Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Public Policy

First Advisor

Mark R. Warren

Second Advisor

Michael Johnson

Third Advisor

William Johnston


Under former Mayor Bill de Blasio, New York City launched a Community Schools Initiative (NYC-CS) in 2014 that now includes more than 300 schools, making it the largest school improvement plan of its kind in the country. Bloomberg, the previous mayor, had championed market-based reform strategies by closing struggling public schools and replacing them with privately run charter schools. In contrast, the community schools model supports struggling schools by providing them with wraparound services to address not only the academic—but also the health, social, and emotional—needs of the “whole child.” Research has shown the NYC initiative has had positive impacts on student performance, test scores, and graduation rates. These services benefited not only students but also their families, drawing parents into the life of the school. From the beginning, a robust parent engagement program was designed to be a central pillar of NYC-CS. My study focused on this crucial component.

Research shows strong parent engagement is crucial for school improvement. Yet urban schools are often disconnected from the families they are meant to serve. Racially-based deficit narratives held by many white school staff about black and brown families, along with punitive discipline policies, alienate parents of color from education systems. In response, different approaches have been formulated to foster meaningful parent engagement, yet many remain superficial. Education justice advocates have called for transformative approaches which use an asset-based lens, value the knowledge of marginalized parents, and seek to develop their leadership in school decision-making processes.

NYC-CS was shaped by a grassroots visioning process. Many community organizers and parent leaders who led this effort were subsequently hired by the NYC Department of Education to form a citywide Family and Community Outreach Team (FACE). In a distinctive turn, the FACE team took a “community organizing approach” to support parent engagement and leadership in the community schools. Through a mixed-methods study, I investigated and analyzed the processes through which a large urban school district came to adopt such an approach and to understand how it was enacted. In my qualitative research, I conducted in-depth virtual interviews with the FACE team’s Family Outreach Specialists as well as education organizers in order to understand how the family engagement program was developed and implemented. In the quantitative portion, I used Coarsened Exact Matching and linear regression analysis to examine the association between community school status and family engagement levels as measured by parent survey responses.

I found that FACE’s Family Outreach Specialists—many of whom were previously “outsiders” who had protested against DOE policies but who now worked on the “inside”—successfully employed political and community organizing strategies to recruit parents and develop them as active leaders in the schools. Through their Ladders of Engagement program, they door-knocked in the neighborhoods to meet marginalized families “where they’re at”; cultivated trusting one-on-one relationships with parents; used phone banking for large-scale outreach; and drew parents into a participatory planning process through Community School Forums. I analyzed four new community school structures that enhanced the capacity for family engagement: a school partnership with a community-based organization; the hiring of a Community School Director; the formation of a Community School Team; and the hosting of Community School Forums. These processes led parents to: form substantial new relationships with one another (building social capital) and with school staff (bridging capital); in some cases, secure employment in the school system; and in other cases, engage in collective action on a broader civic level. However, the program also ran into significant obstacles, including resistance, scaling up and sustaining the model. In my quantitative analysis, I found that community schools, when compared to matched (demographically similar) comparison schools, were positively associated with greater increases in parent survey response rates, higher percentages of self-reported parent volunteer rates, and higher ratings on the DOE’s “Strong Family-Community Ties” category.

This study contributes to our understanding of how the community schools strategy and community organizing approaches are able to empower parents and draw them into school leadership and how they can be successfully implemented in mutually reinforcing ways. I demonstrate that these organizing practices, which are often carried out by activists on the “outside” can be brought “inside,” institutionalized, and implemented on a large scale.