Family and Community Engagement: The Critical But Often Missing Ingredient!
By Dr. Nancy Bolz, Director of the Kansas Learning First Alliance (KLFA)
As an educator for more than 30 years, mostly at the secondary level, in recent years I've acquired a new appreciation for family and community engagement! Not only have I recently become a parent, but my professional service has led me to better understand the need for both.
I adopted two beautiful little girls five years ago who are now in Kindergarten and 3rd grade. As a former high school principal, I thought we did a pretty nice job communicating with parents and the community...but then I began getting messages, notes, newsletters, emails, etc. From first the pre-school and now my girls' elementary school! Initially, I felt bombarded and overwhelmed just trying to keep up with all of it. However, now that I've been in this mom role for a little longer, I've come to not only appreciate but EXPECT good communication. I've only had a couple of incidents where I felt caught off guard by a lack of communication, and I immediately went about the business of finding out answers! So if there are bumps along the road for ME, both an informed educator/administrator and committed mom, you can imagine that lack of communication will create all sorts of chaos where there's less understanding of, and commitment to, the school system. That said, the school also faces a challenge in finding the right balance for effective communication! Gather information about how stakeholders prefer communication, and then create messaging that is understandable and not overwhelming.
When I served as a high school principal before the turn of the century (that really wasn't that long ago), we were really pressing for authentic learning experiences and innovation, so we partnered with High Schools That Work and NCA (North Central Association, now renamed AdvancED) to provide a framework for our work. After their review of our efforts, one of their recommendations was to do a better job telling the public about all of the wonderful programs and initiatives we had in our school. After so many hours spent on coordination and implementation, my initial response was "Isn't it enough that we're doing all this with our students??" And after gaining some perspective, the answer to that was clearly "NO!" If you want people to support you, they have to know about what's going on. So is your job done once you've shared all of that information with them and perhaps even gathered their input? Again, the answer is clearly "NO!"
Perhaps you've noticed that I've only discussed communication thus far and the title includes the word "engagement." What we know now is that just talking at/to people is helpful primarily to ensure they're informed, but to create a truly authentic educational environment for our students, both parents and the community must get directly involved. Here again the challenge is for the school to find a good balance. How do you mobilize beyond your Site Council or the core members of PTO who typically do the lion's share of the work? How do you encourage businesses to open their doors for students to shadow or come share their expertise and/or knowledge with your students? The answer is and has always been...one conversation at a time.
Years ago, someone shared with me anecdotally that research supports that the best way to get people involved is through personal invitation. Since then, I have tried to make it my practice to individually contact people and ask for their involvement. In practice, these personal invitations must be done with intention to ensure effective and quality engagement from the wider community. Sure, you still want to put a notice in the newsletter or on your website to be inclusive, but frequently those net very little in return. That's why Kansas Learning First Alliance (KLFA) is committed to starting the conversation. As a coalition, we created a 30 minute presentation (PowerPoint, handouts, website) to both share critical information about our schools and connect education to the impact it has on local economics. Our organizational representatives are sharing this message and engaging local school boards and community organizations in a conversation about how they might partner with their schools and support their work.
So how about a New Year's resolution? Start a strategic grassroots effort to engage your local community in building substantive partnerships. Get them involved in the student learning process, and make it mutually beneficial through offering them a way to give back. Everyone, especially students, wins when effective partnerships and collaboration are part of the educational experience.
Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.