Healthy Communities Must Have Healthy Schools

Healthy schools and healthy communities depend on and nourish each other. Healthy schools aren’t sustainable if their surrounding communities are in peril. Healthy communities can’t exist for long if they fail to nurture productive, committed, engaged, aware, and resourceful citizens for the future.


It is an appropriate way to begin a conversation about bridging two groups with much in common – those who work hard to make schooling much better for children and those who are just as committed to revitalizing communities, especially in our poorest urban and rural areas. These groups need bridges to each other if their hopes and work are to flourish. The deep changes that are needed in schools and communities will not happen until all segments of the community work together and together hold the systems accountable.


Despite having the same goal – the well-being of children, families and communities – community-based education reformers and community builders and funders often do not connect. Many community organizations play a crucial role in reforming schools, but is that role well understood and appreciated? Many funders support efforts either for school reform or community renewal, frequently both, but do they realize how much these initiatives need to connect (both within the community and within their own foundations) to be effective and sustaining?


What Strong Schools and Strong Communities Share


Community renewal and school reform are shared work. Strong schools and strong communities are similar in many essential ways:


– They are guided and energized by clear values – core convictions about what every person deserves in a democracy. While “values” can be a loaded term, the concepts at the heart of flourishing schools and communities are those such as equity, excellence, inclusion and respect, all of which are inter-dependent.


– Their visions grow out of the values they hold and can be assessed through measurable outcomes. Strong schools and strong communities can answer such questions as: “What is the future we want? How should students, teachers, learning conditions and community conditions be different in 10 years? What is “success” and how will we measure it? What outcomes are “nonnegotiable” for us?


– They live by a spirit of accountability to results. Strong schools and communities cultivate a capacity for self-assessment and are able to ask and answer such questions as: “Are people becoming better off because of our efforts? Are we making progress toward our vision? If the results are not acceptable, who and what must change?”


– They nurture a spirit of efficacy, a prevailing sense of confidence that human action, however small, can have a positive impact, that people have the power to shape their environment, their choices and their future.


Underlying this spirit is a belief in the basic intelligence and capacity of people to prevail in the face of challenges. Strong schools and communities invest in leadership development. They encourage disciplined reflection on the reasons behind successful and unsuccessful change efforts, and they use the lessons learned.


– They seek alignment between the values they hold and the actions they take. They use their values to scrutinize institutional attitudes and practices, and they act when there is tension between what they believe and the policies/practices of the institutions around them.


– They struggle to bridge the fault lines of race, class, culture and power inequality. They know that divisiveness and development—of people and of communities—cannot coexist.


There are two caveats to the effort, however. The results obtained by the initiatives represented here took time to blossom and flourish and too much funding is still short-term in duration and small in scale.


Furthermore, the cultivation of trust between schools and communities is the lubricant for sustained change and enduring reform, but it is also often subterranean. Its benefits are seldom immediate and usually are visible only to the faithful. Are funders patient and trusting enough to fund work that produces visible results only after years of effort?


Community determined to create a learning environment based on common values:


– How do we help funders increase their attention spans? Find out who is setting short deadlines for results. If it is the trustees, appoint ones who take a long-range view.


– Can we get a developmental mentality in schools and in communities? People in the schools have to start from the basis of community values but they are tired of being second-rate remediators, they want to be educators and champions of development. Go find examples of where people have come together around developmental goals for children and learn from them.


– Can building a bridge start within a school system? There are a few that have started within schools, but they could not be sustained without community support. Also, sometimes it is an issue of power, and sometimes that is so bad that the only thing to do is organize our communities to end the school’s monopoly on power.


– How do you reconcile standards and standardization with the desire for community values and a sense of place? Some of the community-building work is deeper and older than the school-reform work. Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. We refused to seek waivers from the standards because that would be seen as going the easy way. Just do it. Then do what you want. If you don’t like the standards, try to change the standards.


– How does the bridge go two ways, with schools informing communities and the other way around? A bridge implies two camps, so you must keep people working toward the same ends, day in and day out.


– How do parents make decisions about what will happen in classrooms? The aim is not to focus on content but to get heavily involved in the program for their kids. A strong parent base will move politicians and give parents a school that the community owns. Parents are able to model the kind of growth and nurturing they wanted for their children in school.


– Are there any places that have achieved all the components of the framework? Communities have come closer than schools because they deal with economic and social issues as well. It is easier to talk about equity, for example, on a broader scale, much harder when the issue gets down to the classroom and to specifics. It is important to bring people to the table around values, which is a role foundations can play through incentives and the means to sustain such an effort.


