Our Schools Need More Strange Bedfellows

Getting communities more involved with their public schools can lead to strange bedfellows, like the group of motorcyclists that descended upon Littleton Elementary School in Lee County, Fla., this past holiday season.

The North Fort Myers chapter of the Gold Wing Road Riders Association motored onto campus to provide gifts, food, and other holiday assistance to the school's needy families. It was an "above-and-beyond" act of charity, but what's striking is just how the bikers and the school found each other. One of the school's teachers had won an award from the community's independent, non-profit local education foundation -- an award intended not just to honor teachers, but to get as many people in the community as possible to understand the needs faced by schools and the children they serve.

The Foundation for Lee County Public Schools accepts no input from the district for its awards. Community leaders without ties to the school system pick finalists, observe them in the classroom, and select the winners. In the process, people with deep ties in the community who otherwise would never set foot in schools learn about what they do and the challenges they face, a group that includes businessmen, leaders of local colleges and hospitals, the heads of organizations that provide other community services -- even biker clubs. As a result, "not only do the teachers benefit, but the students benefit," says Marshall Bower, president of the Foundation for Lee County Public Schools.

At the heart of the approach is an idea that's often been lost in the conversation about "reforming" our schools, especially as budgets tighten and needs grow: while schools need the support of their communities, their communities also rely on strong schools. The businesses that sit at the economic center of every community need quality public schools in order to grow the pool of qualified workers, while resource-strapped social services and an overtaxed criminal justice system both benefit from more students graduating and being able to find good jobs. But for all that to happen, schools need all the resources the community can bring to bear on the needs of children, particularly those who face poverty, disabilities, or other challenges that extend far beyond the school walls but impact their ability to learn and be successful.

Schools have often had too much of an arms-length relationship with their communities -- beyond PTAs and Friday night football, people are given too few reasons to think about schools beyond the tax bill they are expected to pay. Now, ongoing economic challenges and a concerted push by nonprofits, foundations, and the U.S. Education Department to involve families and community members in turning around low-performing schools are helping accelerate an evolution that's been quietly taking place in communities like Lee County and Springfield, Mass., an evolution in which people both in and out of schools are looking at the education of children as a shared responsibility.

That doesn't just mean community groups providing financial support to schools or the children they serve. It also means new voices getting a say in how schools go about the business of teaching children. In Western Massachusetts' Pioneer Valley, for example, a wide range of community agencies is involved in addressing the non-academic needs of students living in poverty. But the same groups also have provided input into how new academic programs, including extended days and early reading, have been put into place in the community's schools. In many places, the most active stakeholder in bringing new partners to the table has been teachers unions, which have already seen firsthand the results that collaboration and partnership can bring.

In cities and towns across the country, these kinds of robust community-school partnerships have improved the lives of young people in many ways, including increasing the likelihood that they will stay in school and ultimately graduate. An independent study funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York that examined 49 community school initiatives that bring community services directly into schools found student learning gains in nearly three-quarters of schools surveyed, often concentrated among the students who received additional services through these kinds of wide-ranging partnerships. Conversely, in places where school leaders have tried to go it alone in fixing troubled schools, their efforts have failed to make a lasting dent in the problems they face. Making matters worse, these are often the same schools and districts where frequent leadership turnover leads to the loss of institutional memory and to short shrifting the kinds of sustained effort that it takes to push the needle on school improvement. In brief, fragmented communities lead to fragmented schools, which is why broader efforts are so important in ensuring continuity. As Lee County's Bower puts it, "The more we can engage the business community and the community at large with what's going on, the more we can stop all the finger pointing and blaming."

Back in Lee County, Littleton Elementary pre-K autism and early childhood education teacher Laura Reed found that winning the community award meant resources donated to her classroom and a professional collaboration with a nationally known expert on early childhood education. It's also brought her into a program that taps the expertise of award winners to train new and veteran teachers throughout the district. But more importantly, it's led to a greater understanding of how the school helps young people with disabilities. "It really shifted thinking in the community," she says.

Engaging the community has taken on many forms over the last 30 years of educational reform, and it continues to evolve. Whatever its shape, it drives home the point that we are collectively accountable and responsible -- across sectors, ideologies, and bedfellows -- for making sure that our children have what they need to become successful and happy members of our society.

Harriet Sanford is President and CEO of the NEA Foundation. The NEA Foundation is a public charity supported by contributions from educators' dues, corporate sponsors, and others who support public education initiatives. We partner with education unions, districts, and communities to create powerful, sustainable improvements in teaching and learning. Visit www.neafoundation.org for more information.