Parents and community members now sit on site-based decision-making committees that determine curricular materials, budgetary expenditures, staffing, building usage and scheduling, discipline procedures, professional development for staff, school programs, and technology utilization. This public involvement has led to fundamental changes within the school community. As leaders for change, we have learned that revamping systems, policies, and structures invigorates the community and encourages change in practice at the school level. In addition, our responsive learning culture attracts and develops new parent and community leaders who can carry on the work of articulating and leading change processes. Our hope for continuing improvement in student achievement rests in the belief that engaging the voices of parents, community members, teachers, and students will ensure that this generation of learners meets the high standards that will carry them successfully into the twenty-first century.
Successful, high-performing schools have specific and identifiable traits that contribute to their success. Common among these are high standards, sufficient staff supported by meaningful professional development, adequate resources, and community and parent involvement. So, if we know what makes a school successful, why do some schools have all these things, while others do not? The answer is: Leadership. Time-honored leadership is needed in many spaces of public life – and most especially in our public schools. While I am not a scholar of leadership, I have learned what a good leader is like. Effective leaders in the public school setting – including parents – are risk-takers. To those of us struggling to garner support for and improve the public schools, these persistent risk-takers are nothing short of refreshing. Where civic engagement around public schools is happening, more often than not communities are being galvanized because of risk-taking leaders willing to stand up for public education. This means more than just standing up against the status quo; it means offering a new vision – and a new path – for better schools. The evolution of leadership roles in corporate America offers some interesting and promising lessons for public school advocates. One study conducted in the early eighties approached leadership from the perspective of “followers” rather than the leaders themselves. The premise was that if you could figure out why people followed certain leaders, then you could teach those leadership qualities to others. I believe these attributes and tactics are applicable to public school advocates, be they parents, civic leaders, or educators themselves. There are five steps leaders must undertake. We also encourage district leadership, school board members, principals, and teachers to adopt a mindset of leadership to effect change in the schools. Consider the implications for school improvement and civic engagement:
- Challenge the process. a. Search for opportunities. b. Experiment and take risks.
- Inspire a shared vision. a. Envision the future. b. Enlist others.
- Enable others to act. a. Foster collaboration. b. Strengthen others.
- Model the way. a. Set the example. b. Plan small wins.
- Encourage the heart. a. Recognize individual contributions. b. Celebrate accomplishments.
I would wager that there are many, many individuals and organizations who are celebrating significant accomplishments because a leader among them was first willing to “challenge the process.” As part of our ongoing effort to track and analyze emergent trends, key lessons and findings, and common themes, we highlight news of interesting work being done in schools and communities across the country.
Fostering dialogue around school change is a difficult task, especially when communities have no history of convening diverse groups of stakeholders for such conversation and action. Parents and educators are committed to solving problems together, in education and other key areas.
What Makes a Quality Public School?
- College– and career-readiness.
A quality public school must graduate students from high school who are prepared for college and a career.
- High expectations for every student
Quality public schools recognize that all students can learn, and provide the tools, support and connections students need to reach their full potential.
- Parent and community support
Parents and community members are actively engaged in supporting their schools in constructive ways. They hold school officials and themselves accountable for results.
- Qualified teachers in every classroom
Highly qualified teachers who benefit from continuous professional development strengthen teaching and learning.
- Rigorous curriculum and fair assessments
A rigorous instructional program tied to high standards builds student knowledge and strengthens critical thinking skills, while fair assessments monitor progress and truly measure what students know and can do.
- Sufficient resources that help all students achieve
Student achievement is the measure of school success. Resources and teaching strategies are tied to this goal at quality public schools.
- Safe, healthy and supportive learning environment
Safe, sound facilities and student enrichment activities create an environment where students can learn and grow.
- Schools and classrooms equipped for teaching and learning
Students and staff have access to timely, relevant resources including up-to-date textbooks and current technology.
- Strong school leadership
Principals are empowered to lead and make informed decisions that promote learning at the school level.
Community asset mapping will help you define your community, determine what assets are available to help improve local education and quality of life, and help match needs and assets. The first step–defining a rural school community–requires planners to think beyond just the school district. You must also consider where people work, shop, go to church, and go to relax. Consider a reasonable area of daily travel and commerce by parents of school children. If you are dealing with an elementary school, where do those children attend high school and work after graduation? While the tradition of close relationships between schools and communities has deep roots, the forces of economic globalization, school consolidation, and teacher and administrator professionalization divided schools from communities during much of the twentieth century. In the past 15 to 20 years, though, there have been considerable efforts to reconnect schools and communities. At least three trends—global economic restructuring that has damaged some rural communities, devolution of federal powers to states and communities, and systemic school reform—offer schools and communities opportunities to form new and renewed relationships. At the same time, the practice of community development has changed. Many community development practitioners no longer bring in experts from outside the community; rather, they come to communities and listen to what residents have to say. Instead of focusing solely on problems, practitioners now examine how community assets can be used to improve the quality of life. The decline of many areas suggests that schools and communities need to work together for their mutual survival. Schools can offer needed leadership and by sharing resources, schools and communities can meet the standards of school reform while meeting the needs of community members.
In generating a profile, you’ll need to do the following:
– Collect basic information about the community, such as population, nature of households, educational attainment, ethnic characteristics, and income levels.
– Review the school improvement plan.
– Prepare a profile of school and community partnerships designed to strengthen academic learning.
– List community resource agencies that work with the school or are potential partners.
Here are some suggestions that might help you describe existing school and community characteristics related to academic achievement:
– Describe academic programs in your school, using available test scores, grade distributions, course selection booklets, and class enrollments to make your points.
– Describe the kinds of community activities that already support academic achievement in your school.
– Define how community engagement might strengthen your existing school improvement plan.
– Such a definition is crucial for understanding the school’s relationship to various parts of the community, for determining potential partners, and for developing strategies to reach out to the various school stakeholders.
An inventory or a “map” of the community resources needs to be developed. Once this map has been established, it can be beneficial for two different purposes: to determine areas of opportunity and need and to move to action once a need or goal is identified. The inventory defines six different kinds of assets: individual, institutional, federal and state, organizational, physical, and cultural. Use this list to help you draw up a list of these assets for your community. Then you can begin a discussion of how they can be used to bolster academic achievement and how the school can help build the community’s assets. Many of the individuals and organizations listed, as well as the physical assets, can be incorporated into curricular and extracurricular activities. Your community may have additional assets not mentioned here. Also, put yourselves in the shoes of students. Hop on a school bus and follow the daily route, stopping at all of the stops. Consider asking the questions suggested above along the way. Consider some other questions: How long does it take to get from one end of the route to the other? Does the distance from the school pose problems for students who must ride the route every school day? Does distance from the school have anything to do with getting and keeping people from the community involved in the school?