From the Blog

Honestly Engaging Our Communities

by David Ruff 

David Ruff Post

Historically, school districts have been marginally successful when engaging their communities by inviting members to “join the conversation” and “provide their feedback.” This is done, of course, with good intent; it opens the doors. Unfortunately, while the doors are open, too few historically-marginalized community members have the desire, knowledge, or willingness to walk through.

We too often fail to realize that an invitation into what may be perceived as a hostile environment has limited impact in supporting engagement. We have to realize that while most communities do not distrust their schools, many do not necessarily trust them either. To accept this reality is to realize that power dynamics inherent across America also play out in our school communities; this encourages participation by those who have historically enjoyed privilege of race, class, sexual orientation, or gender while alienating everyone else.

Since community engagement is important to the quality and equitability of our schools, we must engage in equitable community engagement that recognizes, celebrates, and attends to the diversity of our communities and pushes schools toward collaborative decision-making where all voices are heard.

Here are five lessons we’ve learned at the Great Schools Partnership through our equitable community engagement efforts over the past four years:

  1. Build trust again and again. The good news for most communities is that parents, students, and school community members don’t distrust the professionals in their schools. The bad news is that they don’t necessarily trust them either. Too often, the school-community relationship exists almost as a transactional relationship—communities pay taxes and send their kids to the school and the school teaches them for thirteen years. It’s a transaction, not a relationship. Consequently, trust is not ever really questioned or developed. Deep and equitable community engagement demands a trusting relationship. For schools, it is paramount to consciously develop this trust, not simply operate with assumed support.
  2. An open door is not engagement. Almost every school does a decent job of reaching out to community members and parents. Contact information is published on websites and sent home in backpacks. Events are announced and parents are encouraged to participate. Unfortunately, opening the school doors does not mean that parents and families are willing, understanding, or even capable of walking through those doors. For many of our families, we are inviting them to walk into an environment that has historically marginalized them. Their cultures are often unrecognized or unvalued, as we so often fail to reflect those cultures in our curriculum or our staffing. Inviting someone to join you in a place that brings back bad or even horrifying memories is not an honest invitation. The timing of invitations may also fail to accommodate work schedules. In addition, for many of our families who have recently immigrated to the U.S., the culture of our schools is unknown. This can create a void and barrier to involvement.
  3. None of us alone have the best idea. The reality is that none of us have the best idea when we work alone. Unfortunately, we often confuse messaging and marketing with honest engagement. It isn’t engagement when we bring parents together to convince them of decisions we have already made. To be clear, there certainly are times when we need to share information about decisions that have been made by schools. Educators are professionals with deep training, and many decisions need to be made according to this knowledge base. At the same time, parents bring great wisdom about their children, their community, and their cultures that can be incorporated into significant decision-making. It is the school’s obligation to be clear about when decisions have been made and need to be communicated, when additional information is needed to enable school personnel to make a decision, and when a decision needs to be made jointly and together. Too often, we imply joint decision-making only to end up in a sales pitch. As educators, we need to learn how to become more honest about our intended engagements and encourage honest collaborative decision-making.
  4. Share leadership. We can’t make collaborative decisions if everyone doesn’t get a chance to lead our efforts. When we deliberately bring a diversity of voices into leadership roles, we can create diverse opportunities that bring forth quality ideas. It is simply impossible to create quality and equitable decisions without diverse leadership.
  5. Participation costs. Educators are paid to undertake this work; parents and community members aren’t. While this work is about their children, we consistently fail to recognize the value of parental time. While our participation strategies work quite well when students live in a two-parent home with one parent not working full time, this system disintegrates in single-parent homes or when both parents have full-time jobs. Additionally, in families with younger children at home, even if a parent is not working a “job” in the traditional sense, they are still working with their children. Any opportunity to bring parents together has to recognize this reality and make appropriate accommodations such as child care, food, transportation, or even stipends for participants.

Moving these ideas forward will look different in each community, as every community has a different set of strengths to bring into the work. The key is to recognize and celebrate these nuances while paying attention to the key lessons noted above. Ultimately, bringing together more people and ideas will create better decisions, more commitment, and deeper student attainment.