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This research synthesis is the first in a series that will examine key issues in the field of family and community connections with schools. This report identifies key issues that must be addressed if research is to assist schools, families, and communities in working together to nurture high standards and academic success for all students. Existing research has shown that family and community connections with schools can make a significant contribution to improving schools and student success; however, not enough is known about these connections to fully inform practice.

There are many reasons why the research issues presented in this synthesis must be addressed. First, the field is moving forward and work is being done without the research-based knowledge desirable to support the work. As one researcher said, “Connections between schools and other organizations are being formed at a rate that has caused action on them to outstrip knowledge about them” (Wynn, J., Meyer, S., & Richards-Schuster, K., 2000, p. 4).

Second, despite some promising models and growing evidence of the benefits of connections, policymakers, funding agencies, school systems, and state education agencies are still not demonstrating maximum support for connection-building practice. These stakeholders are asking for more research and evidence about the effectiveness of family and community connections with schools.

Finally, many authors reviewed noted that much of the evidence of the impact of connections is “hidden”; that is, results are not published or widely distributed. Some of these unpublished evaluations suggest that certain connections programs, such as community schools and School-to-Work, have had success in improving student outcomes and are viable school reform strategies (Dryfoos, 2000; Hughes, Bailey & Mechur, 2001). These efforts must be further studied and the results more widely disseminated so that a solid research base for supporting school-community connections can be built.

The objective of this document is to reflect research issues that have emerged from our review of recent literature, not to advocate for particular solutions or models. We have provided a variety of perspectives and potential solutions in order to increase awareness for all stakeholders involved. In most cases, further research and debate is needed to clarify issues and possible solutions.

After reviewing and examining a body of literature that included more than 160 publications, four key issues emerged:
1. Clarifying the concept of family and community connections with schools
2. Measuring the outcomes of family and community connections with schools
3. Advancing the research base for family and community connections with schools
4. Addressing critical areas for research in family and community connections with schools

This document is divided into four sections that explore each of the issues above. Clarifying the Concept of Family and Community Connections with Schools presents the first issue. In it we discuss what is meant by the term “family and community connections with schools” and the challenges that arise when there are different types of connections and different perceptions about the roles of stakeholders. We explore the tendency to focus research and practice on school-directed initiatives, due to the natural advantage schools have over other stakeholders and the policy structures that support it. We then present the need to expand our paradigm of the concept to include definitions that go beyond “programs,” to draw from theories outside the field of education, and to consider culturally-appropriate and family-centered definitions.

The second section, Measuring the Outcomes of Family and Community Connections with Schools, describes the variety of outcomes associated with different types of connections and the implications for various stakeholders: schools, students, families, and the community. This section explains that the relationships between family and community connections and specific outcomes are not always direct or clear. It then presents the need for more appropriate measurements and indicators of these connections, such as measuring intermediate variables and mediating factors between connections and outcomes, and for measuring the very process of building and maintaining connections in addition to the outcomes.

The third section, Advancing the Research Base for Family and Community Connections with Schools, points out the current early state of the research and what is needed to develop a solid research base. It reviews the importance of further developing theories and conceptual models and conducting rigorous research in this field.

Finally, the fourth section, Addressing Critical Areas for Research in Family and Community Connections with Schools, highlights seven areas that warrant more research. Within each of these areas, both promising directions (new thinking and research that hold promise and can serve as a basis for future work) and research needs (areas in which research is inconclusive or contradictory) are identified. The seven key areas are: (1) forging connections with families from culturally diverse backgrounds, (2) connecting families with schools in homework help, (3) connecting school, family, and community for effective school reform, (4) connecting school, family, and community through developmental approaches and integrated services, (5) connecting school, family, and community to support student transitions throughout the education system, (6) developing process-based approaches to make connections, and (7) preparing educators and other school personnel to make connections between schools, families, and communities.

While this report attempts to be fair and inclusive, time and space limitations prevent us from treating several important topics to the extent that we would like. In fact, there are four topics that require more thorough study, and these will be treated separately in subsequent annual research syntheses to be conducted by the Center. The 2002 synthesis will investigate growing evidence that family and community connections with schools make a difference in student achievement and success. Next, the 2003 synthesis will focus on the topic of connecting families from diverse backgrounds with schools. We will examine the links between families, communities, and schools in linguistically and culturally diverse populations as well as the extensive work now addressing special needs populations and systems of care. In 2004, the synthesis will look at what research says about involving community organizations in the process of transforming schools into high-performing learning communities. Finally, in 2005, the topic will be connecting families and schools to support successful student transitions throughout the education system. Taken together, we intend that these five syntheses provide a view that is broad and deep, thoroughly examining critical issues and offering a meaningful tool for researchers, policymakers, and practitioners.

The current emphasis on high standards and accountability in education requires a sound research agenda for this field that examines the evidence of its impact on student achievement and school improvement. At the same time, authors and researchers are interested in the broader outcomes of these connections, due both to their inherent value and their possible link to academic achievement. Researchers are also attempting to generate process information, such as how to develop connections or how to identify the factors that make connections possible, and ultimately impact student achievement or broader outcomes.
Ultimately, a strong research agenda for family and community connections with schools must include a clear and multifaceted picture of what these connections are, their benefits and limitations, and how different stakeholders can be involved. A sound research base will help practitioners envision and implement connections that will become part of the everyday environment of schools, homes, and communities. What is emerging from this synthesis of the literature is just such a research agenda for the field, one that will benefit and inform theoretical development, policy, and practice, and that will support student success in school and beyond.

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