What are the Essentials?


To obtain better outcomes for students and to strengthen communities – the focus of most reforms – the efforts depended on building strong, trusting relationships between schools and parents and between parents and community advocates. These necessarily came before more traditional, measurable outcomes.


Where that has occurred, student achievement is rising, but equally important results are just as visible – more parents are involved in the schools and there are more activities after school for children that are created and directed by teachers and parents together.


Student achievement measures are important to parents and the community but what we heard most from both parents and the business community was the need for measures that showed change in the level of respect between the community and the schools. These became the basis of the indicators developed by parents and the community. Similarly, the most significant accomplishment was the transformation of the relationships between teachers and parents. The process made it possible to have people in the community who can organize around issues and use the political system.


The Money Factor


Sufficient funding is not the most important ingredient for the success of community-based reforms, but it is critical. Money gave us time to have dialogues together during the day, to find networking support, to tap into knowledge. Pointing out that transforming schools and communities is not charity work, funding was needed to provide support, give teachers time to work with communities, and build a culture that will persist through turnovers and other changes. Funding is necessary to strengthen community activism; it gives parents access to professional staff who support them as they develop their leadership skills. More funding is needed to stabilize such support.


Finally, community-based reform is exciting and meaningful work, requiring both money and time. It can take 20 years – or two generations – before communities see the results of wholesale change. However, benchmarks could be established along the way. Determining what it takes to be successful, knowing how to establish an ongoing and dynamic effort and developing benchmarks are ways funders and community-based school reformers can chart their progress. Some of the possible benchmarks for success include such things as seeing more parents participating at schools, establishing networks among change-oriented schools and communities, changing teacher preparation, providing greater support for students in and out of school time, and creating systemic changes at district and state levels.


Conversation with those who practice community-based school reforms. Generally, the discussions made these points:


– Building leadership and constituency must come from the community and schools themselves and be grounded in them. People need opportunities to do leadership.


– Organizing for quality and improving student achievement must take standardized test scores into consideration as an indicator but go beyond them to develop ways to measure success in schools and in communities over time.


– Going beyond parent involvement means working across schools and communities to create networks and developing an inclusive environment. The goal should be to achieve mutual accessibility between the school and the community.


– Building school system capacity and overcoming resistance depend on strong relationships that will last over time and empower constituents. We struggle with the idea of blowing it all up and starting all over again, but we always keep coming back and trying to find an entry into reform because the school system is the only player in equity.


– Expanding educational resources will require going beyond standard measures of quality and engaging the community in deciding what the educational experiences for children will be. Parents, once vested in a school, increase the quality of the school. Education and community have to be one thing.


– Developing new structures, policies and funding requires recognizing the value of community organizing – and funding it sufficiently.


– Making the community the site for “school work” is an important lesson urban communities can learn from rural ones.


We asked difficult questions and prioritized the most urgent issues in community-based school reform that need to be addressed.


Building Leadership and Constituency


– What are the roles of parents and community leaders in leading school reform and community development agendas? How are leaders identified, developed and supported? How is a broad constituency developed to support the work? Why is this important? How do you identify allies and partners and what are their roles?


The only way to create real change in education is to capitalize on the self-interests of the community and to build indigenous leadership and self-determination. Leadership exists within schools as well, but in both communities and schools, leaders are vulnerable to being “eaten up.” That’s why efforts to build leadership need to support those who are indigenous to communities and schools—often they have done more and offer more than is assumed. Also, effective leaders understand equity issues, and at the local level that frequently means moral leadership derived from a spiritual base.


Parents who are encouraged to become leaders need to have this grounding in community because they have the ability to influence others. Parents need help in various ways when they assume leadership roles in change understanding their rights even if they cannot express them eloquently, or being prepared for the obstacles and barriers they may encounter. Parents also need to know that they are not alone in wanting a better education for their children. Such efforts at building leadership among parents needs dedicated time and resources. These efforts cannot be conducted “on the sly.”


Foundations need hands-on experience in learning how leadership works in communities. Instead of putting out a Request for Proposals for leaders, they should hang out in communities and see where the leaders are and learn what support they need.


Organizing for Quality and Improving Student Achievement


– How can the skills of good organizers be used on specific school/community issues? How do we measure student achievement as a result of relationships between schools and community? Why is organizing an important strategy in low-income areas for engaging the community in schools? What strategies of community/school partnerships are most likely to result in improved student achievement? How can data be used to support the work?


