Creative School and Community Leaders Are Discovering That They Need Each Other

Throughout both urban and rural America, school reformers and community builders are beginning to discover each other. Mutual interests and benefits abound. On the one hand, community organizers work to re-situate the school at the center of the community development process. On the other hand, creative school reformers activate community residents and resources as vital partners in the educational enterprise. These two growing movements recognize the powerful advantages of bridge building.


The following brief observations are meant to serve as discussion-starters for people who are exploring the school/community bridge. How did schools and communities grow apart?


As school reformers and community builders probe new possibilities for creative collaboration, it may be helpful to recall briefly some of the historic factors that contributed to the separation of so many schools from their immediate communities. This short look at the past will provide a basis for understanding some of the challenges and possibilities evident today, and for suggesting a few ideas for strengthening the bridge in the future.


The critical social invention of the 21st century should be a social mechanism whose job it is to find and mobilize the gifts of people in the community. This is not just school reform or community organizing, but a revitalization of democratic postulates.


Schools and Communities: The Past as Problematic


During the later nineteenth and through at least the first half of the twentieth centuries, both urban and rural schools were inextricably linked with the communities that surrounded them. Parents, community residents, employers and educators knew generally what roles were assigned, and what to expect of each other. Schools had important but relatively circumscribed functions as socializing agents and labor-force preparers. Those young people who, for whatever reasons, left school early were absorbed into lower skilled jobs, or into the agricultural work force. For the most part, schools and communities understood each other, and supported each other’s functions and roles.


But in almost every city neighborhood — and, for somewhat different reasons, in some smaller towns and rural areas as well — schools and communities have grown apart over the last half century. In fact, in many areas, schools and their local communities now constitute separate, often mutually mistrustful worlds. Understanding at least some of the factors contributing to this divorce is critical if the rift is to be closed. While no one on either side of the divide raised the wall consciously, its construction represents an important, if unintended, consequence of the development of modern schooling.


Historically, the rise of professional education and the increasingly professional definition of the school has altered the power relationships between schools and communities. Formerly, some school “outsiders” — employers, political and community leaders, etc. — wielded considerable influence over the school’s personnel and practices. With the development of the professional class and ethos, power shifted significantly. Clearly, decisions were now in the hands of those who were credentialed, and who knew better. This shift in decision-making authority was accelerated and reinforced by the racial and class differences that often divided the professional educator from the immediate community. In many rural communities, severe economic crises and the movement to consolidate smaller schools also contributed to this separation. The establishment of a professionally defined class of educators also meant that the school became increasingly “institutionalized” in the manner of many other modern professions such as medicine, law, etc. This professional institutionalization led, in turn, to an increasing separation from the more voluntary impulses of “community.” This separation of institution from community as “types” is deep and profound. At the risk of overstating and oversimplifying this dualism, and recognizing that the contrasts are never this pure, think for a moment about these “two cultures.”


Below are a few of the characteristics that distinguish “institutional” problem-solving techniques from less formal “community” problem-solving techniques.


These sketchy comparisons, which obviously exist in real life on a continuum, should serve to highlight some of the reasons that formally organized schools and less structured communities often have difficulty understanding and working with each other. The differences evolved over time, and now represent divergent strengths and weaknesses.


A Legacy of Distrust


One legacy of these historic developments is the still prevalent tendency of both schools and communities to regard each other, from a distance, with a great deal of distrust. Thus, it is not difficult to find professional educators who characterize communities, including parents and other residents, as ignorant “amateurs,” hardly qualified to contribute systematically to the growth of young people. In addition, the communities outside the school often appear to be unpredictable and messy. Finally, school professionals often experience community activists as expecting far too much from the school, and as appreciating their hard work far too infrequently.


This legacy of distrust is, of course, a two-way street. Parents and community leaders often regard the schools within their neighborhood as fortresses that are intimidating and closed to their participation. Even when entry is gained, community residents frequently report encounters with inflexible, bureaucratic procedures that are often reinforced with racially and culturally inappropriate attitudes and responses. These barriers are substantial and powerful obstacles to community participation. When such barriers are stacked upon a parent’s own painful memories of failure in school, they become virtually insurmountable.


