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Without Families and Communities, School Reform Will Not Work Long-Term

This week, Rick is off talking about his forthcoming book, Letters to a Young Education Reformer. Letters won't be officially released until late April, but you can learn more about it here and order an advance copy here. While Rick is away, we've got an illustrious line-up of guest stars. This week, Irvin Scott, Senior Lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education, will be guest-blogging.

In 2008, Boston Public Schools, like many urban school systems, faced a runaway dropout crisis. As the Assistant Superintendent of High Schools, it was left to myself and my team to craft a strategy to turn the tide. I'm pleased to say in 2009 and all subsequent years, the dropout rate declined and graduation rates soared. What was the one key ingredient to our strategy? Engaging the community!

The bottom line is we're in this together. No matter how much we education reformers may think we can usher in deep and sustainable change through a combination of generous funders, great people, brilliant strategy, and relentless performance management, if the "people" don't include members of the communities we serve, the impact will only last so long and only go so deep.

Successful teachers understand the importance of engaging parents and realize that parents can be their best allies. My experience has shown me that parents and community members want what they believe is best for their children. Most desire safe, loving schools where their children can thrive and grow. If we allow them to help us co-create that type of school—no matter what type of school you choose to call it—they will trust you us.

There are four ways educators can successfully cultivate a deep connection to the community, considering parents at the forefront: 1) Build relational trust, 2) Engage and make investments in communities, 3) Consider the power of faith-based networks, and 4) Utilize an engagement continuum: Awareness, Understanding, Ownership, Leadership, and Innovation (AUOLI).

Relational Trust

One way to ensure a deep connection to the community is through building what Anthony Bryk calls relational trust. When I was a principal, I received my first copy of the book Trust in Schools. Today, it remains one of my favorite educational books. Bryk lays out an argument with supporting evidence regarding the vital role trust plays in the effectiveness of schools—particularly in low-income communities. And while the book focuses on building trust within schools, I'll go further to say a similar urgency of developing trust can and must be built between communities and systems of schools—whether they be districts or charter management organizations.

This emergence of education nonprofits over the past few years—which are composed of think-tanks, foundations, technical assistance providers, and tool developers—has led to an infusion of talent and innovation into the field of education. There are enormous benefits to these efforts, as old challenges will be afforded new perspectives and solutions. At the same time, it is critical that these new actors gain and maintain relational trust amongst stakeholders by seeking a deep understanding of and companionship with the communities they seek to serve. My colleague Karen Mapp talks about going beyond simply providing services to these communities, and instead having these communities co-construct solutions that they can own.

Investment and Engagement

Once trust is established, it's critical to understand that families and communities—including schools—will still be there once an infusion of money, talent, and ideas departs. The metaphor that comes to mind relates to my family; specifically, I'm reminded of what happened when our sons were born. On the days leading up to and shortly after their births, there was an outpour of celebration and excitement, complete with baby showers, gifts, cards, accolades, and well wishes. Shortly after the celebration and visits, everyone went home, leaving my wife and me with the day-to-day work of raising our three boys into great men. I am not saying there's anything wrong with this, it's just something for education reformers to remember as we go into schools and communities to "help." We "drop in"; they stay.

I'm excited to see foundations and nonprofits who seem to understand this deeply. For example, engaging deeply with communities appears to be a key focus of the Zuckerberg charity pledge. You can also see and hear it in NewSchools Venture Fund's call to reimagine 7,000 schools in America over the next 10 years. And this deep connection to communities is front and center in the vision of Carmita Vaughn, the founder and CEO of Surge Institute. Brian Barnes and Dorian Burton penned a very important blog on this issue, and it's well worth reading.

Look to Faith-based Networks

Faith-based networks within communities afford a unique opportunity for rich engagement. Like many Black and Hispanic people, I grew up in a rich faith tradition. My father and mother raised us in the Church of God in Christ tradition. And like so many children then and today, faith and spirituality are a huge part of my identity. However, there were few times when I felt that identity was understood or embraced by my school. And the one or two times when it happened are emblazoned in my memory as though it was yesterday.

Once, when I was in fifth grade, my father was asked to provide the invocation at the dedication of our newly built elementary school, Thaddeus Stevens Elementary School. At the same event, I was asked to accompany our fifth grade chorus on the drums—something I did every Sunday in my father's church, but for the first time in school that day. This represented a merger of two worlds which had been, until this point, miles apart.

Interestingly enough, I continued the work of merging these two worlds when I became a teacher and directed the J.P. McCaskey Gospel Choir in Lancaster, PA. This choir, which still exists today, allows students to come together to learn and embrace the musical, artistic expression through a medium often deeply embedded in their cultural, social, and racial identity. I'm very excited about organizations like The Expectations Project and United for Hope in Nashville, TN., which are finding innovative ways to bridge the gap between faith and education, while respecting and adhering to the separation of church and state.

Engagement Continuum

Finally, we should consider operating on the AUOLI continuum. An acronym for Awareness, Understanding, Ownership, Leadership, and Innovation, this is a great next step for enacting change. This continuum is a helpful framework for thinking about engaging stakeholders and community members. Normally, we might think of this framework from the perspective of our seats in the organization. We ask: How do we ensure that stakeholders aware of our mission, vision, and strategy for improving students' outcomes? How do we move them to understanding and, from there, move them to ownership—all the way to where they are leading and providing new and innovative ways to address their own challenges?

It's also important to flip these questions around and apply them to the communities we serve, to ask how aware are we of the real challenges facing individual communities and their members—not just educational challenges, but housing issues or health care concerns and needs, among others. Also, we should be asking not just about the challenges, but also the assets and opportunities. Do we truly understand them in a way that builds our credibility with the community? Can we articulate those challenges in a way that communicates authentic empathy and ownership? Then, and only then, can we truly lead and innovate in a way that has the potential to generate results.

I recently picked up another of my favorite education books, John Stanford's Victory in Our Schools. Stanford was the former superintendent of Seattle Public Schools and suffered an untimely death after battling cancer. His story is empowering because he showed that it's possible to lead an entire a community to high standards and love for students. He knew that, while this approach to Seattle's children had to come more from the school district, it would ultimately require collective impact by the entire community. I'm convinced this is still possible—and that it is another key to real progress.

At a time of division and turmoil in the country, it's time for educators, funders, nonprofit leaders, and anyone else who believes in the power of schooling to transform lives, to engage deeply with those communities we have the privilege to serve, and to make sure their vision is one we are working towards—together.

—Irvin Scott

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