Organizing communities to support school reforms takes place along a continuum that builds from people’s immediate needs to more complicated academic achievement issues. The end of the continuum, however, is not test scores. Rather, such traditional measures must be expanded to include other measures of educational achievement and community development. What community-based school reform must construct is a parent/community vision of what it means for a young person to be prepared for continuing education, work and citizenship.


Existing definitions also are different for different folks. Affluent parents, for example, demand more than results on standardized tests, but even though there is an “over focus” on test scores in low-income schools, parents in these schools usually favor “doing well” on standardized tests as a fair measure of their students’ success. Use of such data can expand people’s ideas about what is quality, such as exposing the extent of academic tracking. Schools and communities need to collaborate on deciding the markers for student success and realize that these markers change over time.


Still, to have a real impact on learning and teaching, schools need a critical mass of organized parents. The development of groups of organized parents also occurs along a continuum that begins small, is sensitive to local needs and builds into informed leadership.


Basically, the improvement of student achievement and the assurance of quality schools depend on answering two questions: What are the indicators for student achievement beyond standardized tests? And, what are the conditions that get parents to focus on teaching/learning-success issues and encourage them to take action?


Building School System Capacity and Overcoming Resistance


– How do you prepare and support schools so they can be effective partners with the community? How do we find and develop the necessary resources of time and capacity to carry out critical reform agendas? How do we motivate resistant systems to reconnect with the community?


The education institution’s capacity right now to outlast change agents’ agendas, such as from the community, makes it necessary for reformers to build relationships with each other and with educators that will last over time. The discussion at first focused on barriers – the tendency for outside reform efforts to become marginalized for various reasons. However, the experiences of practitioners in the discussion argued for articulating the benefits of change to those running school systems. They don’t want to fail, either, it was pointed out. That effort needs to be supported by building a political constituency that addresses power issues. We have to be smart about power. You cannot just go into discussions about what is right. You have to get into conversations about what we can bring to the table.


However, confrontation is not the best way to create change. Power analysis is not a set up for conflict but, rather, a means of understanding power relationships in schools and knowing how to leverage them. Organizers are learning which levels of the school bureaucracy to focus on, and schools are beginning to learn to include all stakeholders. Change might occur because of competition to the public schools or through legislative mandates, but equally important are patience and long-lasting relationships among leaders.


It also is important for funders, reformers and school leaders to admit failures when they occur and learn from them. This can help build relationships. Finally, students should be given a voice in reforms.


Expanding Educational Resources


– How do we help instructional leaders understand the value of building on students’ experiences, using community expertise as starting places for successful educational achievement? What is required to help school staff and community members rethink their conception of “school”? What are strategies for teaching a real community curriculum?


An important outcome is that community people not just engage in conversations, but that the conversation shifts to new ideas that can change the community. Currently, the conversation is constrained by the importance given to standardized tests, which serve political purposes, are based on old paradigms of success and encourage limited teaching focused on the test.


When students do their “work” in the community, they draw upon the experience of elders, and the school becomes a venue for saving their experience and wisdom. Similarly, starting conversations between schools and parents must start with recognizing that parents have powerful interests and knowledge that need to be used.


States may rely on standardized scores, but students and parents can learn to assess both the problems they face and the solutions. They can learn to become actively involved in the community. As a result of reform efforts that go beyond standardized tests, such as exhibitions and/or portfolios that reflect students’ actual work in their communities, a lot of students’ expectations are raised, as are those of some teachers and a few district superintendents. The value of using alternative assessments needs to be understood by everyone from parents to university professors. Superintendents, for example, often don’t understand that exhibitions demonstrate student knowledge more authentically than standardized tests.


The central issue, then, is: there must be mutual accessibility between school and community to develop definitions together and achieve common aspirations. In this endeavor, funders can use their expertise to broker contacts among communities. They also can provide “political space” by influencing policymaking.


Developing Policies, New Structures and Funding


– What policies and funding at the school, district and state levels should be changed to support the community’s role in schools more effectively? What are strategies for making such policy changes? Should the work of school and community be institutionalized through new structures? If so, what might they be?


Again, the issue of unequal power pervades the issues of structures, policies and funding. Unless parents are organized, they will be out-maneuvered. The challenges are to:


– Maintain a critical mass of organizers who are training parents, holding public officials accountable and getting results. Qualified talent is needed, but the pay for them is insufficient. Stable, diverse funding streams are necessary to provide parents with the support they need.


– Determine the proper role for government. The legislature can provide strategic entry points and a structure for meaningful social change. But we also must have an organized community to take advantage of this structure. Similarly, charter school legislation might strengthen the hand of community organizations, but it also could draw off support for systemwide change.


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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