George Lucas Educational Foundation
Administration & Leadership

Engaging the Community on a Personal Level

To encourage strong, meaningful links with the community, consider this strategy from a former principal, which can lead to lasting rewards.

April 11, 2024
JohnnyGreig / iStock

Principals have full plates of responsibilities and tasks that routinely occupy and consume their daily schedule. Despite this, they need to make sure they don’t neglect the importance of community engagement, especially partnerships in education. To highlight that endeavor, I’ve put together a plan and program outline that can be replicated or adapted depending upon the setting.

Start by researching and reading about successful programs established by other principals. Publications from state and national professional principals’ associations are good, informative sources. Then, request that your district leaders convene all building-level administrators to brainstorm and discuss the many ways to develop and shape school-community partnerships to support individual schools. 

Strong partnerships can provide assistance and resources that can help principals and their staff address the needs of students, parents, and families in ways that are typically not available from schools alone, ultimately strengthening the surrounding community.

Reciprocal rewards

During my experience, as an outcome of such a planning meeting, principals were encouraged to identify and reach out to an individual in the community, preferably in the school’s attendance area, whom they could invite to their school to shadow the principal for the day, or as much of the day as possible. That guest would then schedule a time at their place of business for the principal to reciprocate and shadow them.

Prior to the shadowing visits, principals outlined for their guests what could and could not be observed, primarily focused on issues of confidentiality pertaining to students and staff. But the primary objective was to open the school to a representative of the community, share a typical day, and freely allow that person to see for themselves what the role of the principal really looked like and felt like, and how the principal structured and influenced operations. The same observations and insights were part of the principal’s visit to the guest’s place of work.

Mutual visits and shadowing between principals and their invited guests were scheduled within the same month of the year—for instance, October, which the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) celebrates as National Principals Month. Good programs should be replicated every five to 10 years.  

Additionally, it’s possible to expand the idea by coordinating and including principals in other districts, or perhaps an entire state, by creating a proposal for the state’s principals’ professional association. The Ohio Association of Elementary School Administrators (OAESA) developed such an endeavor in the late 1990s—SWAP (Supervision with a Principal)—to great success.

To culminate the shadowing experience, a districtwide, expenses-paid luncheon gave principals and their guests the opportunity to share their observations, be publicly recognized, and further strengthen the relationships. The statements from many of the SWAP participants (which included the mayor, a county commissioner, bankers, lawyers, and many influential businesspeople) were surprising. Many stated that they were exhausted within a couple of hours and surprised by the constant mobility of principals in their schools. In many cases, the visits proved to be the impetus of long-lasting systems of support.   

Long-Term Benefits

My invited guest operated a food pantry and men’s homeless shelter within three blocks of my school. Following his visit, I spent time with him at the shelter and volunteered to be the supervisor for several nights. In the weeks and months that followed, we engaged in follow-up conversations, particularly centered around strategies that would support the development of students in my school, many of whom were from unstable families living in his neighborhood. My “shadow” was committed to doing whatever he could to ultimately help all children reach adulthood avoiding any paths toward homelessness.

Those discussions led to the development of the West After School Center (WASC) in Lancaster, Ohio, in 1997. The WASC became an after-school tutoring program, coordinated by my “shadow” and supported by community volunteers. It developed and grew, all as a result of our SWAP experience and the strong mutual relationship we built, along with many other community leaders who wanted in on the action.   

The partnership continuously strengthened and expanded. The volunteers formed a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, acquiring grants and resources well beyond what I ever dreamed would be possible. Most important, however, was the human resource support—more than 100 community volunteers who provided after-school tutoring to approximately 20 percent of our neediest students.  

Within five years of the initial SWAP experience, the WASC Board of Directors had purchased property across the street from the school and constructed a community center. The group played a lead role in helping other district schools acquire grants and other forms of support for after-school programming.

Ultimately, because of the diligent work from a committed school staff and the various forms of support from additional community partnerships that were subsequently formed, West School students earned the highest reading scores in the first, third, and sixth grades in the district within six years of the SWAP visit.

Jamie Vollmer, in his book Schools Cannot Do It Alone, shares his journey from outspoken critic to strong supporter of public schools. I recommend the book as you begin contemplating strategies that will increase your community engagement practices.

There might be others like him with a more cynical view of what happens in our schools, perhaps right outside your door. Invite them for a SWAP visit. When they are authentically permitted to see with their own eyes what really takes place in your school, they may return with ideas and offers of support that will change lives, and perceptions, forever. 

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