Understand and advocate for communities first 



Efforts at education reform and other measures aiming to raise achievement levels will be more successful if schools first establish trust-based relationships with parents and their communities. 


I (Khalifa) was preparing for my first parent-teacher conference at a middle school on Detroit’s east side when I heard this warning from my closest colleague: “Don’t expect many of them to come in tonight; you’d be lucky to even get 10 parents. Some of them are working now, but most of them just don’t care about the education of their kids.” 

An impressionable young teacher, I listened and didn’t question the scenario that my senior colleague and mentor presented. Because parent-school relationships are often some of the most contested, negotiated, and dynamically changing relationships, they’re also often the most difficult to sustain.  

My colleague’s view was troubling because he assumed that parent-school relationships had to occur in very traditional ways and according to the school’s rules. This suggests that educators can set the program agendas, locations, times, formats, and content according to what they prefer. Did we ever ask parents what they wanted to discuss or what they felt was important to their children’s lives? Most of our parent-teacher conferences focused on their child’s academic performance and behavior. The conferences almost always happened at school and mostly at night. Parent-teacher conferences were very structured and had an array of “evidences” or artifacts that supported the narratives that teachers hoped to convey about our student — their child. In retrospect, why parents seem disinterested or perhaps even hostile toward such exchanges is easy to understand. This traditional and static manner in which parent-school relationships occur is a very school-centric approach to parent engagement and not culturally responsive to parental needs.  

One of the oft-cited points about teaching is that students won’t care about learning until they know that teachers care about them. The same idea translates into relationships between schools and parents. Parents won’t care about what schools want them to do until they know that educators care about them and the concerns of their communities. 

Indigenous, immigrant, low-income, and language-minority communities have unique, historically linked understandings of how they interact with schools. However, there are some common threads:  

  • Most need trust to precede educational reform; 
  • Most involve increased community presence from educators and administrators; and 
  • Most require that educators understand, incorporate, and celebrate identities found in the local communities. 

Advocating for community-based interests and causes that may have nothing at all to do with schools or education can be deeply advantageous for educators. 


A school-centric approach to relationships with parents is historically incongruent with the unique communities present in school (Castango & Brayboy, 2008; Khalifa, 2012; Walker, 2009). For example, during the 1950s and 1960s, instead of giving parents a specific time to visit a school, African-American parents had a more fluid and dynamic relationship with schools. Relationships between parents and schools were mutually supportive in black communities, and each group mobilized and supported the other when requested or needed (Walker, 2009). Principals would rally black parents to advocate for school causes, and, likewise, principals and teachers would venture into communities to advocate for community-based causes. Examples of this could be job training or employment fairs, collective action against neighborhood violence, or seminars on preventing foreclosure and homelessness. This synchronistic balance created a reciprocity of leadership and participation. Instead of fixed discourses and conversations only about education, educators maintained trust and seamless rapport with the community. During this historical period, educators knew parents would support them in any way requested; they had the trust and support of black parents. But since Brown v. Board of Education contributed to breaking this historic link between schools and black communities, principals now must do much more to establish these relationships. 

Similar to black communities, Hispanic communities also want relationships with schools and educators that are more respectful of community concerns (Lopez, Scribner, & Mahitivanichcha, 2001). Researchers also have found that Hispanic families are very willing to participate in school reform, especially when their culture is included in the education of their children (De Gaetano, 2007). Culturally responsive educators in Hispanic communities develop trusting relationships with parents, thus allowing educators to perform their duties with the full, nearly automatic support of parents. This means that Hispanic parents often are not as physically present at schools, which educators frequently interpret as a lack of interest in their children’s education. Rather, Hispanic parents have such high levels of respect and trust for educators that they don’t want to hinder the educator, whom they view as teaching and helping their children.  

Power sharing and nontraditional approaches 

What may have been culturally responsive in one place at one time may not be in another. 

Educators have always had the power to define parent-school relationships and to describe which parents are not compliant. As educators, relinquishing this power to parents’ and community-based interests is difficult. The most common excuse is that the parents don’t know how best to address the needs of their children. Our first response is that they do know much about how their children may best be educated (Fine, 1993). More to the point, parents do not need to know everything about how to best address the needs of children in order to support educators’ and administrators’ decisions for their children. Many educators tend to forget that parent-school relations are a process, not a product. Our approaches to parents and community should be culturally responsive, but they also should adapt to accommodate changing communities. What may have been culturally responsive in one place at one time may not be at another. A variety of factors can offset or strain school-parent relationships. But as a general methodology for parent-school relationships (Khalifa, 2012), we suggest the two processes shown in Figure 1 when thinking of exemplary models of school-community relationships. 


