Professional Learning

Sherman Oaks: Where Community Participation Is Truly Valued

Tireless teachers and an involved group of parents keep this school moving forward and upward.

October 1, 2000

Second graders explain findings from their Internet research for a project on Nicaragua. Classroom and shared resource areas provide access to computers and other learning technologies.

Credit: Peter DaSilva

Since this article was written in 2000, founding principal Peggy Bryan and teacher Sandra Villarreal have moved on from Sherman Oaks Community Charter School, but current principal Irene Preciado carries on the school's original vision.

When Marcia Plumleigh, then superintendent of the Campbell Union School District, in Campbell, California, gave Principal Peggy Bryan the go-ahead to make Sherman Oaks Community Charter School a new and different kind of school, the district administrator made clear that a top priority should be to make the school a neighborhood hub "where you could really feel the heartbeat of the community."

But Bryan and the first teachers she recruited realized they did not quite know how to begin. "A pivotal moment in creation of the school was when a core group of staff decided that we really didn't know how to effectively serve the community," Bryan recalls.

So they went to the community itself. Bryan and her colleagues consulted PACT (People Acting in Community Together), a grassroots, faith-based community organization that tackles local problems. PACT led workshops on how to conduct effective one-on-one home visits and on how to listen and build relationships. Bryan and the teachers then compiled a list of families with children who might transfer to Sherman Oaks, divided the list among themselves, and set out to confer with those families -- in person. She estimates that she and her staff visited 80 or 90 families well before the school was constructed.

Second-grade teacher Sandra Villarreal meets with parents during Exhibition Night. Sherman Oaks actively seeks parent involvement and includes parents in schoolwide decisions.

Credit: Peter DaSilva

Parent Wish Lists

"People had never been asked to dream, and we listened to them," Bryan says.

They listened hard. Parents wanted art and music as part of the curriculum. They wanted technology and computer availability beyond school hours, both for their children and themselves. They also wanted easy access to social services.

When Bryan and the teachers had talked to enough families, they regrouped, organized the ideas the parents had put forth, and then consulted the parents again. "This is what we heard you say, and this is how we're moving to construct the program" the parents were asked in follow-up workshops. "How does that look to you?" If parents weren't able to come to the workshops, they were kept informed with a regular newsletter.

Shortly before opening day, a celebratory rally was held at which parents could meet again with Sherman Oaks staff and listen to speeches in English, Spanish, Vietnamese about what the school was about. A great part of it incorporated the wishes articulated by the parents at the home visits.

Students share their knowledge of California history with parents and other classroom visitors. Students often take charge of their own learning by selecting topics that interest them.

Credit: Peter DaSilva

From Dream to Reality

The students got the art and music programs the parents wanted, although music has since been dropped for lack of funding. Computers are readily available -- not in isolated laboratories but in common areas around the building. Kids can get to them whenever they need them, and parents can come in after school to use them. A technology institute is held for the parents in summer.

And the social services desired are available at the school, including a center for food distribution and a family-services advocate who makes referrals or does whatever it takes to get children needed assistance, even if it means driving a child to the dentist herself.

The home visits also gave Bryan and the teachers ideas about features of the school that would serve area children's special needs, such as opening up the classrooms and giving the children a lot of spreading-out space. The home visits had revealed that many students lived in small apartments crowded with one, two, or even more families.

Fourth graders put finishing touches on their California-missions projects.

Credit: Peter DaSilva

Breaking Barriers

The benefits of community involvement go far beyond the tangible.

"It breaks down the barrier. It just comes down to two people who want the best for the child," says Sherman Oaks teacher Osvaldo Rubio. "It forms a strong bond between teacher and parent." The children then see the relationship as something more too, he says. "It's more friend and friend, not just 'my teacher.' It's more like family."

Rubio's dedication extends to coaching the local soccer team, tutoring after school, making regular home visits, and living in the neighborhood. He knows which kids are on the streets at night, and he knows whose parents are struggling with three or four jobs and whose parents have drug problems or are homeless or are on welfare.

Not all the teachers have as much of a community connection as Rubio, but they all have more than is typical at other schools. In addition to home visits and regular consultations, teachers meet individually with parents three times a year, and they hold a community open house in the fall and two student exhibition evenings each year. Members of the school governance council also contact two families a month, partly to inform but mostly to listen to whatever concerns or suggestions or thoughts family members might have that relate to Sherman Oaks.

Adults Who Care

The heavy community involvement contributes to achieving one of Bryan's top priorities for the school -- establishing the closest possible relationships with students. "It's not going to sound educational, but it really is," she says, because kids need to know the adults in their lives care about them.

Bryan believes that communication has paid off multiple times, especially when the school has experienced bumps in the road. Sherman Oaks opened with 522 students, even though it was designed for 460. Kindergarten classes had what could have been an unmanageable 40-45. Not happy about the overcrowding, the parents nevertheless "hung in there with us," Bryan recalls. Enrollment eventually declined to its original target numbers.

And just as Bryan has seen the children grow and learn, she has seen the parents do so. For a while, if parents made their voice heard, it was usually about issues like safety in and around the school, she says. More recently, a group of parents became vocal about curriculum and demanded that the bilingual program that had served their children so well at Sherman Oaks be extended to the middle school.

Educators should understand that their school "is not a bastion," Bryan contends. "Your job goes beyond the threshold of your school. It always goes back to, 'What can we do to make this community more vibrant?'"

Diane Curtis is a veteran education writer and a former editor for The George Lucas Educational Foundation.

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