3 Ways Community Activists Could Make Education Better

Schools are doing more with less. According to Governing, the national average spent per student has barely increased $900 between 2006 - 2011, with several states having current spending levels that match 2008. While this national average has inched upward across the country, districts, schools, administrators and teachers are being asked to implement numerous initiatives that our students deserve but aren't supported with new funding revenues.

Add to this the antiquated infrastructure that many of our public schools are having to function in and the enormity of the problem begins to come into focus. But despite all these barriers, schools and teachers are improving student outcomes. College and career readiness rates are improving, graduation rates are increasing, but the work of schools still is not done nor will it ever be complete, but there are avenues outside of the school that could accelerate the success.

Ideally, schools could reach out to members of the community that may already be trying to implement some of the pieces missing in schools due to monetary and time constraints. I often wonder if community activists and schools could partner more purposefully in order to leverage their impact on each other? There are many of these partnerships across the country, but why aren't these types of relationships more of the norm instead of the exception?

Here are three strategies schools could ask community activists to develop for the betterment of students and the communities in which they live.

1. Informal Educational Experiences

While teachers feel pressured to focus on core instruction and schools feel the pinch of financial decisions, many of the "informal" learning opportunities that can be found at zoos, parks, community gardens and volunteering could reinforce "formal" educational experiences, spark curiosity in the traditional education setting and foster a sense of wonder and cultural perspective that many of our students no longer get the opportunity to experience. Teachers that are maximizing the time spent with students to bridge learning gaps and scaffold instruction for skill acquisition would greatly benefit from these partnerships and so would our students. The reason why these partnerships are vital is that many times community groups may provide these opportunities to students, but teachers may not be aware that it is happening and cannot use them as touchstone experiences in the classroom. By working more intentionally, teachers and community groups could make the best use of resources to reinforce "formal" and "informal" educational experiences.

2. Cultural Shifts in Mindset

Often times in communities with entrenched norms that make teaching and learning difficult, teachers and school leaders may either perpetuate these norms and reinforce the cycle, or feel completely exasperated by the exhausting effort of working around the clock. Community activists have a great deal of experience in the hard work of shifting the mindsets of people who have been fixed for quite some time. Growth mindsets are essential to the work of learning and by intentionally interrupting societal norms and conditioning, parents and students can begin to foster the perseverance and determination needed for success. As Dr. Angela Duckworth's "Grit" studies have demonstrated, this ingredient is essential to success, but so many of our students come from a culture of failure, educators must pay particular attention to nurturing grit through other avenues than failure. This growth mindset could be nurtured in the community by exemplifying the behaviors of a learner as frequently as possible. Community-wide book studies, celebrating small gains and creating a sense of community pride by utilizing apps like Fix-it are all potential growth mindset practices that could have far-reaching implications for students.

3. Accountability of the Adults

Finally, community activists and educators should partner to ensure the accountability of the adults that work with and for our students. Legislators need to understand the impact of mandating "big work" but not providing revenue streams to support it. District leaders need to understand the needs and issues of the community and how to engage stakeholders to develop positive interactions as opposed to more divisive ones. As elected officials, school board members need to not only be leaders in the school and community but also champions of the students they are supposed to be serving. Teachers need to perceive community members as allies and not bristle at the thought of working with adults outside of the school.

By bridging the work of these groups that are supposed to be striving for a common goal, community activists could become the teeth in the gears to help communities improve and prosper.