 

            Table 1 highlights some of the differences between traditional models of parent involvement and culturally relevant models. One of the major differences is that authentic parent input is sought.  Therefore, subsequent activities are generative and based on the stated needs of parents.  Additionally, community venues may be used to host events.  Most aspects of the family-school involvement will need to remain flexible in order to accommodate the dynamic and varied needs of families.  This does not mean that educators do not provide input as well; however, they must position themselves as co-developers of the agenda and activities.

Table 1. Comparison of Traditional and Culturally Relevant Parent Involvement Models



Open house, Meet and Greet events, are designed primarily for giving information from the school rather than to engage in informal conversations with families.

Open house is an avenue to talk with parents and families in order to lay the foundation to collaborate for the school year. 

School based activities such as book fairs, hot dog dinners, and donuts for dad tend to be held onsite at schools.

Such events can be held in alternative settings.  Community partners may host events on site and invite students, families and school officials to participate.

Teachers are not offered a space to reflect nor collaborate with colleagues about their teaching practices

Teachers have conversations with families and colleagues to reflect on their culturally relevant teaching practices. 

Culturally Practical Tools for Increasing Family and Community Engagement

            Teachers and administrators who want to increase the success of their African American learners are encouraged to approach family and community engagement from a perspective that validates the African American community and culture (Desimone, Finn-Stevenson, & Henrich, 2000). In this manner, African American students are likely to see the connection between systems and ecologies that influence their daily lives. As such, we suggest a process that teachers and administrators can use to increase engagement which includes three essential components:  1) a school/family/community diagnostic; 2) the ABC model of engagement; and 3) teacher reflection.   Collectively, this process is referred to as the School/Family/Community (SFC) engagement tool. Each component is discussed in turn below.

School/Family/Community Diagnostic

In order to document the nature of the relationship between family involvement and achievement, it is essential to examine the school’s existing activities to determine their effect on student learning. Calabrese Barton, et al.’s (2004), Ecologies of Parental Engagement (EPE) model confirms a distinction between family involvement activities and academic achievement, according to the activities’ potential to promote student learning. It demonstrates how schools can have a direct effect when they offer parents opportunities to become involved as equal partners in efforts to support their children’s learning process. Instead of blaming parents for not doing the “right thing” to assist the academic growth of their children (Menchaca, 1997; Rushton, 2000; Valencia, 1997), teachers should assume the role of facilitating parents’ agency in helping their children while also assisting them in understanding the school’s protocol and expectations. This new role by the school additionally aids in the development of a concerted interest in the family’s funds of knowledge (Moll et al, 1992) and cultural experiences. As teachers learn about the family’s interest in football, the unit on measurement can incorporate running and throwing yards for a deeper understanding; or the confusion with decimals from the inner city student can be transferred into a lesson on money which is a familiar subject for children who often run errands to the convenient store for the other members of the family.  Negotiating chores, allowances, time spent on computers at home can turn into a lively discussion in class about spending and saving.  Furthermore, sharing stories about families of students (including fictive kin) can turn into history and social studies lessons from various communities and cultures. These funds of knowledge or cultural experiences from their communities can be cultivated and used in the classroom to enhance the academic growth of the student by first surveying the parties involved (parents, students and school) then tapping into the interest and purpose for involvement (Pemberton & Miller, 2009).   Conversely, if children are not directly engaged at home, utilizing strategies to teach topics that stem from funds of knowledge may or may not be any more familiar than a traditional lesson.

The ABC Model of Engagement

The ABC model of engagement (Alternate arrangements, Be flexible, Create opportunities for partnerships) was designed to provide culturally responsive and sensitive strategies that will help to decrease disconnection and increase trust and rapport between teachers, administrators and families.  The model was derived from a course which focused on Families, Schools, and Communities and aimed to broaden the worldviews of students by

providing culturally competent tools to increase community and school involvement. The model is derived from aspects of systems theory, culturally responsive teaching, and social justice education.

In the ABC model of engagement, the onus is on the teachers and administrators to create opportunities and spaces for successful partnerships with the family, school, and community. Figure 1 shows each of the three components of the model.   The A in the model represents the importance of allowing time and space for alternative arrangements. Given the employment constraints and other commitments, teachers and administrators should create avenues for alternative arrangements such as face-to-face meetings at a local place of worship, library, homeless shelter or community agency. Alternate arrangements do not provide a “free pass” but instead allow families the opportunity to fully participate within the constraints of their daily lives. Often times schools schedule events such as orientations, assemblies, awards and parent-teacher conferences at times that are not appropriate for the families the school serves; so the B in the model encourages teachers and administrators to be flexible in their expectations, planning, and requirements. Not every family member can participate in Donuts for Dads or the annual book fair. School personnel who understand and recognize the diversity in African American family compositions should thereby create culturally appropriate engagement and partnership activities that will increase family participation. Thus, if the school requires that biological parents attend the parent-teacher conference, it disregards the flexible nature of the African American family to delegate the attendance of a non-kinship representative (neighbor, church member, after-school caregiver, etc). Lastly, the C in the model provides schools with an opportunity to truly become community schools by creating opportunities for partnerships. Community schools are institutions that welcome families into the hallways of the school with programs that are geared toward collaborative partnerships, such as GED classes, small business workshops, and computer skills training.