Note that in both models the core of the first three boxes is essentially about building trust. These initial three boxes may vary depending on the unique community characteristics and may be rearranged in other ways. However, they must precede any educational reforms with which we hope to have parental support. Only after schools establish trust with the community can educators push parents and the communities to support rigorous educational reforms. We don’t mean to say that schools should halt all reforms until this is accomplished; rather, that parents aren’t likely to support reform efforts until rapport and trust are in place.  

Parent voice as data 

One way to accomplish this trust is by significantly elevating the value of the parent voice. Research suggests that educators must not only ‘hear’ parents but that they must ‘listen’ to them as well (Khalifa et al., 2014). This increases not only trust but also equity and can improve school reforms. Parents may not understand every nuance about the education schools provide, but, just as important, educators do not understand much about the communities in which they live. Educators can’t assume they know complex community contexts based on conversations with students or even if they once lived in those very same communities. Parent knowledge and educator knowledge should be used in tandem to improve the lives of children. Given the power that educators have had in defining what counts as knowledge, we haven’t always incorporated parent and community voices in what we do. We suggest, therefore, that parent input be counted as an official data source in any school reform decisions being made. For example, when considering whether to eliminate music and art, educators must examine enrollment, budget, student need and development, and other traditional data, but parent voice should be given equal or more weight during the process. Raising and incorporating parent voice into such decisions will greatly improve parent-school relations and increase educators’ cultural responsiveness. 

Venturing into community spaces 

Some communities are distant, if not resistant, to educators’ behaviors. Given the history that some communities have experienced with schools and educators, this isn’t surprising. However, educators who venture out of the school setting to establish a constant and positive presence in the school’s community will significantly improve their relationships with parents and, ultimately, the education for children. This, in turn, will cause parents to trust and widely support their schools. This is true for a number of reasons. First, if educators are to be culturally responsive, they must understand the home lives of their students. Second, while parents expect to hear from a school when a child has a behavior issue, having a constant positive presence in the community would establish a broader, holistic, and more comprehensive framework through which parents can view and approach school. Think of it as the difference between only going to a hospital emergency room for a health issue versus making regular doctor visits, having a consistent exercise routine, and eating a more balanced diet. The latter requires more planning and care but is far more fulfilling, holistic, and healthy. By establishing a constant and positive community presence, educators are more likely to win approval and support for their work at school.  

Establishing trust and rapport 

Perhaps the largest benefit to come from educators establishing a community presence is that increased rapport between school and community will lead to trust. In many communities, particularly ones serving students of color and low-income students, there has been little rapport between educators and parents. This is because some parents didn’t have good experiences with school when they were students and therefore may appear distant or unsupportive of educator behaviors. Likewise, educators haven’t reached out in culturally responsive ways and, in the worst cases, have acted on their stereotypes about communities and parents. Research suggests that when there is positive rapport between school and parents, parents and educators have a better understanding and trust of each other (Khalifa, 2012). This accomplishes three key things:  

  • Reduces parents’ resistance to educators or reforms;
  • Mobilizes parent support for these reforms; and 
  • Increases educators’ knowledge of the parents they are beginning to serve. 


The presence of educators in the community creates an atmosphere for learning. But, by itself, that’s not enough to overtake preconceived notions about diverse communities. For example, in our first teaching positions, we actually heard colleagues say that “the parents don’t know how to help their children, and so they fall so far behind,” or “the kids’ own behaviors prevent them from learning,” or, worst of all, “these kids can’t learn math.” Blaming failures in education on parents and their communities is much easier for educators than looking for other explanations. We believe that any educator can teach any child. But in addition to learning pedagogical skills in their university’s teacher preparation program, teachers need a sustained approach to understanding their students’ communities (Panferov, 2010). This will allow them to teach in more culturally responsive ways. There are a few behaviors teachers can use to recognize the needs in the communities they serve: 

  • Regularly visit multiple student homes. Making only a few visits is insufficient for understanding families and communities; 
  • Regularly attend community organization meetings, events, and spiritual services. This gives a broader understanding of the community;
  • Set up systems that allow parents and students to express their concerns; 
  • Host community-based forums where larger groups can express their concerns and needs; and 
  • Engage in community-based advocacy work.

