When I first got involved in community education I came across a very moving article written by William Carr. The author was creating a vision of how he saw schools were functioning in 1942. It was a picture of separation and lack of connections with the communities they served. Below is a segment taken from Carr’s work. As you read it think about how your schools might reflect some of these features today.
“Many schools are like little islands set apart from the mainland of life by a deep moat of convention and tradition. Across this moat there is a drawbridge which is lowered at certain periods during the day in order that the part-time inhabitants may cross over to the island in the morning and back to the mainland at night.
Why do these young people go out to the island? They go there in order to learn how to live on the mainland. When they reach the island, they are provided with a supply of excellent books that tell about life on the mainland. They read these books diligently, even memorizing parts of them. Then they take examinations on them.
Once in a while, as a special treat, the bus takes a few of the more fortunate or favored islanders on a hasty tour through the mainland itself. But it is very rare and is allowed to occur when the reading of the books about the mainland has been thoroughly completed.
I have shared this description of schools to hundreds of educators with the hope that they would begin to see the moats that have developed between their schools and their communities. The first time I read this I was shocked at how something could have been written in the year I was born and yet be a very accurate portrayal of too many schools in our communities today.
We are doing better as a result of finally understanding that schools and teachers could not get the job done alone. Community educators are in a strong position when it comes to draining the moat and keeping the lights on in our schools. But much remains to be done. More connections with the families of our students are needed for students to be successful in their education. More connections are needed with organizations, institutions and groups who can become partner with schools in removing the island pattern and creating community schools that mobilize the community’s rich resources.
Do you have any islands in your schools? Will the violence that has taken place in some of our school resurrect the moats in schools?
**“William Carr, Community Life in a Democracy, National Association of Parents and Teachers, Chicago, 1942.
1. Building a strong network – We have learned that we can’t do it alone. The issues that we must face in a community school are the kind of things that demand collaboration to bring together the resources that can help. Community education leaders should be key to developing a network that can develop that collaboration.
2. Developing family and community engagement – There is significant research that shows us that the stronger the engagement of families and communities in the education of children the more successful they will be. A community school must have a well planned process to build this engagement. The days of just having a PTA is all that was needed are gone. Community education leaders are in a good position to provide leadership to help developing strategies to get people and organizations engaged. You are the builders of links that can assist in the improvement of academic achievement for all children.
3. Establishing safe schools – For many years we all believed that schools were very safe places. With communities that have high rates of criminal behavior we have often found children and adults view their school as a safe place that was walled away from the rest of the community. We now know that schools are too often no longer havens for our children. Community education, with the establishment of a strong network, can bring together those resources that can work together to making sure that schools are places that can provide a safe atmosphere for students, teachers, and parents.
4. Leading the way to assessing the community strengths and needs – Someone has to lead the process of determining those critical needs that exists in communities and to identify the strengths that can be part of solving problems that come with needs. Frank Manley, an early leader in the development of community education in the U.S., was known to take rookie community education directors on a bus ride of each of the community school served. He would ask each of the individuals to tell him things they know about their community. He would ask who is the pastor at that church, who is in charge of the nearest police station, or where would you turn to find clothing for a student who comes to school poorly dressed. That knowledge was extremely valuable as needs became known. Too often a process of assessing community needs is put in place, but as often the idea of identifying community strengths. This is a rich area that we can address.
5. Demonstrate that you are a lifelong learner - As a community educator, be a living example for your colleagues and community members as an active participant in formal and / or informal learning opportunities. Take advantage of professional development opportunities through your local college or university. Participate in conferences, workshops, and webinars offered through your professional associations. Accept the challenge and learn with others as you earn your Administrative Competency Endorsement (ACE) offered through the Foundation for Community Education.
6. Get support from the top – If the community school is going to work in your community you must have the support of top school officials and school board members. This will take a concerted effort to keep them informed and involved. It is especially important to work with the school principal in developing proposals for new programs and the vision for the future.
7. Establish a process for measuring success – You need to develop a plan that will gauge. To do this you must have clear goals for what you are doing. Seek assistance from experienced professional who can work with your team to put in place a sound system of evaluation. Good solid data, showing progress you are making, will go a long way in establishing the value of community education. Without data you are very limited in building a strong community school.
8. Learn how to make use of the wide range of social media – We live in a technology driven society. More and more people are depending on this form of seeking resources and information. This can provide a powerful means to reach members of your community to keep them informed about what you are doing and the things you have to offer. It is also a good tool to seek ideas about needs that may exist.
9. Become efficient in obtaining funds to support your work – When budgets get tight we have observed that community education is one of the first programs to be cut back. Even in good times community education is often underfunded. There are many sources out there that provide funds to support the work we do. To become efficient you will need to learn how to keep abreast of the opportunities to apply for funds and learn how to put together a strong prospectus that will win awards for your program. The sustainability of community education is very dependent on obtaining funding beyond what is available in your local budget.
10. Make sure that the community members can have access to community school facilities – While there are many impartment dimensions to your work in community education it is very important to get people into your school buildings. Administrators are often very interested in how many people did you serve, and for good reason. A study done in Minnesota clearly shows that community members who participate in programs in their community school are more inclined to rate their schools highly and report them as well run. Building this kind of support will deliver rewards when it comes time to get political support for school budgets and elections to except bond issue to provide for needs in the school district.
While there are many tips that could join this collection of 10, we believe that effective community education leaders will find success by paying attention to them. From time to time we will be adding to this list to provide additional tools to advance your work.