A Present Filled with Possibilities


Given this legacy of mutual distrust, it is particularly noteworthy that the present moment is one in which creative change agents in both school and community settings are probing new possibilities. Put simply, creative school and community leaders are discovering that they need each other. Both worlds face daunting challenges. Only by exploring creative ways to strengthen each other can schools regain their vitality and communities rebuild themselves.


What do these promising current experiments look like? The five clusters of activities that are defining new school-community collaborations are:


– Services Collaborations: From Individual Programs to Comprehensive Integrated Services. This approach concentrates services for young people in the school setting.


– Schools and Community as Educational Partners. In this approach the ties among students’ homes, schools and communities are strengthened through joint activities and programming, often highlighting and celebrating the cultural and racial backgrounds of the families.


– Schools and Communities as Partners in Youth Development. These strategies involve a range of community and school-based partners in activities that build the competencies of young people so that they can become ever more effective and knowledgeable actors and citizens.


– Schools as Assets for Community and Economic Development. This approach recognized that schools are in fact valuable “treasure chests,” filled with the physical, spatial, financial and human materials out of which stronger local communities and economies can be built.


– New Schools/New Governance: Community Redefining Schools. Many of these emerging collaborations inevitably led to restructuring. Solid bureaucratic governance systems are beginning to give way to more democratic and inclusive arrangements at the level of the local school and community.


Taken together, these current probes into new school/community relationships provide a substantial launching pad into the future. Schools and communities have entered into a mutually transformational process, and if the creative experimentation continues, both will emerge stronger and more democratic.


For the past forty years or so, many of the most effective community builders in urban America have called themselves community organizers.” Today, an increasing number of these trained change agents are working with schools and school reformers. For that reason alone, it might be useful to recall some of the critical skills that good organizers bring to the community. Clearly, these are not the only skills needed; nor are professional organizers the only people who have them. But perhaps these skills could be utilized even more extensively and effectively to build the school/community partnerships of the future. Among their many skills, good organizers know how to:


  1. Discover “natural leaders,” people whose stature and skills may not be visible to a broader public, or to school leaders, but who have a respectful following within the community.


  1. Develop and train leaders, providing tools and experiences that build peoples’ competencies and confidence.


  1. Interview skillfully, listen attentively, utilizing a set of basic “one on one” interviewing techniques, good organizers establish trusting relationships, uncover what people care most about—their “self-interest” — and what makes them angry. Increasingly, organizers also discover their subject’s skills, capacities and hopes for the future.


  1. Analyze and decode power relationships, researching and clarifying for citizens how lines of authority work, where responsibility lies, and who has the capacity to act.


  1. Transform a “problem” into an “issue,” thus making a condition about which people complain into a situation that people can analyze, act upon and change.


  1. Build “strategic alliances,” strong but often temporary relationships with other organizations whose interests coincide and whose resources can contribute to the success of an action or a campaign.


  1. Organize and carry out effective “actions” and other public events that dramatize a community’s issues and push forward its larger agenda or campaign.


  1. Link small “victories” with larger goals and strategies, thus keeping hope alive in the short run and commitment strong for the longer haul.


  1. Build and sustain an effective organization, one that reflects participants’ interests, remains flexible as contexts change and continues to mobilize and develop local leadership. Evaluate and learn from experience, inviting leaders and other participants to assess virtually every meeting or action, and to look for ways to improve in the future.


We identified three areas that needed further analysis and consensus building in order to put exemplary ideas and collaborations into the mainstream:


– What indicators/measures are needed to gauge success that go beyond traditional test results? There are powerful interests in the country that already have indicators in place that shape our understanding of measures. We need to have conversations about what they are, how they are used, how they need to be supplemented and how teachers/communities can articulate what they want and how to measure it. We need indicators of “what counts” in community efforts to strengthen the education of young people.


– How do you connect and engage communities, parents, students and educators around an understanding of the purpose of school-community collaborations to improve schools and develop communities?


