How Family and Community Engagement Strengthens Young Lives

Posted by Jim Grimm on
Mike Sprowl, IUPUI Construction Engineering Mgmt Major, & Christina

Maycdon “Mike” Sprowl means it when he says parent and community engagement was the key to getting him where he is today. The 2012 graduate of Wabash College this year earned a certificate in Philanthropic Studies as a graduate student in the Lilly School of Philanthropy at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. He also teaches in a tuition-free, adult education program where individuals earn a Core 40 high school diploma —and is CEO of Sprowl and Smith Coaching, a college transition and life coaching business, on the side.

Not bad for an economically challenged poster-child from Brazil who had lost his mother in a tragic car accident and, as a result, his father to alcohol and abuse. A few years ago he was adopted by a missionary family from Stringtown, a blue-collar neighborhood across White River from the IUPUI campus. And, he’s proud to say he’s a 2008 graduate of George Washington Community High School, a school that embraces family and community engagement for student success.

“I cannot emphasize enough how parent involvement is the key for high school—and success beyond high school,” Mike says he tells students he coaches. “Communication with parents produces retention, better grades and civic engagement. Every parent wants the best for their kids. Your parents can help you. If you can work with your parents, you will have a better experience. The research shows it.”

Mike and two of his brothers enrolled at George Washington Community High School in 2006. Today, one of the brothers is a senior at Rose Hulman Institute of Technology. The other just graduated from West Point. None spoke English when their adopted father dropped them off at the Near Westside school in 2006. They befriended Hispanic kids because they understood Spanish better than English. The school experience, guided by the adopted parents, he says changed his life.

“I always say I graduated from George Washington Community High School—and Wabash College,” Mike explained and pointed out that community support, a hallmark of his high school, is the second essential ingredient to his success.

“The school always kept us supported and involved, and I loved it,” he said. “The demographics at Washington showed it was needed.”

High rates of poverty and barriers to learning called for multiple supports—tutoring and mentoring, extended-day activities, a teen health clinic, public swimming, college prep, personal fitness, career development, family assistance and financial counseling—to provide students with necessary conditions for learning, deliberate community engagement that draws upon neighborhood assets and called a “community school.”

“It was fun to come to school every day because the staff really cared about us and adopted us like their own, and really opened our eyes at an early age to give back,” Mike said. “We received so much love from Washington that our cup was overflowing. We needed to impact others around us.”

The full-ride, Lilly Scholar and his brothers created a Sprowl Brothers Scholarship awarded annually to a Washington graduate through the school’s Dollars for Scholars chapter.

The Sprowl brothers illustrate examples of students from a high school that saw 69% of its graduates of 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 subsequently enroll in postsecondary education, and as of last summer, 63% of the graduates continued in or had completed their course of studies. That is considered incredible for youth of Indy’s Near Westside where only 7.9% of residents age 25 or older have any postsecondary education.

Indeed the research is clear about family and community engagement. A seven-year study by Anthony Bryk and a research team at the University of Chicago who looked into some 200 “turnaround” schools efforts and outcomes determined that without solid family and community engagement, schools only have about a 10% chance of realizing academic gains, according to “Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago,” a book released in 2010.

A 2003 study of 20 community school evaluations across the country by the Coalition for Community Schools reported notable improvements in four key areas:

  • student learning,
  • school effectiveness,
  • family engagement and
  • community vitality.

The Coalition is an alliance of some 160 organizations nationally that support the belief that strong communities require strong schools and strong schools require strong communities. America’s leadership is rooted in its political freedoms and in the high-caliber industry and innovation of its workforce, the Coalition contends. To advance—even to maintain—that standing in today’s economy, we must find better ways to use all of the resources at our disposal to educate our youth to grow our national prosperity and ensure the well-being of our families and communities. Parent and community school engagement is the answer.

“The Washington school community provided me with more exposure and better opportunities for scholarship that reduced my college costs from $180,000 to nothing,” Sprowl said. “Parent and community involvement did that for me.”

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Jim Grim, director of university/community school partnerships with Family, School, and Neighborhood Engagement at IUPUI, has worked in public education for 35 years, specializing in school/community engagement. He has been widely published including a co-authored article in the Peabody Journal of Education (2013) about university-assisted community schools.

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