Case studies & research: School success takes a community
While “educational community” and “school community” are time-honored terms, a better description of traditional school culture would be “silos beside silos.” Teachers often know little about students beyond their academic performance. Parents are typically only in contact with teachers when there’s a problem with their child or at parent-teacher conferences (if the parent is particularly motivated, that contact may extend to classroom volunteering, fundraisers, and PTO meetings.) And while the surrounding community may care about children’s academic performance, community members may treat the school as a standalone institution because they have no idea how to get involved or even if they should.
This lack of connectivity is a missed opportunity to address unresolved needs and positively impact school climate. A 2013 Education Week article provides a striking example of how significant even a little outside attention can affect children’s school lives. The article reported that students were more likely to feel unsafe in schools located in poor neighborhoods with high crime rates. So far this is what one would expect. However, the article also reported that “10- to 14-year-old students who talked to their parents about their studies, school activities, and other concerns actually felt safer in school.”
Simply conversing with parents about school enabled those children to feel more optimistic in a challenging environment. That, in turn, lays the groundwork for being able to better engage with their learning.
Community involvement can also have a positive emotional influence on students. The book, Humanizing the Education Machine (co-authored by Bill Latham, CEO of MeTEOR), recounts high schoolers’ reaction when the city of Paris, Illinois, raised $23 million to build them a new high school:
Zach, a student said that that kind of support from the community made him want to step up and do more. ... Listen to Jenna, another student, “For once the community believed in us enough to grant us a new school so we can better ourselves.”
As the community of Paris showed that they valued the students’ education and believed in the children’s worth, students’ motivation increased.
School reform: Never underestimate the community
That psychological influence makes the community a powerful factor in school reform, so we’re going to share a few more examples from Humanizing the Education Machine in order to discuss the inextricable link between schools and their communities. First, let’s compare the efforts of Cami Anderson, former superintendent of Newark Public Schools in New Jersey, and Tiffany Anderson, the superintendent at Jennings School District in Missouri.
Let’s start with Cami Anderson. In 2010, the city of Newark was under considerable economic pressure; industries had closed or relocated and crime rates had risen drastically. Then-mayor Cory Booker, Governor Chris Christie, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg joined forces in an effort to turn around the district. The reform effort was called One Newark, and Cami was responsible for its implementation.
The effort focused on reorganizing the schools through a universal-enrollment program, leading to increased reliance on charter schools and the closing of several public schools. In her words, she set out to “kill a dysfunctional system.”
However, locals complained that her plan of closing dozens of schools and laying off hundreds of teachers was “undemocratic and heavy-handed.” In fact, protests about the lack of community input became a persistent refrain in the years that followed. State Sen. Teresa Ruiz said of Cami in a 2015 statement:
Our schools are the centers of our communities, and the person steering that ship must foster relationships with everyone who is committed to moving academics forward. She has failed in that effort, and in doing so has lost the confidence of teachers, principals, parents and students.
According to the book, “... the project unraveled, all the money got spent with little effect, and the community was left wounded and cynical.”
Compare Cami’s efforts with those of Tiffany Anderson. Jennings School District is located in a small Missouri city where the median household income is less than $29,000 a year and the mayor and city council have a history of being at each other’s throats. Obviously, Tiffany’s mission of turning around this district was a daunting one.
Unlike Cami, Tiffany’s strategy included building trust, community engagement, and goodwill. Humanizing the Education Machine states, “She understands Maslow’s pyramid of needs; her kids can’t learn if they are hungry, inadequately dressed, and feel unsafe.” An NPR piece details some of her efforts to combat those problems such as opening a food pantry and giving away food, establishing a shelter for homeless students, and opening a health clinic.
In 2015, Jennings became the first unaccredited school district in Missouri to regain full accreditation.
The link between schools and communities is not just one-way; the influence flows back and forth. Take the story of the city of Columbus, Indiana, and industrialist J. Irwin Miller. Miller wanted to attract high-quality engineers to his company, Cummins Diesel, but in the early 1950s, Columbus was not well known and its schools had a poor reputation.
Miller felt that a healthy community begins with healthy schools. When the school district’s newest elementary school turned out to be a disaster (it ran over budget, did not open on time and had severe maintenance problems during the first year of operation), he seized his chance.
He brought the school board a list of five world-class designers, gave them the opportunity to interview all five and pledged that his company would pay the fee of whichever architect they chose. The resulting school was so well designed that it generated national attention, and the school board immediately came to Miller with a request for another school (the World War II baby boom meant they had to build an elementary school every two years to keep up with the increase in children).
Humanizing the Education Machine reports that the “magnificent school designs and the exposure and interaction with some of the leading thinkers of the twentieth century stirred other leaders to follow.” The library, churches, city buildings, park landscaping, fire station, and businesses all saw the value of great design and followed suit. Columbus became known as “A Midwestern Mecca of Architecture.”
Miller was fond of the quote, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us,” and the architectural changes were indeed affecting the values, attitudes, and behaviors that formed the “social glue” of the community. The strength of that glue became apparent when the United States was hit with economic decline in the 1980s. Columbus’ community and business leaders rallied to spur entrepreneurial growth and while the unemployment rate was 14 percent in the surrounding region, it was only two percent in Columbus.
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