Ben Davis is a School Reform Blogging Fellow.

When you think about improving education, what comes to mind? Raising test scores? Yes. Strengthening classroom instruction? Certainly. An enhanced curriculum? Probably. These represent largely “in-school” solutions; yet, what happens before and after the school day are equally as important. As I noted previously, to no surprise research shows that sometimes learning gains from the school year are lost come summer. But what about learning gains during each school day?

While Minnesota and many districts debate testing reform–which could lend to better information on how individual students track throughout the school year–I also believe schools and communities can exercise stronger communication to maximize daily student learning.

My local school district in Sartell, Minn., recently demonstrated the need for school-community communication. The superintendent set ambitious goals, including replacing spring break with extended weekends. This goal–and others like it that extend school days or years–is necessary to close achievement gaps and advance student learning. However, because these goals can change long-established practices–e.g., summer vacation–we’ll assuredly debate them at the school boards and capitol. Although the idea to replace spring break was generated by a teacher in the school district, the superintendent received the blame for its implementation. Regardless, many community members felt like their opinion had not been taken into consideration.

This anecdote of a disconnect between a school and the greater community is somewhat common, and typically, no party is explicitly wrong. Teachers should suggest changes to the district. Superintendents should pursue ideas that optimize student performance—even if they are controversial at face value. Community members should want to be informed about the happenings in the school district before the events happen. In other words, everyone was doing what he or she should be doing. The problem was communication—or perhaps a lack of it.

Stronger district-parent communications and engagement lends to dynamic environments where students are driven to succeed.

But what do these community and school partnerships look like?

Joyce Epstein, director of the Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University, suggests creating an “Action Team for Partnerships.” It includes two teachers, two community members, two others in the community who represent a link between the school and community (e.g., a social worker or a business partner) and, in the case of high school teams, two students. These teams discuss and collectively tackle two academic goals, one behavior goal and one goal about improving the “climate” of the school. Epstein finds that including a third party is often helpful to ensuring that the school and community are more comfortable sharing their respective concerns. (More steps to her plan here.)    

As a recent student, I’ve learned that open dialogues from the beginning are also optimal for student success over the K-12 continuum. Beginning with preschool, families should inform schools of the backgrounds, goals and cultural requirements of the families. Schools should pool and analyze this data in order to communicate with families ways to set home conditions that maximize what the child is learning in school. This would include involving parents with homework activities and goal setting with their child.

Other groups, such as AchieveMpls, are demonstrating success at not only strengthening parent engagement, but also involving the business community in more strategic, meaningful ways. Local businesses can offer their resources and expertise to schools and students.

Communication between schools and communities is essential to advancing student learning. So, Minnesota communities, I challenge you. Get involved in the future of your schools!

What schools or school districts have you seen exercise strong parent and community engagement, and what did it look like?

Ben Davis is a School Reform Blogging Fellow.


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