What are the primary principles of effective school/community engagement?
Generating community engagement with learning institutions can be a difficult task as educators attempt to draw influence from the community in hopes to improve student experiences at school. As schools set out to engage parents and community members they must be cognizant of the various factors that will have a major influence on the type and extent of the engagement. The dissemination of information and subsequent conversations between school staff and community members requires careful planning and a flexible approach to collaboration. Outlined below are what I believe to be the primary principals of effective community engagement.
The first aspect of community engagement is the development of a shared vision. Both school staff and community members must be made aware of an institutions expectations in order to pursue an advantageous working relationship. The first step in the development of a shared vision is conducting research into the needs of the community. In doing so as a facilitator you will be in a better position to create a vision which incorporates the diverse interest of all stakeholders as to engage the whole community. The vision’s broad outline then becomes a template against which to consider staff, curriculum, instructional changes, and assessment of school progress and parent involvement.
Within the framework of developing a shared vision a mutual respect needs to be fostered between school staff and community members. Unfortunately a parent’s school experience can act as a barrier to obtaining their participation. Most often negative experiences, language and cultural barriers; issues of race and class and lack of preparation conspire to breakdown connections. It is too easy for staff and other parents to assign cultural labels to behaviors that have very little to do with group values and much more to do with poverty and its associated lack of access to supports and opportunities. One way in which to over come these obstacles is to have a visible presence in the community and encourage community members to be a part of discussions and share their expectations in working towards the shared vision.
In the article “Community and Family Engagement” the author frames engagement as follows, “Community engagement is a two-way street where the school, families, and the community actively work together, creating networks of shared responsibility for student success is a two-way street where the school, families, and the community actively work together, creating networks of shared responsibility for student success” (Berg, Melaville, & Blank, 2006)
Once community members feel like their input is going to be respected the next step is to consult and collaborate at a deeper level. Successful collaboration takes into consideration that flexibility of donors, organizations, and community members is needed to collaborate successfully and all members share power at all levels of community engagement. All players involved need to determine the level of engagement required including defining from the beginning such terms as participation, communication, engagement, mobilization, and empowerment as they apply, before starting a project. Also members should agree on clear indicators with expected outcomes and on a documentation process that will reflect both growth and levels of engagement. Since community engagement is not a one-time event stakeholders may need to be reminded that it is a process that varies along with the community it intends to serve.
Along with the varying levels of collaboration so too are the variances in tools for attaining engagement from the community. The following engagement processes can be used alone or in conjunction with one another to solicit action from the community. An Action Planning Event can be used, as a starting point as this is used when structure and planning is required. Schools may also want to submit a public service announcement in hopes of reaching a broad audience although PSA’s can be expensive and can miss key demographic groups. Certain schools may see benefit from establishing advisory committees from which consistent input can be obtained, however committees such as this can be time consuming and needs a good facilitator to be successful. Printed material like a fact sheet or newsletter can provide jargon free accurate information working to reduce language barrier and reach the target audience. Also non-print materials such as web sites may be more cost effective than traditional print material and reach a broad audience, nonetheless schools cannot ignore the digital divide in lower socioeconomic neighborhoods, which could result in key community members not being informed. Community research via small group sessions, questionnaires/surveys or written submissions can help strengthen partnerships and get more of the community involved.
Once schools begin to secure key players and stakeholders the challenge turns to keeping people committed. “Organizing a community-wide group to explore and possibly undertake a community school initiative takes credible leadership, planning expertise and knowledge of the community.” (Melaville, 2004) Participants must have the organizational clout to make commitments and follow through on them, as the school administration side needs to be strong, organized, supportive and experienced. Leaders should expect to engage and then reengage throughout the life of the project, as communities are dynamic and behavior change is not linear.
Community engagement is a dynamic process in which leadership and needs are constantly changing. The engagement process is continuous. It can move from individuals being more or less involved, but it constantly must be reevaluated to ensure that indicators are appropriate and met. When families are committed to staying connected to school students show increased stability, communication with teachers and the overall school experience involves. Parents also demonstrate a greater sense of responsibility for their children’s learning success thereby shifting some of the accountability from the teacher onto the parent. It is through this empowerment of the family that success and renewed commitment in the shared vision will continue to motivate all parties involved to stay active.
The last two pieces of community engagement are quite closely related as one lends itself to the other. When decisions are made via the public forum a level of accountability is transferred to all members involved due to the transparent nature of the decision-making process. As both school administration and community member’s work together they create transparency, promote responsibility for priority setting, and encourage shared ownership of initiatives and strategies to achieve our goals. Ultimately the relationship between the school and community members needs to be about learning how to change and commitment required to be successful. In no way should the process lend itself to a battle of power and control. For the successful merging of school and community perspectives there must be connection to an outcome or commitment, all those involved must be interactive during the process as the process itself is designed to build relationships with community members and the connections that requires organization and leadership and support initiative and transcend the working relation between school and community to reduce the fear of change in the community being affected.
Communities can be as difficult to navigate as the most robust torrent of white water rapids spilling down the side of a canyon. As teammates are thrust through the highs and lows of the river their goal is to stay up right and off the crushing rocks that lay beneath the surface. So too is the precarious balance that exists in community engagement. Community engagement needs to take place at the right time with the right people who have a share vision. As connections are made and the shared vision becomes the guide, calm waters lay ahead for both the rapid enthusiasts and the school in growth.
Berg, A, Melaville, A, & Blank, M. (2006). Community & family engagement [Principals share what works]. (PDF)
Melaville, A. (2004). Doing what matters [The bridges to success strategy for building community schools]. (PDF)