School-Community Engagement: 5 Steps to Creating Impactful Partnerships
You’ve most likely heard the proverb “it takes a village to raise a child.” We could also say that “it takes a community to raise a school.”
When we think about “community” in schools, we’re often looking through the lens of our students, faculty, staff, and our families, working to create engagement and a sense of belonging among these groups. However, there’s another key group that’s part of your school family—the community organizations, local businesses, government-led entities, event organizers, and affinity groups that are located in your neighborhood and district.
There are plenty of benefits in partnering with these organizations and stakeholders. A critical element of next-generation learning is that students are able to connect with, learn from, and contribute to the world around them. Connecting with community partners is a great way to harness the expertise that exists in your backyard. Collaborating with them might also be an opportunity to meet the needs of your students and staff that may otherwise go unmet. Building these relationships is also a step toward a community-centric idea of schools—where there’s equal thought given to how a school can contribute to a community and vice versa.
A critical element of next-generation learning is that students are able to connect with, learn from, and contribute to the world around them. Connecting with community partners is a great way to harness the expertise that exists in your backyard.
If you haven’t had the chance to explore opportunities for fostering meaningful community partnerships in your school or district—or you’d like to refocus your efforts for the school year ahead—these five actions will give you a jump-start. For a full list of innovative strategies, read our series: Innovative Ways to Create a Positive School (and District) Culture.
Audit your community resources and identify opportunities to partner
It’s tough to know what types of community partnerships can be explored if you aren’t aware of what’s out there. One great way for school leaders to find out more about the resources at their disposal is to conduct a community resource audit.
Within your school district, research—or have a member of your staff research—all of the local businesses, nonprofit and social service organizations, neighborhood associations, after-school programs, government entities, and libraries that are located in your district. Separately, begin to identify the needs that exist in your school, whether it’s something that you’d like to offer as part of your curriculum that can’t be offered currently or a service you’d like to provide your students and families. After you conduct these two audits, see where there might be connections to fuel student success.
For example, if there’s a credit union in your district, would it be possible to partner with them on financial literacy courses for your middle and high school students? Is there a way to work with a handful of small and corporate business partners on a series of career workshops to get students of all ages to contemplate what their future could look like? Don’t be afraid to think big at this stage. And consider what a partnership might look like through the lens of these organizations—how can your school contribute to their “big picture”?
Take a “community walk”
Once you’ve done your research, take the time to create authentic bonds with the organizations and businesses you’ve identified as high-priority partners by meeting them in person. Consider a distributed leadership approach to getting started with these conversations by forming a community partnerships team comprised of faculty, staff, and even parent volunteers. Start reaching out to the groups you believe would have a mutual interest in working together.
When you and your team meet with these organizations, be sure to share your vision for what a school community partnership might look like between them and your school. Engage in conversation around what their thoughts are, whether they’ve embarked on similar initiatives before, and what they’re looking for in a school partner. And ask them for their honest thoughts on how the school can better contribute to the community.
While it would be wonderful to walk away from these meetings ready to work together, remember that the goal of these conversations is to build a foundation for the future. Make sure the discussion ends with an open invitation to connect and agree to follow up within a certain time frame.
Define a shared vision for the partnership
Just as your school has a shared vision for moving toward a mutual goal, any partnership you embark on with a community organization should align with their mission—and yours, too.
A great example of this comes from Rommel Loria, the former Director of Civic Engagement at The Park School in Baltimore. One of the initiatives he planned while at the school was with a nearby senior living community. He arranged a series of visits between his school’s first-graders and the community’s residents. The students had the opportunity to build positive, educational relationships with residents by reading to them, talking with them, and listening to their stories. At the same time, the school was also able to support the community’s mission by providing an enriching activity for its senior residents.
Just as your school has a shared vision for moving toward a mutual goal, any partnership you embark on with a community partner should align with their mission—and yours, too.
Identifying opportunities where both sides of the partnership win make it easier to collaborate on additional initiatives in the future.
Start small, then expand
When you find a great community partner fit, it can be tempting to make a splash and immediately start working to roll out something big. If this partnership is going to impact your students, what’s the sense in delaying?
We know that the school year ahead, while different from the past two school years, won’t be a normal one. You might find that you lack the time and resources for a full-scale initiative. So, start with a test partnership.
Maybe your vision is a large after-school program where you partner with several community organizations to offer options for your students based on their interests. Try a scaled-down version with two to begin. Perhaps with the pandemic, you’ve seen an uptick of students and families who are working through a crisis or have non-academic needs. You might begin by partnering with your local housing authority on one aspect of those needs before you expand to others.
The people and organizations in your local communities have plenty of experience and expertise—and tapping into this expertise can have reciprocal benefits for your school, students, and community for years to come.
Evaluate and communicate partnership progress and challenges
As you lock in your partnerships, make sure you’re also weaving in consistent opportunities for evaluation of the partnership’s effectiveness. You’ve chosen these partners because of their fit with the current needs of your school, teachers, staff, and families—and an evaluation process is important to make sure the assumed fit is the right one.
Similarly, work with your community partners to create a mutual communication plan to share progress, successes, and challenges. Doing this will not only create awareness and transparency among your school community, but it can also serve as a blueprint for how to ensure success for future partnerships.
Schools don’t need to educate alone
While a school is certainly responsible for a large portion of your student learning, schools and districts can’t, and shouldn’t, operate in isolation. The people and organizations in your local communities have plenty of experience and expertise—and tapping into this expertise can have reciprocal benefits for your school, students, and community for years to come.