The Trinity Reporter Fall 2004
Parents and schools as partners
Karen Mapp ’77 urges families to get involved in public education

by Jim H. Smith
Photographs: Nick Lacy

Partnership requires respectful, trusting and equitable relationships among diverse participants, a supporting policy framework, allegiance to democratic principles, and a commitment to sustained struggle to overcome challenges. –Mission of the Institute for Responsive Education

  Karen Mapp ’77


Your best chance of tracking down Karen L. Mapp ’77 is by cell phone. Fortunately, she is never far from hers, because a lot of people want to talk to her!

If Mapp answers when you call, she might be in her office. But she’s just as likely to be dashing through Boston’s subway underworld. Or inhaling a speed lunch somewhere. Or about to embark on one of the myriad meetings that occupy much of her life.

This is all business as usual because, since September of 2003, she has worn two very large hats.

On the one hand, she is president of the Institute for Responsive Education (IRE), the Boston-based organization she joined in 1997. On the other hand, she has served as interim deputy superintendent for family and community engagement for the Boston Public Schools, a slot she will continue to fill until the end of 2004. (Early in 2005, she will begin to scale back these responsibilities a bit as she takes on yet another role, that of faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.)


"Partnerships are absolutely essential in order to improve public schools. If you can get the community engaged in your efforts to make schools better, then families can carry the baton for real reform. Unfortunately, schools have not been very good at this in the past.”

Either of her current jobs by itself would challenge the capacities of many people. But Karen Mapp is a bear for toil. She eats work for breakfast. Besides, these jobs are wholly related, integrated, each an extension of the other. Indeed, Mapp sees the interim deputy superintendent position as a sort of rite of passage—an incomparable opportunity to road-test the ideas she has been pioneering, for a decade now, about how to engage parents and communities in the improvement of public schools.

Creating healthy environments
The career track that would lead Mapp to the jobs she currently juggles did not began in public education. A native of Connecticut, Mapp says, “When I graduated from Trinity I was anxious to find a job, and I was really interested in the corporate sector.”

She soon landed a job with the Southern New England Telephone Company (SNET), in New Haven, where her family lived until she completed sixth grade. Both her parents had worked at SNET, and she was soon putting her psychology degree to work in the company’s human resources department.

During the late 1970s, just before the advent of personal computers, and through the mid-1980s, as the computer age bloomed practically overnight, “there was great interest in the office technology of the future,” Mapp recalls. “I was deeply involved in the process of discovering how to create healthy and productive internal environments for employees.”

That exploration would engage her for nearly a decade, during which she would learn a lot about the factors that undergird productivity and how to engage people in collective movement toward shared goals and objectives. By 1984, however, she was ready for a career change.

Mapp had, by then, completed a master’s degree in counselor education from Southern Connecticut State University and was increasingly interested in public education and education policy. So when SNET went through a “downsizing” and Trinity offered her a job as associate director of admissions, she jumped at the opportunity. Her principal assignment, from 1986 until 1992, was recruiting students of color and students from economically challenged communities. During those six years, she would lay the foundation for her work in Boston, becoming an expert on what it takes to motivate people and what is required to replenish optimism in students who were sometimes unsure if college was a realistic goal for them.

Promoting partnerships
At Harvard, Mapp wrapped up her preparation for the challenges that lay ahead, earning a doctorate and master’s of education in administration, planning, and social policy. In 1997, the year she joined the IRE, she was awarded a Spencer Dissertation Fellowship for her research on how and why families are involved in their children’s educational development. Her article, “Making the Connection between Families and Schools,” was published that same year by the Harvard Education Letter. It articulated most of the key ideas on which the IRE’s success is founded.

“The IRE does scientifically valid research on community challenges, as well as training and consulting,” Mapp says. “We determine what works in communities and families—especially in urban neighborhoods where progress can be stymied by poverty, drugs, and crime—and translate what we learn into effective programs and ideas that can be disseminated nationwide.”

  Karen Mapp ’77


Founded more than 30 years ago, the IRE is committed to collaboration. “Partnership” is the first word in its mission statement and, says Mapp, “It is my primary agenda. Partnerships are absolutely essential in order to improve public schools. If you can get the community engaged in your efforts to make schools better, then families can carry the baton for real reform. Unfortunately, schools have not been very good at this in the past.”

So, Mapp decided to bring her energy and expertise to bear on the problem, and joined the ranks of others who have been working on this issue. Her initial role at IRE was as project director for the Boston Community Partners for Student Success initiative. The focus of that effort was the development of activities and programs to familiarize parents with Boston’s new Citywide Learning Standards. She proved to be so adept that by 1998 she had been named president of IRE and by 2001 she was co-chair of a task force exploring what parents need and want from Boston’s 139 public schools and how to quickly address those parental concerns on behalf of the district’s nearly 70,000 students.

Among the recommendations of the task force was that the schools needed a high- level official, someone at the deputy level, who could ensure that schools adopt and maintain creative policies to get families involved and keep them involved. Eventually, it became clear that Mapp would be a good choice to fill that slot, and she agreed to take the position for a limited time.

“To have a deputy superintendent for families and the community is unusual in an urban school district,” says Thomas Payzant, Ph.D., superintendent of Boston schools, “but it makes great sense. Families and educators must be partners if education will be effective. It’s essential to have leadership first, to demonstrate real commitment to the community for this kind of partnership. Karen brings the ideal package of education and experience to this challenging assignment.”

In just a year on the job, Mapp quickly demonstrated that expertise gleaned from her diverse career is paying off. To address the fact that schools have often been ineffectual at developing community and family partnerships, for example, she launched a program to train “ambassadors,” school representatives who reach out to the communities. She also began meeting with and counseling principals, teaching them how to effectively connect with the communities and cement their relationships. This year, under her guidance, a new manual for parents, advising them on how to become more proactive on behalf of their children, will be published.

Are these changes working? Both Mapp and Payzant agree that they are. But none of Mapp’s revolutionary ideas is more than a year old. And even in a world like hers, where one can never work hard and fast enough, real change takes time. This winter, she will wrap up her interim position with the Boston schools, turning over the task to a permanent deputy superintendent.

But it won’t mean less work for Karen Mapp. Just more time to devote to new challenges and to continue improving the lives of young people by strengthening our educational system.


back to top



The ’60s on film
The Panthers, poverty, and the peace movement
Making the Exotic Familiar
Patricia Thornton, associate professor of political science.
Parents and schools as partners
Karen Mapp ’77 urges families to get involved in public education
Out to Change the World
Isaac Goldstein ’05
SGA president studies politics close up
Along the Walk (PDF 636KB)
Campus News · Books
From the Archives
From the President
If you need Adobe Acrobat Reader, please click here.
Special Supplement:
Embodiment of prayer, alignments of healing
Clay Kanzler ’79
Reporter Archive

Trinity College, Hartford, CT 06106-3100  |  860-297-2000