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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

New Reports on Community Involvement in Schools: Both Challenging and Promising

Several reports discuss the challenges and benefits of getting communities involved in schools.
By Edutopia
Edutopia Team

This report includes profiles of innovative school-community partnerships in Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, and Chula Vista, California.

Credit: Institute for Educational Leadership

There is a growing consensus that public schools and the broader community of parents, policymakers, school board members, and others need to be more closely connected. Elsewhere on this site, we offer examples of successful community partnerships that bring the resources of the community into schools and make school programs and facilities accessible to all members of the community.

A series of recent reports sheds new light on both the challenges and promises of school-community partnerships. Together, they provide a useful snapshot of current attitudes toward this critical issue.

Education and Community-Building: Connecting Two Worlds

Released in April 2001, this report from the Institute for Educational Leadership describes obstacles that often hinder school-community partnerships, profiles four communities with effective partnerships, and offers promising strategies for developing strong collaborations. The report is based on interviews and conversations with several dozen school superintendents and leaders of community-building organizations, as well as visits to school communities in Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, and Chula Vista, California.

The report sets out a series of "sticking points" -- factors that create tensions between school and community groups. For example, educators and community-builders have different views of the role of parents in school reform. "Not all educators see an active role for parents and community residents in helping to design and implement school reform -- the more advocacy-oriented approach to parent and community engagement supported by community building organizations." The authors offer such insights in the hope that educators and community individuals will work together more effectively if they understand and respect the assets and talents that each brings to the goal of improving student learning.

The report also highlights success stories in school-community partnerships:

  • In Chicago, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association established a coalition with six local principals to address school overcrowding. Parents knocked on doors and conducted 500 interviews about the need for new school facilities. They found strong support for using schools as community centers that would host activities for youth and adults. Their collective efforts resulted in the construction of annexes at four neighborhood elementary schools and the construction of a new middle school.
  • In Chula Vista, California, more than eighty public, private, and civic organizations collaborated to support the school district's application for funding from the California Department of Education's Healthy Start program. With seed money from the grant, school-based services -- such as counseling and medical care for students and their families -- have been established in schools throughout the district. The report also cites an increase in parental involvement in these schools, as parents are drawn to school to benefit from a range of services.

The full report, which includes a wall chart that lists tips for educators and community-builders, is available for $9. Contact the Institute for Educational Leadership, 1001 Connecticut Avenue NW, Suite 310, Washington, D.C., 20036, (202) 822-8405, or visit their Web site.

Who should take the lead in creating stronger ties between schools and the broader community? This report reveals a lack of consensus, although all seem to agree "public engagement" is important.

Credit: Public Agenda

Just Waiting To Be Asked? A Fresh Look at Attitudes on Public Engagement

Released in April 2001, this report from Public Agenda examines the attitudes and assumptions that different groups -- superintendents, school board members, teachers, parents, and non-parents -- have about the concept of "public engagement." (This term generally refers to efforts to strengthen ties between public schools and the broader community.) It reveals a general acceptance of the concept of public engagement with schools but varied interpretations of what that actually means and who should be responsible for it. The report is based on one-on-one interviews, focus group conversations, and surveys with several hundred members of each of these groups from around the country.

Among the report's key findings:

  • The general public values public education and is open to increasing community involvement with schools, at least in theory. But as long as ordinary citizens think the schools are performing well, they are comfortable leaving education policy to education leaders. These findings suggest that if schools are interested in engaging the public, they will likely need to take the initiative.
  • Teachers generally feel that the most important thing community residents can do for their schools is to give educators their strong support. The best way to accomplish this, in their view, is to invite them in to see the schools "up close."
  • Superintendents are -- of all the groups included in this report -- the most familiar with the concept of public engagement, and most say that public engagement efforts are in place in their districts. Their definition of public engagement typically includes give-and-take dialogue with community residents and listening to what people want the schools to look like. But most superintendents interviewed view communication with community residents as a less pressing issue than raising student achievement or securing school funding.
  • School board members generally described school board meetings as unproductive and dominated by a small number of people with narrow interests. However, they also relied on this forum more heavily than any other to understand the views of community residents. This underscores the importance of finding new ways to engage citizens who have a broad rather than particular agenda.

This report is available for $10 (plus shipping and handling). Contact Public Agenda, 6 East 39th Street, New York, NY,10016, (212) 686-6610, or visit their Web site .

This report suggests "Ten things you can do today to take greater responsibility for public schools."

Credit: Public Education Network and Education Week

Action For All: The Public's Responsibility for Public Education

This April 2001 report from The Public Education Network (PEN) and Education Week seeks to assess the extent to which the public is supporting its schools and to provide educators and policymakers with answers to these questions:

  • How does the public define its responsibility for public education?
  • What motivates the public to act?
  • What kind of information does the public need to become better informed?
  • To whom does the public look for reliable information?

The report is based on findings from focus groups and a nationwide telephone survey of 1,175 registered voters nationwide. Among the report's key findings:

  • Americans believe that fulfilling their traditional civic duties, such as paying taxes, voting, and ensuring their children are learning, are their primary public responsibilities for public education.
  • The public says it is not doing as much as it can to help young people (but that a lack of time and a lack of expertise prevent them from doing more).
  • Americans are prompted to act to improve schools more by dire circumstances -- such as violence in schools or state takeovers -- than by daily challenges of raising school and student performance.
  • Americans need better information from trustworthy sources close to the classroom about how to make schools better (and that those "trusted" sources are most likely to be teachers, parents, the PTA, and school principals).

The report also includes a list of "ten things you can do today to take greater responsibility for public schools." Suggestions include:

  • Seek out information on major education issues in your community from those closest to the action -- the local teachers union, the Local Education Fund, the PTA, and other groups;
  • Find out who your school board representatives are and watch a local school board meeting in person or on the local cable channel;
  • Talk to an educator you know or a neighbor with children in school about their perspectives on what is happening in local schools;
  • Visit the local school in your neighborhood at a convenient time, such as during the local school's open house, with friends and neighbors who have children in school.

The full report is available for free. Contact the Public Education Network, 601 Thirteenth Street, NW, Suite 900 North, Washington, DC, 20005, (202) 628-1893, or visit their Web site.

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