The Case for Community Engagement
In education, we’re lucky, because we already have a strong foundation on which to build our work—the people who make up our communities. They’re our constant, even as superintendents change (on average every three years), school boards turn over (every five, on average), and teachers and principals move on. When communities work alongside districts and schools as full partners in student success, true change is possible. Research shows authentic community engagement leads to improved academic outcomes for students, combats absenteeism, and increases enrollment.
If you were building a house, you wouldn't neglect the foundation; you wouldn't install the windows or the doors without it. Unfortunately, folks who work in education too often neglect the foundation. We think of families and community members as passive bystanders instead of active participants in their children’s education—benefiting from our expertise, rather than experts in their own right.
Even when districts or individual schools make efforts to engage with the communities they serve, those efforts are often insufficient or misguided. Traditionally, “community engagement” has meant giving information to families—a one-way process—or asking for one-off feedback. This may be well-intentioned, but it fails to achieve the level of shared decision-making and ownership that can have a transformative effect on a school community. Even with these limited attempts at engagement, far too many critical education decisions are being made in mahogany-lined offices by people who have little if any connection to the communities they have the privilege of serving.
When we fail to foster truly collaborative, shared problem-solving that includes students, families, teachers, and community members alongside district and school leaders, we are wasting millions of dollars implementing programs that don’t last and leaving critical resources and assets on the table. What’s worse, we are missing critical opportunities to improve schools so that all of our students receive the support they need to succeed. Authentic community engagement is not a nice-to-have—it’s essential for our schools and our communities to thrive. So it must be a priority for education leaders at the policy, school, and classroom levels to develop the skills to do it right.
THE PILLARS OF COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT
TNTP’s community engagement work launched two years ago in an effort to learn about the current landscape of engagement efforts, articulate a new approach to engagement rooted in the very best work happening across the country, and help more districts and schools integrate effective engagement practices in their core work.
Over a year of observations, focus groups, and conversations with folks on all sides of the table, we’ve come to believe that authentic community engagement starts with four key ideas:
- Shared Vision: Communities and school systems must first work closely together to shape a common vision for student success and make sure that everyone—from teachers to parents to community leaders—have a role to play in that vision. For example, in Camden, New Jersey, district leaders spent a year gathering input from parents, students, and community members to build a strategic plan that truly captured the community’s priorities—and then followed up through an extensive feedback campaign the following year to make sure the district was meeting the community’s needs. In order to keep the priorities of students front and center, central office staff members were linked with individual students.
- Intentional Culture & Diversity: To build trust—especially in communities that have experienced divestment—schools must address bias, understand the unique context and assets of specific communities, and encourage the sharing of diverse perspectives. In Houston Independent School District, for example, more than 3,200 individuals worked together to select a new superintendent who was best positioned to meet the unique needs and culture of the district.
- Authentic Collaboration: Families and community organizations are critical to student success. Schools need to share data and resources that can help families and community organizations better support student learning outside of school. The director of an after-school program in Arkansas recently confided his frustrations with local schools. Through his program, which provides students with academic and extracurricular support, he builds trusting relationships with students and knows when they are struggling or frustrated. He is in a great position to collaborate with schools to help every student succeed. Yet he hasn’t been treated as a valued partner or ally by his students’ schools—or even respected as a professional.
- 360-Degree Communication: Sharing information regularly and transparently is critical, but it’s not enough. Schools must create meaningful opportunities for all voices to be heard—and families and communities need to know how their feedback was incorporated into decision-making. In Shelby County Schools in Memphis, Tennessee, the district brought parents, students, school employees, and community partners together over the course of six weeks to develop solutions to inequities they identified together.
THE COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT COMPASS
There are bright spots of authentic community engagement practices around the country. To support more districts in building strong community partnerships that will lead to better outcomes for kids, we’ve developed a diagnostic tool we call the Community Engagement Compass.
In districts where we’ve piloted the Compass, the process is surfacing a wide range of best practices for engagement, while also highlighting areas for improvement:
In Brevard County, Florida, which is diversifying rapidly, Brevard Public Schools recognizes that the community it serves is shifting, and welcomes that evolution. Brevard is a community where people care about their neighbors already—and they care about improving their schools, even if their own children are already grown and graduated. The new superintendent is eager to connect with the community, and launched a listening tour to build trust with families. And community engagement has become a fully integrated priority throughout the district, with a focus on collaboration between departments that partner with families. The district even created a new Partner in Education staff position, which helps schools establish and maintain business partnerships to benefit schools. The Compass report surfaced evidence of the district’s work to move away from one-off, top-down relationships to a comprehensive plan for authentic engagement that supports academic goals and reduces inequities, while also accounting for the district’s changing demographics.
In Durham, North Carolina, the city is blossoming. Durham Public Schools has invested substantially in improving engagement efforts over the past few years. Recently a task force of families and community members led an effort to revise the district’s student code of conduct, which resulted in substantial new investments in improving school culture. But there is still work to be done and trust to be built. The Compass surfaced opportunities to improve relationships between the school district and the growing Latinx community, build the capacity of principals and teachers to engage with families, and communicate a powerful story of Durham’s progress and potential. Perhaps most importantly, it’s time for the community to revisit their own vision for what’s possible in their schools. Where do they want to be in five years? What will it take to get there?
Authentic community engagement takes significant work and time. It goes far beyond surveys and one-off meetings. But these efforts shouldn’t be viewed as a burden. When districts and schools are engaging communities effectively, they are establishing an ongoing relationship with continual opportunities for feedback, celebration, and adaptation. When a district takes on the responsibility of creating pathways for truly engaged communities, they are telling families that they care about children. They are treating parents and caregivers as assets and allies in efforts to boost attendance, improve focus in the classroom, and ensure that every child receives a high-quality education that helps them unlock their unique gifts.
And if a community can come together to create sustainable change in their schools, why can’t they do the same to build stronger and more equitable communities beyond their schools, too? That’s the real promise and potential of the community engagement revolution. I can imagine that world. Now it’s time to start making it a reality.