More than a village: Exploring the dynamics of school-community engagement

By Morgan P. Appel, Director, Education Department


Effective community engagement is the lifeblood of the educational endeavor. Even those reforms foisted upon institutions from on high require broader buy-in from those impacted by sea changes (or incremental changes) in education. For the most part, our schools do a decent job of soliciting involvement from parents and communities. On many occasions these ventures involve cultivating resources to support particular activities or interests — but empirically, we find that master plans for involvement fall by the wayside in the shadow of equally compelling instructional or staffing issues. Too often, we find that involvement comes on an ‘as-needed’ basis and that retrenchment and shortfalls preclude meaningful planning and execution of long-term strategies.

At a recent institutionally sponsored professional development conference, this topic was explored in some depth by Education Department staff and school faculty. Fundamental questions and themes revolved around bringing more stakeholders into the fold and creating social capital around instructional and community objectives. The audience was asked to consider challenges and barriers that might frustrate this process in an honest way — and not surprisingly, many pointed to a plentitude of ‘feel-good’ activities but with an undercurrent of community uncertainty about the school’s roles in the larger political landscape and in fostering genuine change. These reflective comments provided unique occasion to explore the essential characteristics of community engagement, namely:

  • Fluid and Dynamic

  • Contextually Grounded/Different for Every School

  • Loosely-Coupled and Shared

  • Reciprocal and Involving, Assets-Based

  • Accommodating and Welcoming, focused on Equity and Equality

  • May be Issues Focused/Needs-Based

  • Meaningful and Sustained (versus Interest/Connectedness)

  • Ambiguous at Times, Exact at Times

  • Difficult to Assess in Two Dimensions/Moving Target

  • Social Capital and Change Agentry (building support and capacity for change)

  • Lends Voice and Empowers

  • Rooted in the Culture of the School/Cultural Proficiency

Building from these characteristics, the assembled faculty examined metrics associated with community engagement — some fairly conventional, others not so much. They included the following:

  • Number and types of partnerships with local organizations

  • Perception and reputation of the school site and school community (beginning with local leaders and institutions)

  • Parent participation in school community events and boards/committees

  • Faculty staff participation in community events and organizations

  • Faculty and staff perceptions about involvement in community

  • Perceived impacts of the school and school community as part of the broader community (including trust)

  • Perceptions about access to school and school community

  • Outreach efforts by type and perceived impacts of those efforts

  • Articulated vision or plan for community engagement (including insight into those who crafted the vision/plan)

  • Cultural competency/proficiency measures and other assessments of engagement

  • Diversity of engaged stakeholders (same people all the time?)

  • Quality of engagement (ongoing/sporadic) and opportunities for leadership

  • ‘Flow’ of community engagement, including outreach and types of communication

  • ‘Place’ engagement holds within school community’s hierarchy of priorities

  • Slack and flexibility

  • Capacity to undertake community engagement activities at the site and at the local education agency

  • Meaningful opportunities for engagement (type and frequency)

  • Perceptions about leadership and power sharing within the school community

  • Sustainability and perceptions about sustainability

  • Time dedicated to the effort in the short- and longer term

Following these discussions, best practices in community engagement as defined by the academic literature and proven practice were reviewed in consideration of future implementation. These included the following:

  • Ensure that the school site and organizing agency commits time and resources to engagement and that engagement is a recognized and rewarded part of the job (capacity)

  • Site and organizing agency must have a clear message and vision for community engagement (even if a detailed plan is not in place)

  • Importance of context and changing circumstances

  • Be an observer and a listener before anything else (anthropologist / historian spirit)

  • Undertake pre-assessment activities prior to action to identify strengths and shortcomings in community engagement. Use members of the larger community to gather and make sense of data.

  • Consider who is at the table at the outset — and who is not there

  • Ongoing professional development in cultural competence for the entirety of the school community

  • Collaboratively developing a community engagement plan and associated metrics (living document)

  • Working with key members of the community to broaden the circle, including viable strategies (home visits, etc.)

  • Gradual build out using change agentry/social capital (start small and grow) — build foundations

  • Ongoing redefinition of community and successful community engagement

  • Ongoing assessment that identifies barriers to engagement (can be/should be led by community members for most honest responses)

  • Always customize based on a robust and informed understanding of community needs (no magic bullets)

  • Make long-term investments that become deeper and more sophisticated over time

  • Work cooperatively to help build capacity within the community beyond campus

  • Always Empower and use an Assets-Based perspective

  • Understand histories and power dynamics both within and outside of the school community

  • Attend to generational issues if and where they are present

  • Value peer-to-peer learning and power sharing (genuine)

  • Use proven community organizing approaches (local when possible)

  • Importance of two-way communication, facilitated by identified liaisons

  • Provide structured opportunities for intercultural interaction at the school site (synergies, shared experiences across cultures)

  • Promote community resources and provide guidance and support to families as needed

  • Avail transportation and child care and provide resources at low or no cost

  • Provide opportunities for the local community to better understand and navigate the education system, from K-20.

  • Use trainer of trainer model as engagements and trainings expand

  • Importance of culminating/closure events

  • Create campaign events that are sustained and ongoing

  • Involve the engaged community in policy efforts that are mutually beneficial and attend to the needs of the campus and its students (school house to state house)

  • Invest in trust and confidence building — always

  • Community building — always (and recognize definitions may change)

  • Use technologies wherever possible to cultivate virtual community

Broader practices and metrics discussed within the context of the presentation were believed to offer a solid foundation upon which to scaffold more localized and contextually sensitive efforts — both at the school and at the University.

For more information about this post, the presentation, or the Education Department's work in schools, please contact Morgan Appel, Director, at

Posted: 9/19/2014 12:00:00 AM by UC San Diego Extension: Education | with 0 comments
Filed under: Community, Cultural-competence, Educators, Engagement, Involvement, Parents, School, Social-capital, Teachers, Technology

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