In Pittsfield, New Hampshire, community members have been involved in articulating our schools’ values, vision, and mission; in developing our long-term plan for school redesign; in redefining our professional roles; in managing our continuous improvement systems; and more. Still, we’re missing the mark in creating spaces for deep and broad engagement for all our families and community members.
When recently discussing the responses to a district survey of faculty and staff on family engagement practices, our Family Engagement Team, composed of both community members and educators, recognized challenges that lie ahead in taking engagement a step deeper. Comments like “parents get in the way,” “families are not helpful,” and “no confidence in families” were sprinkled among more mostly-positive notions, despite the district’s many years of commitment to community engagement.
Once educators are on the job, they’re up to their ears in what they see as the central function of their work, which can simply reinforce their views of what it’s like to be a teacher in the first place—endless cycles of planning for instructing, assessing student progress, and re-planning based on identified new student needs. These views have been formed over a lifetime of observing their own teachers as well as experiences in their university education and internships/student teaching.
New teachers are often overwhelmed by the magnitude of their job and often struggle to keep up with even their day-to-day work with their students. Their assumptions about being a professional educator change slowly, even in the face of administrative demands to develop and maintain relationships with parents and family members. Even if family engagement makes rational and intuitive sense, it remains where it has always been for most educators: on the fringes.
In his perspective on twenty years of public engagement study, researcher Steve Farkas tells us that “the problem is a problem of democracy;” and admonishes that “when leaders are sure they have the right answer, they will regard citizens as a force to manage, not engage.” This is the familiar problem with visionary leadership that focuses solely on the “what” to the exclusion of the “how” of school redesign. And, by the way, who likes to be managed?
From the community’s side, Farkas sees an easy escape from citizen accountability: “when citizens regard public institutions merely as providers of services paid for with their tax dollars, responsibility for what those institutions will do will not be theirs.” In what Pope Francis refers to as our “throwaway society,” it’s increasingly easy to turn our backs on our perceived unwelcoming, unresponsive social institutions, and on potential sources of much-needed student support.
So, do we conclude that a no-fault divorce is in order because of our irreconcilable differences? Do we give up on deepening our mutual understanding and meaningful involvement in our students’ learning? Do we take a pass on accessing resources that can expand learning just because they lie outside our walls? Of course not, but the path to reconciliation will not be easy. So what’s needed?
In this case, leadership means influencing people on both sides of our school walls to alter their assumptions about family and community engagement. With leadership comes the necessity to concisely articulate the district’s philosophy by way of a formal policy that can also establish performance expectations. Certainly, these expectations will need to be supported by a range of resources, including learning opportunities for educators and family members, as well as time allocations to conduct this important work.
Model of Engagement
To actualize these so-far vague ideas, we’ll need to create or adopt a model of engagement and consider how it would be applied to our individual school settings. Epstein’s Six Types of Involvement is one model that may be adopted. Within this model, for example, we might create a menu of options for each Type. For example, “volunteering” could include opportunities for classroom volunteer readers for elementary grade students, mentors for middle grade students, and internships for high school grade students.
Once we have established a model with defined options, the potential for personalizing opens up. As a parent, my knowledge, availability, confidence, skill level, interest, and other factors influence my potentially partnering with my child’s teacher, school, or district. As we get to know each other, my child’s teacher or advisor and I can work together to make decisions about what my contribution will be. At the same time, my child’s administrator talks with members of civic groups – Rotary, Chamber of Commerce and others – to develop their personal plans of support.
In taking on this work, we can apply key concepts of student-centered learning to community engagement. Simply stated, we can move from disengagement to something much richer by developing relationships with families, showing them engagement options that best suit them, and developing a personal plan for engaging. Imagine the individual and community impact of a deliberate, thoughtful approach that brings engagement in from the fringes of a school and community’s work to the center of a student’s learning.
John J. Freeman is superintendent of Pittsfield Public Schools in Pittsfield, NH and a member of the Nellie Mae Speakers Bureau on Education Innovation.