As student activists across the country make news, there’s another kind of student engagement that we shouldn’t overlook: community engagement. There’s tremendous power in establishing partnerships between schools and local community organizations, especially with nonprofit or mission-driven organizations. These community partners gain enthusiastic volunteers, while students are able to engage in authentic educational experiences with the chance to affect their communities in positive ways.
But, as a teacher or school leader, you might be wondering where to start.
I can tell you from years of coordinating community-lot clean-ups and engaging in service projects with students of all ages at The Park School of Baltimore, where I serve as the civic-engagement director, that forging a successful partnership can require a fair amount of work. Between the busy schedules of educators and nonprofit staff, it can be difficult to find an effective balance that serves all parties involved. But it’s not impossible.
For a partnership to be a long-term success, community partners need to see how working with students furthers their mission. And educators need to see evidence that students are gaining skills that complement their curriculum, while also becoming more involved and engaged citizens of the community.
If you’re looking to dive into a partnership with a local organization, here are a few tips to get you started.
Make sure your students are engaged in real work. Students can sense when a project is busywork. Even if it may seem obvious, you should discuss the value of the work and its connection to the mission of the organization with both your students and the community partner. For example, one of The Park School of Baltimore’s visual arts classes worked with a community association and nonprofit to develop play structures for a community green space that had previously been a series of vacant lots. The play structures designed and fabricated in the class had an authentic audience and real value to the community, making the experience richer for the students and truly useful for the organization and the community it serves.
For a partnership to be a long-term success, community partners need to see how working with students furthers their mission."
Complement the skills students are building in class. Think about how you connect the hands-on work with your curriculum. It won’t always be a natural fit, but if there’s an opportunity to fuse the two, it will help students understand the practical applicability of textbook lessons. The 8th grade students at my school participate in a year-long advocacy course where students research a social-justice issue they are passionate about and construct a thoughtful response. By engaging local experts and nonprofits to better understand what is already being done to address their chosen topic, students place their work into a real-world context and learn that their own efforts are part of a larger movement. Through our community partnerships, students have the opportunity to explore a wide range of issues, including food insecurity, environmental concerns, and public school infrastructure conditions.
Start small. Before diving into a long-term partnership, start with a project that is small and defined in scope. When we began our partnership with a Baltimore nonprofit that, among many other initiatives, transforms vacant lots into green spaces, we joined them on existing projects, lending volunteers to planting and other tasks. Only after our students engaged responsibly and effectively did our school gain the credibility for a recurring and sustained relationship. Now, our students are involved in projects from conception to construction. Small gains at the outset help to build a relationship and trust between the partner and the school.
Develop a shared vision. A shared vision will help partners work together toward mutual success. This vision should align with the community partner’s mission, but also take into account the students’ well-being and academic outcomes. When The Park School’s 1st graders visit with a nearby senior living community, students are able to build positive (and educational) relationships with residents by reading and listening to stories. At the same time, the school is able to support the home’s mission by providing a meaningful activity for its residents.
Define leadership on both sides. In order to encourage effective communication and collaboration among partners, both parties should agree on who will own the relationship and who can communicate progress and challenges to improve the experience. With some partnerships, students can even take the lead to gain valuable leadership experience.
Acknowledge the role of your partners as educators. Community partners play an important and active role in the education of students. Acknowledge this role with both your partner and your students. While not teachers in the traditional sense, partners are also serving as educators and should be empowered to share their knowledge and expertise. Our 4th grade students, for example, have long supported a soup kitchen and food pantry in Southwest Baltimore. During visits, our organizational partners also serve as teachers, explaining the history of the neighborhood, the root causes of poverty there, and the importance of advocacy.
Manageable and sustained is better than one-time opportunities. Once you’ve determined the partnership is a good fit, establish a regular schedule. Students who have multiple opportunities to interact with an organization and a project over the course of a quarter, semester, or year can develop deeper relationships and understandings than those who have only a single experience.
There are no doubt countless mission-driven or nonprofit organizations in your area that would be eager to team up with your students: a senior living facility, an urban farm, or a homeless shelter, for example. The experiences produced through those collaborations will enrich your students’ learning and, at the same time, benefit your school’s community.