This week, we’re wrapping up the series focused on authentic engagement of schools and families. Family engagement is something most educators and administrators agree is necessary, but questions remain about who is responsible for this engagement and how it should be done.
Steven M. Constantino’s text, Engage Every Family: Five Simple Principles, is a great place to start for answering these questions. He challenges readers to consider the culture of their school toward families, the ways they communicate and build relationships with families, and their efforts to empower families, or include them in important decision making. The final principle addresses the greater community.
An implicit thread running through all five principles is that in order to have effective two-way (family to school; school to family) engagement, change must begin with educators. Individual families may be compelled to be involved for their own reasons, but in order to have the majority of a school’s families engaged, the school must be the one to take the first step…and the second…and the third.
Principle 5: Engage the Greater Community
“The school places a strong focus on building and creating partnerships external to the school. The school recognizes the strengths and talents that exist in the communities that influence student learning and development and seeks to use these to strengthen and support the school, students, and their families. It also recognizes that the school can be a focal point for communities to come together and reengage in capacity building and renewal. The school views itself as an important community asset and has community representatives on the school’s governing body. There is a clear recognition from the school that the greater community plays an integral role in the educational success of the school” (p. 178).
Traditional Community Engagement
For many schools, community engagement means finding business partners that are willing to financially support school activities. Perhaps the local grocery store will contribute snacks for a family math night, or a bank will provide a guest speaker for a financial literacy class.
There’s nothing wrong with engaging local businesses in this way, but Constantino advocates for so much more. He believes that schools can develop true partnerships with their surrounding community. In these healthy partnerships, both participants benefit in multiple ways. If you consider the traditional community engagement referenced above, the school obviously benefits, but what do businesses get out of it? A little publicity perhaps or maybe a tax write-off for charitable donations. The individual employees who are involved may garner personal satisfaction from contributing in this way, but overall, there are few benefits.
Purposeful Community Partnerships
The first step toward developing partnerships between your school and its surrounding community is to get to know the community and to let the community get to know the school. You cannot assume that either entity knows much about the other, regardless of how long they have existed.
You could begin with asset mapping, which entails literally defining the assets located in the community. Consult a detailed, interactive map of the community within the school’s attendance boundary lines. This can easily be accessed online today. With current technology, a group of educators can get an aerial view of the community around the school, as well as street level details. While looking at the map, make a list of what you notice. In addition to housing, do the boundary areas encompass parks, industrial areas, major highways, shopping centers, or medical facilities? Specifically, what businesses are located there? Are they franchises of national corporations or locally owned?
As a side note, educators should also notice what is NOT within the attendance boundary. If there are no medical facilities or few grocery stores, this provides information about the living conditions of the students’ families. How far are they traveling to have their needs met? What challenges does this present for them? Is there anything the school can do to address those challenges?
After learning what you can about the surrounding community from the map, it’s time for some personal visits. Small groups of educators visit the local businesses in an effort to get to know the owners and other people who work there. During the visit, you could let the business owners know about some highlights of your school, but this is not the time to ask for anything. It’s simply an avenue to begin developing relationships. You might offer to post business cards or flyers, particularly from locally owned businesses, on a family bulletin board at the school. In this way, the school would be helping to drive, or keep, more business in the community.
During the year when important events are planned at the school, representatives from the surrounding businesses could be invited. Back to School Picnics, All School Musical performances, or End of the Year Field Days are all things that local business owners might appreciate knowing about. As they attend these functions, they will develop further relationships with families, which would help to strengthen community ties. They might also notice ways that they could be involved. Perhaps a business owner or organizational leader would see the need for more food at the event, or picnic tables on the school yard, or small repairs needed around the property, and offer to contribute to the school in these ways. These contributions will be much more meaningful than the solicited gift card donation to a family math night to which they have no personal connection.
Relationships are Key
Relationships are at the heart of all of Constantino’s principles, including the fifth one. Schools must find ways to develop authentic relationships with their students’ families and they must do the same with the businesses and organizations in their community. As the school and the greater community get to know each other better, they may find ways to support each other in mutually beneficial ways.
For example, local businesses and organizations may be sites for internships, field trips, or resources for other learning. The school could host organizational meetings or be the location for adult English or GED courses that community members desire.
Often, schools look to their larger district or state for help addressing problems. However, the most effective route to real solutions may be found within their own community. When healthy partnerships are developed between a school and the surrounding community, they can work together to analyze a problem, brainstorm solutions, and then work toward a resolution that will benefit all.
All of this may sound idealistic when you consider your current context, but what have you got to lose? Consider using Engage Every Family as a book study in your Professional Learning Community this fall or pick up a copy to read on your own.
I guarantee you won’t regret it.
Take a Deeper Look
Constantino, S. M. (2016). Engage every family: Five simple principles. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.