Inviting the local neighbourhood into the school community might be a daunting task for many school administrators. Even if they put a lot of effort into one particular event or activity, results may not meet expectations, reinforcing the existing belief that families and community don’t want to be part of education. Time is wasted; frustration is high. Why would this be the case?
This article originally appeared in the February 2017 Edition of UKEdMagazine
For decades, schools and local communities have been separated, interacting with each other only on ‘as needed’ basis. It takes more than individual efforts to change this attitude. To nurture an understanding of innovative educational practices among community members and form relationships, schools need to treat community engagement as an important educational strategy. In other words, they need to make the engagement a priority.
A number of years ago, in Intellectual Character (2002) bit.ly/uked17feb01 and later in Creating a Culture of Thinking (2015) bit.ly/uked17feb02, Ron Ritchhart, described eight cultural forces that act as shapers of any group’s internal cultural dynamic. Although Ritchhart’s application of these forces was different, if educators take them into consideration and direct them to create a nurturing environment, they can become very successful in bridging schools and the community.
Time is a precious commodity; how we spend it communicates our priorities and beliefs. Very few teachers and school administrators regularly build time in their schedules for reaching out to families or community organisations with the purpose of sharing current practices, explaining shifts in instruction and learning, creating a new programme, or partnering on a specific project. Even most primary school teachers spend a minimum amount of time communicating with families, and this amount often drops to zero at secondary schools.
Educators need to allocate time for proactive family and community engagement by regularly scheduling slots in their calendars for information sharing, two-way communication, collaborative discussions, and follow-up.
Families and communities need to understand the learning process and their roles in education. As many changes have been occurring in how schools approach curriculum, methodology, and student assessment, there is a gap between adults’ own educational experiences and their children’s learning.
Schools have to provide purposeful activities that require families and community organisations and agencies to engage in student learning. Workshops, booster meetings, and mentoring sessions could offer good learning opportunities for adults. Additionally, affording parents and community members opportunities to take initiative on learning-related matters (for example, enriching activities in various subjects) is vital in forging productive relationships.
3. Routines and Structures
Any unit within an educational organisation—from a classroom to a district—has to have developed clear guiding routines on how to interact with different stakeholders. If a parent or an organisation shows an initiative to partner in any way, no matter to whom this initiative is originally communicated, the response has to be consistent. Every team member, from a teacher aide to a school headteacher or administrator, has to know what steps to follow. Ideally, there should be developed district, school, or classroom processes (routines) for family and/or community engagements, as well as structures (policies, online parent education and support; coordinators and advisors) that support them.
There is nothing that tells the story of our intentions faster than the language we use within our schools. If there is a desire for collaboration, there should be the understanding that it is a collegial relationship. It’s not “us” vs “them” or “we” vs “you.” It is about us. We are decision-makers. The use of conditional vs the absolute language, such as “it might be” vs “it is”, communicates openness to various perspectives and evolving thinking, which are always present in nurturing learning environments.
“Leaders lead by example” could be a good definition of modelling. Modelling comes through one’s actions and behaviours. To be partners and communicate expectations of partnership behaviours to the community, educators and administrators should act as partners. This implies transparency in sharing information, listening for understanding, being accountable for their part, following through, and enabling joined decision-making. To bring the community to schools, educators have to model welcoming behaviours in all circumstances.
6. Interactions and Relationships
Relationships have always been the main driving force behind human actions and interactions. When people are nice to each other and non-confrontational, their relationships are congenial. Many educators strive to build congenial relationships inside and outside of school walls. Being nice to one another is a good thing, but collaborations are more than congeniality. They require collegial relationships, where stakeholders share ownership and responsibility for decision-making. It is important that people see each other as partners rather than friends or acquaintances and value each other’s contributions of ideas and resources.
7. Physical (and Virtual) Environments
Physical and virtual environments re-enforce our beliefs and understandings. They influence perceptions, interactions, communications, and, as a result, the behaviours of people. To bring the community to schools, partnerships have to be made visible and known. Schools can display their partnerships with families and organisations by inviting and honouring parent leaders and other partners during important school events and attending events held by these organisations.
Schools and organisations can utilise social media to share each other’s posts and information. Partnerships can be made visible to the community by consistently displaying affiliations and promoting a welcoming message.
Various stakeholders may have different expectations about partnerships, their dynamics and outcomes. It has to be established from the very start that setting an agenda of shared decision-making with a focus on student learning is the top priority for all partners. Clear expectations of what needs to be accomplished and what roles stakeholders play are equally important. Thus, collective planning and communication of expectations are needed.
Arina Bokas is an author, Kids’ Standard Editor, Presenter/Consultant on School-Family Partnerships, and college adjunct in Michigan, USA. Find her on Twitter at @arinabokas.