Before you even begin reading this, I just want to warn you that this isn’t a “how to” post like the others in my school improvement series. This is more of a rambling, train-of-thought, how do we fix this, post.
Still here? Great. Keep reading…
Much of the work of high performing schools (high performing as measured by standardized tests and/or state accountability systems like Georgia’s CCRPI) is focused solely on what teachers and schools can get students to do, which in many ways is fine. I want to send my own kids to schools where I feel confident that the teachers and administrators can be bring the best out of my daughters. However, if the work of school improvement stops where student (and teacher and administrator) compliance with systems and processes begins, then I think we (teachers, administrators, etc.) lose out on opportunities to turn schools into places that leverage the talents, history, and vibrant energy of a community to help students be the best version of themselves, particularly schools that primarily serve students of color.
I’ve worked for 11 years in schools and school districts that serve mostly students of color. And in that time, the Principals, Central Office Staff, and democratically elected Board of Education have placed nearly all of the emphasis for their work on student achievement, which again, is fine…but they have done so without any particular plan for how to really engage students’ families or the community in a manner that will make them true partners in education.
Sure, there have been awards programs, bake sales, school concerts, business partnerships, and even parent-teacher-organizations, but I have NEVER worked for a school or district that went out of its way to create spaces where parents & LOCAL business partners (not the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or Home Depot) have some real influence or input on what happens at school.
The last school where I worked as a member of a faculty was a bit of a culture and climate nightmare. Staff morale was poor, student discipline was as bad as I’ve seen it anywhere, and the administrative team either had no idea how to respond to the challenges, or had given up trying to respond to the challenges by the time I was hired. The most significant problem/challenge that I noticed about this particular school was the adversarial relationship parents and students had with staff members. Parents cursed at staff. Staff members (some, not all) spoke to parents in a tone of voice that said “I don’t respect what you have to say and I don’t want what you have to offer”. Neither dynamic was acceptable, but I felt that it was the staff who had to change first. I’d like to say that I was able to come in and figure out how to bridge the gap between the entire school and the community. I would like to say that, but I can’t. What I can say is that when and where I found success with particularly difficult students, I did so because of genuine relationships with parents. Those successes, however, were case-by-case, and didn’t immediately yield the results that teachers and administrators desired either (increases in students’ academic performance and decreases in office referrals or student absenteeism). But…it was a start. Later that year, we had Field Day for the first time in years and I was the head of the planning committee. The committee included parents, teachers, paraprofessionals, and we even solicited input from students in the form of surveys. We asked parents to volunteer to helps us run games, monitor their childrens’ classes, and to just come hang out with us for the day. We held 6 orientation sessions for parent volunteers to make sure they were comfortable doing what we asked and that we were comfortable with the support they were going to provide.
Field Day was a success, I think in huge part because we went out of our way to include parents in the process. They were not an afterthought and were not treated as though their presence was somehow a disruption. We saw more parents attend field day as volunteers and as visitors than we had seen at any other event (including awards days for grades 1-5).
So…what does this one experience mean? What have I learned?
- We can’t “turn schools around” without parents. (FYI, I hate the “turnaround terminology”)
- Family and Community Engagement means we must actually LISTEN to our families and community members.
- If we expect parents to help us with the academic stuff, they’ve got to be included in ALL of our stuff…and we have to be included and engaged in theirs.
- We need a framework for this in the same way we have frameworks for classroom management or reading instruction. Thankfully, a framework already exists. I haven’t sat with the framework long, but I think it’s as good a place to start as any if your school does a poor job with family and community engagement.
So, that’s it for now. I’m still learning about this aspect of the work, but my gut tells me that this is the missing pillar of the work of school improvement.
What’s been your experience with family and community engagement? Was the work intentional? What resources, if any, did you use to guide your work? What did family and community engagement look and feel like at your school? Please share anything you may offer in the comments section. I’m really interested in the work of practitioners as well as the work of those in the academy. Something tells me that I need to revisit Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Radical Equations to seek out a few answers.
As always, I apologize for the typos, and I thank you for taking the time to read the ramblings of a sometimes Rogue Pedagogue (That’s my edu-rap name 🙂 ).
Until next time, peace.