– What are the mechanisms and strategies that will ensure that community-based school reform becomes a popular movement with the opportunity to be long-term and sustained and to spread across communities? This begins with conversations, reaching out to people who may not share our thinking. Are foundations ready to support such a movement and can they see this as constituency building, not organizing?


Accountability Measures


The issue of measuring “the work” cropped up continuously and there was general dissatisfaction with the inadequacy of current measures, especially the total dependence on student test scores. An increase in student achievement is the ultimate goal of reform efforts, the achievement is more than test scores and should include additional ways to assess learning as well as other measures of community and leadership development.


Developing indicators for educational progress has a history, while creating indicators for community-based support does not. Some schools and communities are beginning to put the two together in ways that can be measured.


Other indicators included:


Are schools and communities coming together and having conversations around the needs of children? Is the bureaucracy reorganizing to include communities? Are there changes in teacher practice from passive to active learning? The debate over accountability is one of values. If relationships are of value, it is possible to measure them, even though understanding the outcomes is difficult.


Despite the awareness of the need for broader indicators than currently used, we acknowledge that the existing political context gives extraordinary weight to test scores. All of us are using achievement test results because of political pressure, even though the best reason for having indicators is to make mid-course corrections. How do we find a political proxy for what we consider important — a community that is democratic and students who are whole in mind, body and spirit? We need a broad set of measures, a sub-set of outcomes for public consumption and process measures for diverse outcomes.


Local conversations about these issues are the way to get people engaged in community-based school reforms. The goals of education belong to the community itself. However, the decisions about schooling and goals for children must be made close to communities, such decisions are not always in the hands of local communities.


Creating and Sustaining a Movement


Community-based school reform is not anywhere near being a movement at the moment, but action to create it is needed now. This would focus on: developing a language for it that is comfortable for all involved, obtaining foundation support within communities to bring others to the table, and encouraging discussions within and across affinity groups within the foundation community that lead to bigger conversations. The effort also needs to identify who should be connected to a movement — parents, faith communities, educators and key organizations.


The movement should begin by organizing working groups that develop plans, present them at future meetings and build on the knowledge base through site visits.


School reform currently is not owned by parents and the public but, rather, is more a concern of business and government leaders. A constant theme is that public education is not public.


For some, it is sufficient for schools to be paid for by taxpayers and run by an elected board. For most of us, that definition falls far short.


It was this perception that urban communities see schools as too isolated while rural communities see schools as being too insulated. In both cases, however, they are both shielded from their constituencies.


Many of the successful examples of schools and community working together have found that making student work more public serves to help the community see the value of the school. Unless schools are more public, they will never be successful institutions.


Can we learn from each other? Can we work on what it means to lower this wall between school and community? Let’s keep the focus on what is working and why.


What is the future we want?


This process is a “work in progress” but to begin the process, we identified the next steps. These points fell into three categories:


  1. The need to develop indicators of success for community-based school reform;


  1. The ability to access and provide information;


  1. The need to organize a movement.


We need to develop indicators of success:

– Develop success indicators beyond standardized test scores that can measure progress in student achievement and school/community change so that funders, schools and community members all are on the same page.


– Create a true paradigm shift to an environment in which parents, students, communities and schools are equally valued.


– Be willing to break the mold and challenge the status quo in how schools view communities and vice versa.


– Be prepared to explore and consider adopting different definitions of education.


>> We must work on accessing and providing information:


– Educate community and school constituents about each other’s goals and strategies through access to the learning opportunities within each sector.


– Foundations should share their knowledge of “best practices” research with communities, and communities should share their knowledge of emerging “best practices” with foundations.


– Continue to build a knowledge base about what counts in this work of community-based school reform, what evidence exists and what resources are needed to do the work.


– Build the capacity of parents to assess the effectiveness of their schools and to work constructively for school improvement.


We must work on organizing a movement:


– Focus on creating an infrastructure for change where one doesn’t exist and on sustaining them where they do exist.


– Bring the educational establishment into the conversation.


– Establish a commitment from funders to identify two or three additional foundations that should be informed about the work and a commitment from community organizations to engage two or three other such organizations not currently involved in education reform.

The Future: Strengthening Ties Between Schools and Communities


Where might the promising work of the present lead creative educators and community builders? What are the underlying attitudes and jointly held agendas that are now becoming recognizable, and that hold promise for the future?


