How are communities involved in school design?

Modern schools are responsive to their communities’ history, culture and institutions. Schools designed for equity empower communities as partners. These are important ideas that are pretty easy to get behind but sometimes harder to do well in practice. So, how can well-intentioned schools go from talking about involving communities to actually involving communities?

First of all, what are communities actually involved in? What stages of design and what types of activities?

  • Vision setting. Communities play important roles setting the visions for student success and school quality.
  • Design. Communities participate in design itself: researching, developing, and testing ideas for new policies, structures, and practices.
  • Learning. Communities are partners in learning. They help design and lead projects. They help mentor students. They create opportunities for real-world application.
  • Leadership. Communities play important roles in leadership governance, whether serving on committees and boards or managing important initiatives.
  • Improvement. Communities hold schools accountable, providing feedback, monitoring progress, and advocating.

Second, how can schools do this well?

  • Building trust. Trust is easily broken between communities and schools. But, trust is a key ingredient in partnership. Building trust is complex, for sure, but at the most basic level it involves the following: forming authentic relationships, having shared goals, following through on commitments, and operating with transparency.
  • Letting communities lead. One of the best ways to have a successful community is to let communities lead it. Identify your advocates in the community: the parent who always shows up, the organization you’ve been working with for years, the well-connected member of your board. Ask them to tell you what good engagement and partnership look like, about how best to communicate, about when and how to involve stakeholders. Let  them be the face of the work in your community to build trust and connection. Give them autonomy and authority to lead.
  • Recruiting proactively. It’s important that all voices be at the table, especially those that have been traditionally underrepresented. But these members of your community are more likely than others to have had bad experiences with school, whether as a student  themselves or in previous partnerships. They may not show up just because you issue the invitation. You may have to recruit them proactively, listen to what they need to feel safe and included, and go out of your way to ensure these conditions are met.
  • Making participation accessible. Simple things can make participation a challenge. Lack of time. Lack of child care. Lack of transportation. Schools can make participation much more successful by anticipating and mitigating these barriers. Hold meetings at multiple times. Hold meetings in communities, not just at school.  Include child care.
  • Get feedback, and adjust. Like any other part of school design, continuous improvement is key. Don’t throw out the idea of engaging parents because no one shows up to the first meeting. Figure out why, and try again. Don’t assume things are going fine because your parent committee hasn’t complained. Ask them about their perspectives on the process, what can be improved, and what else they need to succeed.

Questions to Consider

  • Reflect on previous engagement efforts. What have you tried? What went well? What did not? How can you build on these lessons learned?
  • Who do you need to engage in your community?  For what purpose?
  • Are there members or groups in your community who have been traditionally under-engaged? What do you know about the underlying reasons, or how can you find out? What steps can you take to recruit them, and to include them?
  • Which aspects of your school design need community participation? What could this look like in practice?
  • How will you support and sustain this work? What resources can you allocate? Who will lead?