Figure 1. Components of ABC Model of Family Engagement

            The following scenario exemplifies the ABC Model in action.  Sharon is a student in a sixth grade classroom who lives with her grandmother and mother in a middle class neighborhood close to the school.  Sharon is not performing well academically. Sharon’s mother, Meg, is the sole caretaker of her elderly mother and works a full-time job as the manager of a local textile company. Due to the nature of the mother’s schedule, as well as her caretaking responsibility, she often is not able to attend important events at school or parent teacher

responsibility, she often is not able to attend important events at school or parent teacher conferences.   In this case, the ABC model can be applied in the following ways.

A-    Alternate Arrangements - During a planning period, the teacher might make arrangements to leave campus and meet with Sharon’s mother in the lunchroom of the textile factory for a short discussion about Sharon.

B-    Be Flexible - A teacher who is flexible in their cultural understanding of families will not see Sharon and her family as “abnormal,”  “pathological” or “uncaring” because of her non-appearance at school events. Being flexible means building family partnerships. As such, the teacher might film Sharon’s role in the play for her mother to watch at home, take photos of Sharon and perhaps audio record Sharon as she presents at the school science fair as ways to keep Sharon’s mother involved.

C-    Creating Partnership Opportunities - The teacher may ask Meg’s mother for support as well as reach out to faith-based organizations, mentoring or nonprofit community agencies that he/she can contact for mentors regarding Meg’s academic performance and/or behavior.

In the same way, part of being a culturally responsive teacher requires ongoing critical self-reflection, while answering questions such as: How does my positionality influence my teaching of African American students? Is it in a positive or negative manner?  Engaging students also means that teachers have to reflect on their craft to discover the ways in which they not only approach teaching, but also examine assumptions and avoid stereotypes on race and diversity.  Critical teacher reflection requires, teachers to reflect and revisit their attitudes and biases and the affects their teaching of African American learners (Howard, 2003).

For example, consider the following scenario:

               Mrs. Mack is preparing to teach a lesson on the Gullah culture.  As she prepares the lesson, she reflects on the various learning styles in her class and what she can do to capture each in her presentation.  She also ponders ways in which she can invite her students to share the culture of their families as a way to get the students’ attention. While teaching, Mrs. Mack is cognizant of her biases as a White, middle class woman and the values she brings into her class and the dimension it will add to the lesson. She will talk to her class to create awareness of social problems with respect to the slave trade and Gullah contributions and culture.  Mrs. Mack understands her students individually and strives to meet their individual needs by using the end of class to ask students if they would be interested in bringing in music and artifacts that they have at home that may have been inspired by the Gullah culture.  After teaching the lesson, Ms. Mack uses a journal to reflect on ways in which she could have structured the content of the lesson to provide multiple perspectives while cultivating student awareness and fostering student understanding.  She uses this reflection as she prepares her next lesson. 

            As this scenario indicates, critical teacher reflection is essential to culturally relevant pedagogy because it can ultimately measure teachers’ levels of concern and care for their students (Howard, 2003).A key assumption to building successful Family-School engagements is the belief that most parents want their children to succeed. This assumption is complemented by the teacher’s desire and expectation that flexible alternative efforts are essential. It is equally important to seek input from parents regarding what may work best for them.


The ABC model provides schools with strategies to strengthen the community and increase student engagement and achievement.  It requires school systems to provide additional professional support for teachers to understand families as systems.  In addition, the implementation of this model requires fiscal and moral support from the school administration in term of logistics such as mileage reimbursement for teachers who are willing to meet families outside of traditional school events as well as allowance for other supports.  Additionally, the ABC model would also need a reward structure for teachers who view family and community partnership as central to their educational philosophy.  For example, this component could be included in “Teacher of the Year” criteria. For the ABC model to be successful, schools need to see themselves as a part of the community which extends beyond the walls of the school.

Engaging African American learners requires that families and communities are involved in the lives of students’, but above all, they must all partner and work together in the process.  The straight-forward, but comprehensive model discussed in this article is designed to build effective engagement and understanding among schools, families and communities.  Considering typical barriers to parent involvement, it is important that teachers and administrators make every effort to include African American families and their communities in their classrooms.  When children see connections between their cultural backgrounds and the school curriculum, they are likely to develop a sense of congruency for success.   


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