Annenberg Guide Offers Strategies for Education Organizing
In local communities across the country, NEA members and leaders are working closely with parents, families, and community members to close achievement gaps, improve low-performing schools, and transform relationships between schools and their communities. Sixteen of these partnerships are profiled in the NEA’s Family-School-Community Partnerships 2.0 report, and more through the Priority Schools Campaign.
Community organizations surrounding lower-performing schools are also getting involved with school improvement efforts. A new guide from the Center for Education Organizing, part of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, highlights strategies and resources for groups considering organizing around education issues. The Center for Education Organizing has been assisting community groups trying to improve neighborhood schools in New York City for the past 15 years.
The guide demonstrates how “community organizing offers an alternative vision for school reform.” Current reform efforts focus on a system of rewards, sanctions and narrow test-based accountability, leaving little room for family and community input.
As the guide states, “organizing begins with the premise that the people closest to the local schools – parents, students and teachers – are in the best position to make schooling decisions and to sustain educational improvement.”
Education organizing is an extension of community organizing already in progress around other issues, such as neighborhood safety and local economic development, according to the Center for Education Organizing. While the premise of free public education is to provide opportunity for all students to succeed, income gaps and the inequities that result are only growing between wealthy and poor school districts. “Rather than leveling the playing field, under-funded and low-quality schools reproduce and reinforce the very problems communities organize themselves to tackle – poverty, lack of access to decent jobs, over-incarceration, etc.,” the guide explains.
Research shows that family and community engagement are critical components of school improvement success. Kit Carson Elementary School in Las Vegas is one example of how family engagement and community partners can help boost achievement.
The school created a Parent Resource Center where any day of the week, from 7 AM to long after the school day ends, parents can be found helping out or learning themselves. Staff have also recruited local businesses to donate food, clothing, school supplies and even dental care to help create a learning environment where a student’s basic needs are met. However, for many schools in low-income and working-class communities, school engagement is one of the biggest challenges. At the same time, community groups face similar challenges building relationships with their local schools.
According to the guide, one key to the success of community organizing is to focus on getting “initial victories on the more tangible, less controversial issues.” That way you can build trust within the community and “lay the groundwork for collaboration with educators on more complex campaigns.”
Also highlighted as a strategy in the guide is the importance of collaborating with other public education stakeholders, including local teachers unions. The guide notes, “some organizing groups have cultivated relationships with local teachers unions, recognizing that although teachers and parents have often been pitted against each other, both constituencies have a long-term interest in improving the conditions and capacity of struggling schools.”
Continually collecting data and research is another integral part of the community organizing cycle. Possibilities explained in the report include demographic data on students and teachers, fiscal data, outcome data (attendance, promotions rates, graduation rates, college enrollment percentages, standardized test achievement, etc.) and school climate data.
Mentioned as a key element of education organizing is developing trust with the schools. Without trust and access to teachers and leaders at the school, community groups will have a difficult time learning the school’s culture, needs, priorities and issues. Strategies outlined in the report and used by community groups to build relationships with schools include:
- regular meetings between parents and leaders
- neighborhood walks
- home visits
- development of family-school partnership committees
- development of relationships with district officials and school board members
Many of the strategies in the guide can also apply to staff in priority schools looking to build partnerships with families and members of the school’s community. To read the entire report, including case studies, visit http://annenberginstitute.org/publication/getting-started-education-organizing-resources-and-strategies.