Schools work best when educators form a real partnership with the parents of children they teach, a Harvard education lecturer told a packed room in Baton Rouge Tuesday morning.

“Parents are the child’s first teachers. They have knowledge about their children that schools need,” said Karen Mapp, director of education, policy, and management master’s program at Harvard University Graduate School of Education,

Many schools, however, do little to cross that parent-school divide, and they lessen their chance to succeed, she said.

“When those children know that their parents or someone in their family have a relationship with someone at the school, they take notice,” Mapp told the audience of about 140 people.

Mapp came to Baton Rouge as part of the Academic Distinction Fund’s Distinguished Speaker Series. She spoke in the Instructional Resource Center, next door to the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board Office.

Mapp has worked closely with the Boston Public Schools and recently served as that system’s interim deputy superintendent for family and community engagement, and as president of the Institute for Responsive Education in Boston.

Mapp’s research has focused on the relationship between family-school partnerships and desirable student outcomes. She has co-authored several books on this topic.

Clifford Lewis, a parent liaison at Capitol Middle School, said he has read much of Mapp’s work, but hearing her speak made “the words really come to life.”

He also said he liked how relevant her talk was.

“She dealt with several scenarios that come up every day,” Lewis said.

Mapp said she can tell within five minutes “whether a school is there for the adults or for the kids.”

She likened good schools to Nordstrums, a pricy store she keeps coming back to because of its inviting, helpful atmosphere, she said.

To make the case for improving the community and family engagement, Mapp pointed to a 2010 study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

The study examined why students in 100 public elementary schools in Chicago were able to improve substantially in reading and math over a seven-year period and students in another 100 schools were not.

The researchers said the more-successful schools had five “essential supports” critical to their success, one of which was “parent-community ties.”

Mapp noted that the researchers likened the whole process to baking a cake:

“If you remove one of the ingredients, the cake will be a failure,” Mapp said.

But schools tend to do community and family engagement grudgingly, if at all, she said.

“For too long community and family engagement is seen as an add-on, something we do when we have time, and we never have time,” she said. “Ladies and gentlemen, that is a mistake. Schools should have a strategy.”

After the talk, Mapp said school districts, not just individual schools, should have a strategy.

For instance in Boston, schools recruit 10 percent of their parents to attend a special “parent university.”

Mapp offered examples of the kinds of schools she sees, ranging from a “Fortress School,” depicted in her presentation as being surrounded by a shark-filled moat — to “Partnership School,” where the drawbridge was open and covered by a carpet that said “welcome.”

Too often schools claim that parents don’t care, Mapp said, but schools should realize that many parents are hungry for ways to help their children but don’t know what to do.

Kelly Francois, volunteer coordinator at Baton Rouge Center for the Visual and Performing Arts, said Mapp’s talk reinforces her own view on the topic and backs it up with helpful research. Echoing Mapp, Francois said many parents think their responsibility stops after they drop their children off at school.

“What they tell me is, ‘They (the teachers) are getting paid to do this, why should I volunteer?’” Francois said.