Engaged Families and Communities

Collaboration Involves Community in Lincoln

When you invite parents and community members to tell you what they really think about their schools, especially in oft-forgotten communities where thousands of students have failed to graduate, don’t be surprised to hear a little shouting.

“These parents weren’t mincing words – which is good!” says Jenni Absalon, president of the Lincoln Education Association in Nebraska. “One of the things we heard very loud and clear was that they’re tired of giving feedback and not ever seeing anything done different.

“That is frustrating! It’s frustrating for educators. It’s frustrating for parents who wonder why they keep saying the same thing and over and over, and nobody ever steps out of the box to say, ‘This isn’t working. Let’s try something different.’”

But, these days, Lincoln is trying something different. In “community conversations” funded through a grant from NEA’s Public Engagement Project, educators, community leaders and parents are sitting down to talk about the really tough issues that harm students and communities. “It all comes back to low-performing students and what are we going to do to help those students. Our conversations really have focused on the achievement gap,” Absalon said.

In Lincoln, across the district, 67 percent of high-school students passed the state reading test, including just 42 percent of African-American 11th-graders and 48 percent of Hispanic students, according to the Nebraska Department of Education State of the Schools Report. The overall graduation rate is 82 percent, but at specific schools it falls as low as 60 percent, Absalon said.

With that in mind, parents clearly have a right to be angry. But it’s equally clear to educators that they can’t fix these problems alone. “Children, between the ages of 5 and 18, are in school for 13 percent of their waking hours, so this is not just a school issue,” Absalon said.

The solutions need to be collaborative, involving school administrators and union educators, but also Lincoln’s parents, the organizers of community centers, officials from the United Way and other non-profit agencies, plus early education and higher education campuses. That kind of cooperative approach, inclusive of all stake-holders, is a hallmark of the NEA Priority Schools Campaign.

Already, the solutions are coming: The superintendent’s multi-cultural advisory committee will get new members from more diverse economic backgrounds, reflecting the reality of many struggling families; likewise, the student advisory committee, usually made up of the “best and brightest,” also will include new, less-successful student members whose ideas and issues also need to be included.

But the most significant change is a new way of thinking that acknowledges the need for non-traditional solutions, Absalon said. “When something is not working, and it’s clearly not working, it’s time to say, ‘Okay, it’s not working, friends!’

“It’s time to take a different approach.”

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