Community engagement must be organic

September 13, 2013

Chad Wick

One way not to achieve effective parental and community engagement for school turnarounds is to mandate engagement into public policy. Community participation in school turnarounds needs to be organic. It must rise up from the grassroots to be successful.

To be sure, community and parental involvement have been lacking in too many schools in the United States, and that disengagement is certainly partly to blame for our struggling schools. The reasons are numerous and complex – and not necessarily a result of community disinterest. A decades-long disconnect may lie at the root of the problem. In his speech last week to the NAACP, Secretary Duncan rightly said turning around a struggling school is “hard, hard work, and there is no simple formula. The work must be shaped at the local level with all of the stakeholders at the table.”

KnowledgeWorks knows this from our high school transformation work in Ohio and other parts of the country. One of the most important aspects of school turnaround work involves authentic community engagement. This provides a structured framework for community members to understand and offer input on school transformation. At the outset, we saw the community and parents as equal partners in the school transformation process. There were opportunities for people to gather at comfortable locations and at a variety of times convenient for them. It was important to allow the community the time to make informed judgments by attending multiple meetings. When long-standing community disconnects were broken, honest, open dialogue occurred, and people who didn’t ordinarily interact with one another began to build common understanding. Some of our most remarkable school improvement success stories have occurred in areas with shrinking family incomes and decreases in family education attainment.

Clearly, the best schools in the United States are those where parents and the community are fully engaged with their schools. The most enlightened (and dynamic) communities are those that have finally moved past schooling rooted in old, industrial assumptions. Moving forward, we owe it to every child in every community to equip them with next-generation skills to compete with their global counterparts – whether they want to fix automobile engines or be brain surgeons. This cannot be accomplished if schools and parents are not acting as partners. Secretary Duncan is right to ask for more parental and community involvement to help the Department of Education make decisions on improving struggling schools, but that input should happen organically – not via federal mandate.