Community Partnerships

What Community Engagement in Education Looks Like . . . and Can Do

Room filled with people listening to a group at the front

We in education talk a lot about the importance of community support and engagement. But what exactly do we mean?

Often, we say we want the community to vote on local referenda in ways that support schools. We want businesses to partner with schools to provide resources and opportunities, for example, sponsoring events, providing class speakers, offering internships, or donating equipment and money.

Even in our dealings with parents, many of our requests are for things like attending parent-teacher conferences, supporting fundraisers, and buying the kids supplies.

So ultimately, many of our interactions with the greater community are of a manner that Kentucky Chamber of Commerce President David Adkisson described in a recent interview as "transactional." And while such interactions are important, it is possible to move beyond them to a deeper engagement. But what does that look like? And what results can it have?

A Campaign to Reach 100 Percent Graduation

One impressive story of community engagement comes out of Tennessee's Clarksville-Montgomery School System. In 2004, the district had a graduation rate of just 76 percent -- better than many places, but not good enough for district leaders. They realized that focused interventions and student personalization would be key to improvement -- and they were. After four years, the graduation rate was 88 percent.

But district leaders also realized that they could only do so much alone. So they turned to the community, convening local leaders who said that the district needed to strive for a 100 percent graduation rate. And a community campaign called 100% Graduation is Clarksville's Business! was born.

The district has developed a list of ways to support the 100% Graduation Project that businesses and organizations can use, asking organizations and employers to choose those that make sense for them.

Few involve financial contributions. Instead, they ask partners to add school information (such as notifications about parent-teacher conferences and report cards) to newsletters and bulletins, allow flexible work schedules for students, provide study areas in the workplace, and use their voice and influence to encourage high school graduation.

So far, more than 100 businesses and civic, government, and faith-based organizations have become partners in the project. As school board member George Giles was quoted, the initiative "brought in a lot of people who didn't have children, who in some cases felt like they didn't have a stake [in the local schools]."

The collective result was a community-wide culture that clearly values high school graduation -- and a graduation rate of 94 percent in 2013.

Business Advocacy for High Standards

Another example of community engagement comes from Adkisson, who describes his organization's support of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) over the past several years. One instance: When there was an attempt in the Kentucky state legislature to "blow up" what had been accomplished and start over, Adkisson appeared before a senate committee with the head of the state teachers union and the state commissioner of education, with all three calling for the state to stay the course on the standards.

In addition, the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and the Prichard Committee (the most prominent education advocacy group in the state) have created a joint initiative called "Business Leader Champions of Education" that is pushing for overall improvements in the state's schools.

They have recruited around 75 notable business leaders willing to put their reputations forward in favor of more rigorous standards in schools (including the Kentucky Core Academic Standards, which are aligned to the Common Core) and general educational improvement in the state.

Common Core implementation in Kentucky has been widely considered successful for a variety of reasons, including (in addition to rising test scores and other outcomes for students) avoidance of many of the political challenges that the standards have faced in other places, which some credit in part to the business community's advocacy.

Their support in this area has helped create a more stable environment in which the state's educators are able to focus on the day-to-day challenges of standards implementation (including finding appropriate materials, professional learning opportunities, and more) without the additional distractions that many of their peers must deal with.

The Bottom Line

There are many ways that communities can support education on a deep and meaningful level. But remember that it's not always apparent to those in the community how they can get involved. As Adkisson said, "It's easy for business people to sometimes say, 'Well, we care about education but we're not sure what we can do about it. We're not sure we have time to engage in the policy debates. We'll just write a check and buy a computer for a middle school and hope it helps.'"

But when a school system develops a list of simple, specific asks (like Clarksville-Montgomery did) or when education leadership is willing to partner with the business community (as they were in Kentucky) in ways that encourage deeper engagement, the community is often willing. And ultimately, students benefit.