School Isn’t Done TO People, It is Done WITH People

School isn’t done to people, it is done with people. Throughout my time as an educator from the high school classroom to the district office and beyond to the state educational agency, one principle has been consistent: educators, students, families, and the community must work together, as partners. Building meaningful partnerships doesn’t happen by chance; it requires a systematic approach to engagement. 

Over 50 years of summarized research links the impact of community and family engagement on the following student outcomes: 

  • Higher grades, test scores, and graduation rates
  • Better school attendance
  • Increased motivation and better self-esteem
  • Lower rates of suspension
  • Decreased use of drugs and alcohol
  • Fewer instances of violent behavior
  • Greater enrollment in post-secondary education (pta.org)

Yet, many districts are missing  a systematic approach for building and strengthening  partnerships with their families and communities. In a report published by Hanover Research in August, 2022, entitled: The Current State of School Climate in Public Schools, they found that only 50% of respondents agreed that their district modeled community engagement.

In this blog, we will explore strategies, insights, and best practices for cultivating robust partnerships between schools, families, and communities. Together, we can pave the way for student success as true partners.

School isn’t done to people, it is done with people. Inclusive partnerships require inclusive engagement. For inclusive engagement: develop an intentional engagement model and implement it consistently; partner with your Board to ensure all voices are heard; go to where your people are; and anticipate and create avenues for feedback. TeamWorks calls this type of inclusive engagement Partnership Leadership because it creates shared accountability for the system to meet the mission through trust, competence, transparency, and interdependency, and assumes that others are worthy of trust and can be relied upon to carry their own weight for the benefit of the whole. 

BE INTENTIONAL, BE INCLUSIVE

Develop an intentional, inclusive engagement model. An intentional and inclusive engagement model provides historically overlooked voices a seat at the table, creates better outcomes for both the school community and the community-at-large, and helps build long-term partnerships. When creating an inclusive engagement model consider the following: 

  • Language Access
    • To ensure language access, establish language-specific communication channels or resources, such as translated materials, multilingual events, or interpreters. 
  • ADA Accessibility
    • To prioritize ADA accessibility, ensure that engagement opportunities occur in locations with no physical barriers, have alternative formats for communication channels or resources, such as braille materials or sign language interpreters.
  • Digital Equity
    • To promote digital equity, ensure online platforms and resources are accessible to individuals with disabilities and provide alternative formats for communication, including in-person meetings or phone-based participation options. 
  • Geography and Location of impacted people
    • To consider geographical factors and locations, offer engagement opportunities both within the school premises and beyond the walls of the school into the community. Organize meetings and events in various neighborhoods or community centers to bring the resources and opportunities closer to the people you serve. 
  • Timing of engagement opportunities
    • To ensure that timing is not a factor, offer flexible timing to accommodate the varying needs of your community. Diversify the timing of events to include morning, afternoons, evenings, and weekends as well as virtual or asynchronous options.

Application: 

One example highlighting the importance of using an inclusive engagement model is evident in the 

findings of the MDE 2021-22 Minnesota Bilingual and Multilingual Seals Report. According to the report, Minnesota students and families represent more than 300 languages spoken in our communities. 2024 enrollment data further reveals that 84,050 students identify as multilingual learners. If our engagement system is not linguistically inclusive, then we are missing the opportunity to partner with families and entire communities. 

AMPLIFY VOICES FOR EQUITY

Partner with your board to ensure all voices are heard. It is critical to establish a shared commitment to inclusivity and to actively work together to prevent a single group from dominating the conversation. Prioritize transparency, implement mechanisms to purposely gather diverse feedback, encourage positive, proactive outreach efforts within the community, utilize the MDE equity magnifier, and TeamWorks Decision-Making Framework when making decisions that impact the community. 

Question to consider: 

As an education leader, what process do you and your board members purposefully employ to ensure that you are hearing from all interested parties? 

Application: 

While serving as the Director of Teaching and Learning for a school district, I utilized TeamWorks Decision-Making Framework to help me: think through the roles of the people who needed to be part of the decision-making process; identify the time needed to create a sound design for interested party voice; ensure people understood the decision process and their roles within it; and clarified the authority of choice-making versus participation in the process. 

BUILD BRIDGES

Go to where your people are. While the school setting can be a great place to engage with families and the wider community, it is important to acknowledge that everyone may not have positive associations with the school environment. To ensure that all voices are heard and respected, it is important to venture beyond the confines of the school campus and meet people where they are most comfortable. By going to where your people are, you create opportunities for authentic interactions and demonstrate a genuine commitment to understanding and their current lived experiences.

Application: 

When I worked in a school district, it became clear that not all students were able to engage in after 

school and summer academic programming because they had responsibilities at home. Given this, we created a program where staff went to specific apartment buildings and community centers in neighborhoods where there were higher concentrations of students who wanted academic support but couldn’t stay after school or come for summer programs. Students and families were thrilled to have the support of a teacher, and they loved that they had come to their home.

Home Visits are another example of a tool used in our district to get to know families and students, and to meet them in the setting in which they were most comfortable. Students were thrilled to have their teacher or principal come to their homes to see them, and it helped to create a solid foundation from which to build their ongoing relationship. 

PAVE PATHS

Anticipate and create avenues for feedback. Anticipate and create avenues for feedback for both internal community members, such as students, staff, and families, and external community members. Create multiple avenues for gathering feedback including surveys, community meetings, focus groups, and virtual forums. Consistency is key in maintaining effective feedback loops. Establish regular intervals for getting feedback, ensuring that opportunities for input are woven into the fabric of your engagement practices. 

Application: 

Houston ISD in Houston, TX, with nearly 200,000 students began implementing a rolling strategic 

feedback loop in 2023 called “pulse checks”. Learn more here

Building inclusive partnerships requires inclusive engagement. By embracing these principles of inclusive engagement, we can cultivate strong, collaborative partnerships that empower every member of our community to contribute meaningfully to our collective efforts of student success. School isn’t done to people, it is done with people. 

If you are interested in learning more about how to build inclusive partnerships through an Education Leadership System (ELS) ™, please feel free to contact me at heather@teamworks4ed.com.

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