Perhaps the most effective way for educators to understand parental needs is by advocating for some of them. More than anything else, advocacy in this way will quickly help educators earn the trust of community members. When Joe, a now retired principal in Ann Arbor, Mich., attended and spoke at a community-based rally against racism, he earned the trust and credibility of the black community. And when Carlos, a Latino principal in San Antonio, Texas, spoke at a rally against immigration-oriented racial profiling of Spanish-speaking community members, he earned the trust of that community. Advocacy is also key in making schools a part of — rather than distinguished from — the communities they serve. Such advocacy is often above and beyond the job description of teachers and administrators. Of course, we should advocate for community-based causes because of our moral commitments. But schools and educators will benefit tremendously from the increased rapport, credibility, and trust that will follow the community-based advocacy (Khalifa, 2012). Here are a few other examples of noneducation advocacy that principals have engaged in in the past: 

  • Principal marches against poverty (DuPage County, Ill.);
  • Principal advocates for African refugee students (Australia);
  • Principal fights against racism (New York);
  • Assistant principal feeds hungry residents (New Jersey); and
  • Principal stands against violence and drug use (multiple states).

Agenda sharing 

Community-based advocacy inspires parental rapport and trust. A natural outgrowth of a closer, trusting relationship is that parents will feel far more comfortable shifting the focus onto school-based interests. Many in schools — teachers and leaders alike — have expressed concerns about the amount of parental involvement in school (Fine, 1993). After rapport is established and communities are better understood by principals and teachers, parental involvement can improve. One suggestion is to allow for community and parent-based meetings to be held in the school. And when the school sponsors meetings such as parent-teacher conferences, parents can assume a key role in constructing the agendas. Indeed, involving parents in school is one of the most empowering learning experiences for children and their parents (Delgado-Gaitan, 1991).  


Even when educators have culturally responsive relationships in a school and community, demographic or staffing changes will eventually challenge the harmony. 

The establishment of healthy parent-school relationships is a complex and dynamic process. Schools, communities, parents, and students are constantly changing. Even when administrators and educators manage to create culturally responsive relationships in a school and community, the demographic or staffing changes will eventually challenge the harmony. Review, renewal, revival, and re-establishment of parent-school relationships are continuously needed. A community overlap, with a priority given to community sensibilities and histories, will help schools sustain positive relationships with parents. If communities have experienced racism or other forms of marginalization, they may become distant or uncooperative. What’s more, most educators feel they were hired to teach, not to perform community outreach. But, in the absence of school outreach to their communities, the strengthened relationships between schools and parents that increase the educational opportunities for children are often lost. 

Culturally responsive parent-school relationships require educators to consider the cultural practices and understandings of families as a necessary condition of greater academic achievement. This does not suggest that educational needs are unimportant, of course. On the contrary, one of the best ways to improve education is by schools partnering with parents to accomplish this task. As such, a culturally responsive parent-school relationships is the sustained and systematic collaboration between parents in schools that include trust building, the use of parent voice and culture in decision making, an overlapping presence of this relationship in the community and school, and advocacy for community-based causes. We hope that all schools find creative new ways to move in this direction.  


Castagno, E. & Brayboy, B. (2008). Culturally responsive schooling for indigenous youth: A review of the literature. Review of Educational Research, 78 (4), 941-993. 

De Gaetano, Y. (2007). The role of culture in engaging Latino parents’ involvement in school. Urban Education, 42 (2), 145-162. 

Delgado-Gaitan, C. (1991). Involving parents in the schools: A process of empowerment. American Journal of Education, 100 (1), 20-46. 

Fine, M. (1993). [Ap]parent involvement: Reflections on parents, power, and urban public schools. Teachers College Record, 94 (4), 682-729. 

Khalifa, M.A. (2012). A re-new-ed paradigm in successful urban school leadership: Principal as community leader. Educational Administration Quarterly, 48 (3), 424-467. 

Khalifa, M.A., Jennings, M.E., Briscoe, F., Oleszweski, A.M., & Abdi, N. (2014). Racism? Administrative and community perspectives in data-driven decision making systemic perspectives versus technical-rational perspectives. Urban Education, 49 (2), 147-181. 

Lopez, G.R., Scribner, J.D., & Mahitivanichcha, K. (2001). Redefining parental involvement: Lessons from high-performing, migrant-impacted schools. American Educational Research Journal, 38 (2), 253-288. 

Panferov, S. (2010). Increasing ELL parental involvement in our schools: Learning from the parents. Theory Into Practice, 49 (2), 106-112. 

Walker, V.S. (2009). Hello professor: A black principal and professional leadership in the segregated South. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. 


Citation: Khalifa, M., Arnold, N.W., & Newcomb, W. (2015). Understand and advocate for communities first. Phi Delta Kappan, 96 (7), 20-25. 

MUHAMMAD KHALIFA (muhammadkhalifa@gmail.com) is an assistant professor of educational administration at Michigan State University, East Lansing, Mich., and designer of Online Equity Audits.
NOELLE WITHERSPOON ARNOLD is an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Missouri, Columbia, Mo.
WHITNEY NEWCOMB is a professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va.

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