Schools cannot afford to function independent of other segments of their communities. Now, more than ever, it is essential that schools form relationships with community members, groups, and agencies for the mutual benefit of the students and schools.
With so many problems facing our country -- and our communities -- schools cannot afford to function independent of other segments of society. More than ever, it is essential that schools form relationships with community members, groups, and agencies for the mutual benefit of the students and schools.
Aside from the obvious benefits to students from forging connections to the community, public schools have other reasons for connecting with their publics. While nearly 70 percent of adults do not have school-age children, those adults do have a voice in determining the direction of local schools. And, more than ever, they are using that voice. That's why school boards and school principals are wise to continuously funnel news to the public about their schools' programs, successes, and needs. Keeping all stakeholders informed is essential to developing a mutual trust that will reap benefits for the schools and the entire community.
The process of establishing partnerships with parents, social service agencies, businesses, and the general public can vary greatly. The ability to form viable partnerships hinges on the organizations, their interest in the schools, and the duration of the planned partnership. Whether the relationship is intended to be broad-based or to focus on a special objective can also impact the ability to connect.
Many school principals encourage students to share information about what they learned in school each day. Some of those same principals suggest to parents that they ask their children to teach them what was learned at school each day. The discussions need not go into great detail, but they should focus on the main concepts learned. If you believe -- as most educators do -- that teaching someone helps you understand better, you will know that it is possible that students' understanding of concepts will grow by teaching their parents.
I mentioned this to one of my sons and he thought the idea had merit, so he asked his 14-year-old daughter about what she learned in her math class. After she related the details, her dad asked her to explain some of the important concepts -- and to their mutual surprise, she was able to do it.
One of Sam Walton's rules was that associates in his Wal-Mart stores had to make eye contact with customers who were within 10 feet of them. In addition, if anyone asked for directions, the associate was expected to walk the customer to the destination and make small talk along the way. On a recent visit to a neighborhood Wal-Mart, I found that Mr. Walton's expectations were still used at that store. Do you think this strategy used in your school might send the message that the school is a welcome place for everyone?
School principals who go out of their way to involve service agencies in their schools have found those relationships to be mutually beneficial. Developing relationships with mental health, youth development, human service, and other education agencies can be a win-win for schools and the agencies. Introducing service learning programs that involve a wide variety of community groups can bring huge benefits to all. And many school principals team up with principals in the grades above and below them (and, for high school principals, with nearby colleges and universities) in order to offer programs that enable students to complete advanced academic work.
In many school districts, students in the middle and high school grades are expected to complete community service projects or community connection experiences. There is usually a coordinator assigned at the district level to establish connections with civic and business resources. Then the teachers and civic/business representatives are connected to finalize plans and expectations. Building effective community partnerships takes time and effort, but the resulting rewards almost always far outweigh the challenges. These types of partnerships can provide opportunities for student growth and lifelong learning while also building new relationships with community organizations.
Developing such relationships can take time, or it can happen very quickly. I remember how a short presentation I made to a group of senior citizens about one of my schools led quickly to the direct involvement of a group of seniors who regularly to read with students, supported learning in the computer lab, and helped out in many other ways that added meaning to the curriculum and a family atmosphere to the school.
Many paths can lead to getting businesses involved in schools. There is no single, proven way to accomplish that. The one essential component of any plan for involving businesses involves proactive work on the part of the school principal.
Several principals of schools at all levels have used their memberships with community agencies and groups to form alliances with key business leaders. One of the more successful programs that many of them use is the Principal for a Day (PFAD) program. Inviting community leaders to shadow you for a day is a way for the participants to understand the rewards and responsibilities of the principalship. The principals who have invited business or community leaders, legislators, PTA presidents, and school board members to participate in the program report the participants have become strong supporters of the schools.
You never know where the contacts you make with the larger community might lead. One of the most important PR efforts that a school community can undertake is to examine -- and emphasize -- the way it treats others. It really is so simple and so important to do this right. Customer service should be near and dear to the hearts of all members of a school's "family."
I recall the words of a seasoned veteran principal who told me, when I was a "rookie" principal, "If you want to have a successful school, parents and the larger community must know that you look to them, value them, and treat each of them as partners." I know that advice has been good for me throughout my career and is equally good today.
Be sure to see other columns by George Pawlas in his article archive.
Article by George Pawlas
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