We expect a lot from our public schools especially those that serve urban communities. At times, it may be argued that schools play too great a role and that families and communities ought to exert greater ownership in teaching children and providing the affirmation and support that children need to be successful.
The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving supports some of the region’s most challenged school districts in their work with their communities and families to support student success. The Hartford Foundation’s Education Investments team hosted more than 90 educators, community nonprofit staff, and parent leaders at the Courtyard by Marriott in Cromwell in a discussion about new ways to approach community-school relations. School district, nonprofit and resident teams from Bloomfield, East Hartford, Hartford, Manchester, Vernon, Windsor and Windsor Locks who currently are engaged in family, school, community partnership work supported by the Foundation made up a significant portion of the participants. Keynote speaker Dr. Brian C.B. Barnes, co-founder and CEO of TandemEd, stressed that in order for this work to be successful; it must be led and embraced by community residents who will identify the needs of their community and how best to meet them.
Entitled “An Alternative Lens on Community-School Relations,” Barnes’ presentation provided an historical context for the discussion focusing on data showing that while the movement to desegregate schools successfully increased educational resources for black students, it also produced some significant losses in terms of major reductions in black teachers and education leaders along with loss associated with community identity and leadership.
Barnes discussed how prior to desegregation many of the roles and responsibilities in defining children’s identity, providing for their social-emotional support and academic needs, and engaging families were led by the community with schools still playing an important role. With desegregation, many of these leadership roles became centered in public schools, the community’s role was diminished, and people became less engaged in educational efforts. According to Barnes, this situation created the perception that youth, families and the community do not have the care, capacity or authority to be leaders of their own education.
Barnes proposed reversing this dynamic by putting the community back at the center of the varied roles that are necessary to sustaining and supporting young people’s educational excellence. Barnes stated that restoring leadership back into the hands of the community and creating a stronger community identity would lead to a stronger identity and sense of self for youth, resulting in increased student motivation, attendance, and participation, ultimately fostering academic excellence. Barnes emphasized that these efforts are in addition to the necessary work of improving school quality, advocating for and developing effective policies and mitigating the effects of poverty.
While this work must be community-led, Barnes also identified four broad areas where schools can exhibit community responsiveness. Barnes believes the first area is the most crucial and lays the foundation for the other focus areas.
Area 1: Incorporation of Community Values and Initiatives into Messaging and Instruction
Champion cultural relevant pedagogy and curriculum (baseline).
Incorporate real-time cultural and community-specific values and purposes into programs, content, motivational speeches, classroom/hallway art, quotes, images, etc.
Align projects and lessons with community initiatives and foci (e.g., math for entrepreneurship, science for green environment, history for self-determination).
Area 2: Community Presence and Public Affirmation & Investment in Community Leadership
Show leadership and school presence at community-wide events.
Maintain, at all times, a positive and asset-based public narrative of the community. Refrain from indulging any narrative that places you as the sole or primary change agent for the entire community.
Invest, when possible, in community-based businesses and vendors.
Area 3: Leadership-Affirming Communication to Students, Parents, and Partners
Communicate with students and parents through listening-oriented venues, meetings, and sessions.
Push partners to expand services and direct contact with youth and families outside of the school setting.
Area 4: Professional Development and Hiring for Aligned Mindset and Practice
Recruit, retain, and hire teachers and staff with requisite mindset.
Provide professional development on community responsiveness, parent engagement, and cultural competency.
Promote professional development and learning in community-based settings.
Many of those in attendance expressed their appreciation for highlighting some of the dynamics that continue to challenge communities in terms of community leadership and developing a healthier relationship between a community and schools. Many people were particularly concerned about this situation in communities of color where those teaching and leading schools are not from the community and do not share the same cultural and economic backgrounds. Many people were inspired by this new way of approaching community-school relations but were clearly challenged by how to actually to restore authentic community leadership where years of disenfranchisement and marginalization has made it difficult to engage residents and make positive changes. Barnes responded that this work is incredibly challenging but there are neighborhood leaders who already exist in our communities and with support can help to lead these efforts.