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What Would Real Community Engagement Look Like?

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By: Preston Smith

It was a late night in April, after a long, warm San Jose day leading a local district school as the principal; I was now at a student recruitment event at a local church. During that entire year I had led my district school as principal during the daytime hours (it would end the year as the fourth best elementary school for low income students in the entire state of California) and then in the evenings and late nights, I would meet with prospective families and students for the charter school that we were opening in a mere four months.

On this evening, only one family arrived. It would be a slow recruitment night, but every student and family matters.

Maria had come this evening with her son, who was sick. He lay on the floor, moaning while his mother sat across the table from me--wary and dubious. She immediately began to pepper me with questions about the quality of the school and why I was doing this. I could immediately sense the challenges within this family as well as her deep mistrust of the public education system.

Over the next four months, as we worked to open Rocketship, we would continue to host parent meetings and community events. We would bring together the families of newly enrolled students so that they could begin to build a new community with each other and school staff, hear each other's stories, and get to know one another beyond solely our kids and their academic progress. Through home visits conducted by school staff with every family and monthly community meetings, Maria built trust with me and with our larger school community. She knew that her son was not merely another student and that we also cared about her story--as a person, as a mom.

Maria joined in the parent collaboration necessary to help launch a successful Rocketship school. Our parents help name our schools, participate in teacher interviews and selection, learn about the budget and provide valuable input and insight on school priorities. Beyond this foundational engagement, we invest in the innate leadership in each parent and train them to become powerful advocates for student achievement and excellence. We encourage them to meet with local public officials and to learn more about the public systems impacting their lives.

Rocketship's mission is to eliminate the achievement gap. We know this goal can only be achieved if we have a much broader base of parents in our country who see themselves as civic leaders with the tools to improve their local community, holding local school systems accountable to making sure all students succeed. At Rocketship, we are continuing to invest in parent leadership so that not only our students, but also their parents, are supported, inspired, and equipped to be agents of change.

Maria has grown and evolved in her leadership over the years. Since that first night that we met, she has now realized her own voice and confidence with her family and son. Maria's son is now in high school and she shared with me that during a recent road trip, they discussed where he wanted to go to college. She is incredibly proud of him, but I could also see the pride she has developed in herself, the sense of value and connection that had been nurtured through her deep engagement in the Rocketship community.

By taking the time to build a real relationship with parents like Maria and encouraging them to see their own leadership capacity, schools can become catalysts of broader community transformations.

The Smart Cities blog series catalogs innovations in learning in America's great cities. We're writing a book about what we're learning-- and you can help.

Preston Smith co-founded Rocketship Education in San Jose with John Danner in 2006. Prior to founding Rocketship, Smith was founder and Principal of L.U.C.H.A. Elementary School, part of the Alum Rock Unified School District in San Jose, CA. After its first three years of operation, L.U.C.H.A. was the fourth highest performing low-income elementary school in California. Smith began his career in education as a Teach for America Corps (TFA) member at Clyde Arbuckle Elementary School (CA). In 2003, Preston was named "Teacher of the Year" at Arbuckle and was also nominated as one of six finalists for TFA's Sue Lehmann award, given to TFA corps members with the highest classroom academic gains in the nation. Preston is also an Aspen New Schools Fellow.

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