In one of my blogs, I shared my thoughts on the importance of building relationships within the school with a commitment to follow up with a Part 2 focusing on relationships outside the school. Over the past 20 years, I have had the opportunity to work with community partners in a variety of capacities. I have also learned that among school districts, buildings, and classrooms – school/community partnerships range from doors wide open to closed with a lock on the front door. No question there has to be a balance, but it is important to err on the side of an open-door policy than closed.
There are many reasons given for keeping the community at arm’s length. Security, fear the school day will be disrupted, legal liability, and concerns about confidentiality are often at the top of the list. Each of these issues is legitimate, but not insurmountable. Developing well-defined parameters for engagement is important. But it is also important to keep in mind that there are many wonderful people in your community wanting to help, they just need to be given the opportunity.
A mistake schools often make is asking for support, usually financial, when we need it. There have been few times in my career that a local business or organization didn’t step up and help during those times. However, the message we are sending with consistency can easily be interpreted as, “Don’t call us, we will call you when we need you.”
There are many benefits and unintended positive consequences of engaging the community in the schools. At a site level, new resources are brought to the table. When parents, educators, businesses, human service agencies, and churches (Yes…they can be involved too AND it is legal.) sit down together at the same table to talk about kids good things happen. A few thoughts to consider…
1. The Sleeping Giant
Faith-based organizations’ greatest asset is their people. They are mission-driven and are full of individuals who are seeking ways to give back to the community. Does this mean they will be preaching to the kids at school? No. That isn’t legal, BUT as a local minister in Joplin put it, “We know we can’t be the voice of God in our schools, but we can be the hands and feet of God by supporting our children and educators.” I often refer to churches as “The Sleeping Giant.” When given the opportunity they will respond quickly to the needs of the school once a partnership is formed. Mentors and volunteers within these mission-driven organizations are ready and willing to help.
I learned quickly that treasure doesn’t necessarily mean monetary resources. In fact, some of the best “treasures” that have been brought to the table are not monetary. Volunteers knitting stocking caps for needy kids in preparation for the winter, organizations donating school supplies, human service agencies bringing untapped local resources to support children and families, service organizations taking on special projects – the list goes on. The point is that there are many giving hearts in your community that have treasures to offer. Although it doesn’t look like cash, these treasures are priceless.
Community complacency towards our schools has come about as a result of decades of schools pulling down the blinds and shutting the doors. This lack of transparency has resulted in speculation about what really happens inside our schools. This approach to community engagement is primarily responsible for the challenging education policy climate we are living in today. Educators have to advocate and fend for themselves when political forces drive policy that we know is bad for kids. Unfortunately, when our doors are closed and our windows are covered, we have no one but ourselves to articulate the good things that are happening in our schools, as well as the challenges and potential solutions. I would ask you to think on this for a second. Do you think the political tides could turn if the neighbor next door to a state or federal lawmaker was in your schools regularly to see the good work of educators as they work with kids from all walks of life? What would happen if in your community you had dozens or even hundreds of volunteers working in different capacities supporting your children and the good work of educators?
Ultimately the purpose of opening the doors of our schools is to move our communities from complacency to action and from action to advocacy. In this era of limited resources and high accountability, I’d encourage educators and school leaders to take that first step and open the doors…even if it is just a crack. You might be surprised to find what is waiting for you on the other side of the door, prepared to help.