The latest census data shows that the number of people living in poverty is the highest in over 50 years, as long as the census has been measuring it. Urban communities are being ravaged by the loss of job opportunities and the fraying of the social safety net. Urban schools are more challenged than ever by the growing poverty their students and families face. In this environment, how can schools and school systems become better partners with their communities?
Thirty years of research shows that when families are engaged in schooling, not just at home but as advocates and decision-makers in schools and districts, their children perform better. But the impact of institutional and structural racism continually threatens the fragile trust between the public and the education institutions that are meant to serve them. The National Equity Project works with partner districts to overcome obstacles to effective partnerships between school systems and families.
When schools and communities collaborate, students benefit from an increased level and quality of support. When these groups are at odds or their mutual interests go unacknowledged, students are at greater risk. Few urban school systems have been successful in developing meaningful community engagement in service of achieving educational equity. Some obstacles include:
- A deficit model of students and families. For instance, educators may hold low academic expectations, believing that students “have it hard enough” without expecting them to meet high standards or providing them the proper skills and knowledge to excel in school. These biases (conscious or unconscious) inhibit true partnership between educators, students, and their families.
- Cultural gaps. Educators in urban systems often arrive as racial, economic, and/or cultural outsiders with little understanding of or connection to the lives and experiences of students, families, and neighborhoods.
- A dominant-culture definition of parent involvement, including expectations of passive acceptance of school plans and polices, limited participation, and preferred modes of behavior. Traditional attempts to involve parents are individualistic, school-centered, and activity-based (bake sales, fundraisers, sports and clubs and related volunteering).
- Over-emphasis on ‘buy-in’ and a lack of emphasis on meaning-making and/or co-creation of plans that impact a neighborhood or community.
- Unequal distribution of social capital and power within communities.
- Lack of acknowledgement of the negative impacts of racism and class, gender and language oppression on a community over time.
- Lack of clarity regarding the purpose of community engagement at any given point in time.
- Lack of clarity about who is responsible for developing partnerships with parents about their child’s learning and development
- Inadequate resources and training for educators to effectively build and maintain real partnerships with families.
Next post: some potential solutions.