School Climate & Safety Opinion

Leaders, Capitalize on Americans’ Love of Their Local Schools

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — April 19, 2016 5 min read
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Schools remain at the center of communities across the country. If anything preserves the concept of a local neighborhood it is usually the elementary school. Friendships form there that last for years and sometimes for a lifetime for children and parents alike. Young children walk with an older sibling, neighbors, a parent or other family members or they ride on buses or with adults.The daily journey to school remains a childhood staple.

What is more important in a family than the children? Many young couples chose where to live based on the schools. But every parent shares their little one’s excitement and anxiety on that first day of school. Beginning at the young age of 5 in most communities, children are placed in our hands. We are the institution to them and we assure them we are an institution they can trust with lives that are most precious. Letting go of the young ones’ hands, feeling it slip away as they walk onto the bus or the building toward their next 13 years of learning is a leap of parental faith. That moment is ripe for inviting parents, guardians, and family members into the school community along with the children.

How Can Leaders Maximize Community Interest?
We can find six entry points in the results of The 47th annual 2015 PDK/Gallup Poll Of The Public’s Attitudes Toward The Public Schools. Findings included:

  1. Testing doesn’t measure up for Americans
  2. Americans endorse choice
  3. Testing lacks public support
  4. Americans love their local schools
  5. Common core is out of favor
  6. Americans prefer state, not federal control

Entry point number 4 reveals the place we hold in the fabric of the country. Americans love their local schools; we are the very heart of the community. We consider this our greatest asset and our greatest responsibly. We know hearts can be broken by betrayal or rejection. Our obligation is to be sure no child or parent experiences either of those. In exchange, they will support us and our work. They will show that support in budget votes, in ongoing communication with teachers and at school events.

So, knowing that Americans love their local schools, and knowing that love is a feeling and an action, a relationship that can benefit the school and the children educated within it has a strong foundation. Once that local relationship is formed, the remaining 5 findings on the PDK/Gallop survey can follow.

Americans Love Their Community Schools
There are parents who become connected to schools and others who do not. For some, it may be caused by a work schedule. But for others it can stem from a discomfort within the learning environment, a kind of shyness or reluctance or their own experience of failure or bullying or disrespect. But, when their own children enter school, the sincere welcome of a leader and a teacher makes all the difference. It is long observed that even the participation of the most involved parents dwindles as students enter middle and high school. Perhaps, older students seek a separation from parental oversight in school where they do, in fact, feel a sense of independence. Or perhaps, there are fewer personal opportunities for parental engagement in he classrooms and activities of their children.

Regardless, the love expressed by Americans for their community schools is the educational sweet spot for community and parental involvement and investment on the local level. Within the school and district successful leaders prioritize bringing consensus around the core values, and around the central issues, practices, and messages of the school. School leaders can begin the invitation to the community by reaching out to even the most reluctant parents of elementary school children. We have previously quoted David Hagstrom who, as a principal in Denali, Alaska, learned he needed to go out to the parents for them to become comfortable enough to come into the school. That’s what sincere welcome looks like.

But how does this help the middle and high school? In many schools, for example, there are parents who have not attended college. They may want that for their children, but do not know how to begin building the path. Successful graduates are not those who only have mastered content and obtained mastery grades. Successful graduates have learned how to appreciate the value of reading, developed good study habits, became part of clubs or athletics, and have contributed to the school community in some way. There are always students and parents who know how to go about this. But others do not. Closing the achievement gap can begin by opening the doors to school for all children and their families.

Seize the Parental Engagement in Those Early Years
Seize the first moments of parents entering elementary buildings. Invite parents in, always, as partners in the learning process with their children. Begin the re-education of parents early. Listen to their worries, their misunderstandings, and their ideas about education. Keep a conversation open, always. When parent attendance is high in those early years, like at classes and school plays, find ways to extend invitation to even the most reluctant parents. Have the principals, teachers, and counselors from middle and high school attend and talk about practices that best prepare the young ones for success on the way to the graduation stage. Introduce parents to middle and high school principals. Vary times in which teachers and leaders are available to parents. Take the time to reach out with a flow of good news about their child. None of these suggestions are new. Rather, we reiterate them because of the gnawing distractions that pull from what we know. Americans love their community schools. This is not something we can take for granted or ignore. Nor can we become complacent about it. It is not a given. It is a gift. It requires hard and intentional work. But, its value is irreplaceable. Building on that love with purpose will benefit the community, the students and us as well. Love makes our life and work more full and more rich and, yes, more successful also.

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or by Email.

Illustration courtesy of Pixabay

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.