As schools and communities reconnect, leaders in both arenas begin to transform the ways in which each regards the other. School leaders, for example, might begin to think of the entire community as an extension of the classroom, filled with skilled and knowledgeable residents with teaching and learning agendas and capacities of their own. Parents and community residents often represent particularly rich cultural and racial/ethnic resources which are critical for building respect and understanding.


School professionals might also develop an appreciation of community organizations and residents as potentially powerful political and economic allies, ready to support the school in its quests for resources and authority. Such a partnership sets the stage for mutually beneficial investments in each others’ futures.


Similarly, community leaders have already begun to rethink their conception of “school.” They might develop further the idea of a school as a “treasure chest” filled with riches to invest in community building — available space for community meetings and events; purchasing power to support existing local businesses, or to seed new enterprises; equipment and materials that could be critical resources for neighborhood development; talented adults (teachers) who might be constructively connected to community groups and agendas; and most important, energetic young people, often eager to contribute to community building projects.


Out of these new sets of attitudes will surely emerge newly defined, jointly held agendas and priorities. These cooperatively forged efforts will join educational goals with community building and teaching/learning with development. Here, for example, are six critical agendas which schools and communities could address more powerfully together. Each agenda is, in fact, already being explored in both urban and rural contexts.


– Schools and communities could strategically address the challenges of economic development, enterprise and job creation. School and community resources could be combined to invest in and rebuild local businesses, and could be linked for market studies and job training. Both students and teachers could be productively connected, as apprentices or trainers, to the world of work.


– Schools and communities working together could greatly expand the educational resources and opportunities available to students. Parents and community residents represent rich stores of knowledge and experience, often just waiting to be tapped. Community spaces, both natural and human-made, invite study and understanding. The growing experiences educators are developing with “service learning” reconnect community building work with sound educational objectives.


– Schools and communities could cooperatively acknowledge and address racial, ethnic and gender conflicts and tensions. They could work together to confront racism, to empower people of color, and work to build bridges across current divides. Schools might become the center of community celebrations of race and culture.


– Schools and communities could invent together new and more powerful forms of local authority to leverage outside resources from, for example, government or the financial sector. With schools as powerful partners, community organizations could significantly expand their already impressive leverage and bargaining capacity.


– Schools and communities could create together new institutions and ventures which ensure that local citizens join together to solve problems, e.g., through skills banks, small business incubators, neighborhood technology centers, community forums, community cultural celebrations, etc. Each of these ventures represents enormous potential for realizing both educational and community building goals.


– Finally, schools and communities working together could help to restore a meaningful, shared “sense of place.” This rootedness — the feeling that this community is unique, important and belongs to us — is the foundation on which vibrant schools and communities rest. Too often, in both rural and urban America, this sense of place is missing, or much weaker than it was. Clearly, this restoration of a sense of place is already at the center of many school/community agendas. In each of these communities and in scores of others, reclaiming this place as ours links schools and communities in powerful new alliances.

Recognizing the enormous potential for schools and communities to work more powerfully together raises urgent practical questions about both resources and leadership. These six sets of strategies and examples represent an immensely promising start. But to grow these efforts and to build others, visionary educators and creative community builders will have to work together both to free some part of existing resources and to reach funders.


And who will lead the inventive organizing processes that will call these still fragile partnerships into ever more powerful activity? Where are the school/community leaders who will focus the partners on each others’ assets and potential contributors? Who will work incessantly to see that racism and classism are exposed and overcome? Who can help convene people across existing barriers, creating new space where educational and community building agendas are melded? Where can we find the leaders who will find new leaders?


These leaders will no doubt emerge from very different sources in different communities. Many kinds of skills are needed. In some cases, perhaps, these are challenges for a new kind of school/community organizer, a facilitator/mobilizer who understands both worlds, and whose skills can be directed toward bringing those worlds together in new and powerful ways. Though not the only relevant set of attributes, certainly the core skills of an experienced community organizer will be critical. Beyond those, perhaps, what’s needed most are dreamers and visionaries.



Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.



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