Multiple meanings of parent involvement in Head Start: Parents and staff make sense

Eileen Storer Smith, University of Pennsylvania


This qualitative case study employed ethnographic techniques to explore the meaning perspectives of parents, staff, and administrators around definitions of parent involvement. Further, it investigated the extent to which emancipatory outcomes for parents were acknowledged. Data collected at the Blue Mountain Head Start center showed that the program set avenues for participation which did not include parent input. As such, definitions of parent involvement were school focused and discounted areas of parent participation outside of the program, such as the home and community contexts. Across groups, individuals framed parent involvement as the result of parent-initiated activities and did not reflect constraints imposed by the program itself. As such, parents were characterized in terms of a deficit-orientation, and parent outcomes were generally described in terms of the provision of social services. Former Head Start parents who were staff represented an exception as they viewed parents from a resource perspective. Further, they acknoweldged the emancipatory outcomes of involvement for parents and noted that their lives had been personally changed as a result of their involvement in Head Start. In-depth interviews with highly involved individuals echoed this finding and showed that high levels of involvement are associated with the values of diversity, lifelong learning, and a desire to make a difference in the lives of others. Study findings reveal that the capacity of an organization is critical to fully implementing the model. Further, empancipation occurs when staff, administrators, and parents are involved in a reflexive process as decision-makers. The study concludes that Head Start's vision of parent involvement is challenged by the current administration's under-emphasis of parent programs and increased calls for rigorous preschool standards and accountability. As such, Head Start must become more explicit about its goals for parents as decision-makers and agents of change.

Subject Area

Preschool education

Recommended Citation

Storer Smith, Eileen, "Multiple meanings of parent involvement in Head Start: Parents and staff make sense" (2004). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3125901.