We’re in this together: Building bridges between schools and communities

Now that the kids are back in school, they are learning new things, making new friends, and being active in a lot of different ways. There are lots of worries that crop up in parents’ minds during this time. Will they get along well with their peers and school staff? Will they feel safe? Will they be challenged by the curriculum? Will it be too hard?

There is clearly a lot to think about, but I think that if we’re proactive in building bridges between families, teachers, and surrounding neighborhoods, we can all be better positioned to work through these issues together. Along those lines, here are a few ideas for building bridges.

Deep respect

When I attend parent-teacher conferences and Back to School nights, I enjoy it. Listening to my child’s teacher talk about their performance on an assessment is really appreciated. And people are really polite. But to be honest, I know that my child (and all children) are “more than a score” on an assessment, and I find myself leaving those events wondering if being polite to one another is enough? It all just seems like surface respect.

What I’m looking for is deep respect. It’s a kind of respect where people come to know one another, hold each other’s view with the highest regard, and everyone works really hard at communicating with one another across languages, cultural differences, and social status.

One way we can work toward deep respect is to think about everyone in holistic ways. In Philadelphia, there are a lot of helpful programs in place like Home-School Associations and School Advisory Councils in place, which I encourage parents and teachers to know about and participate in, but it’s important to recognize that not all families can participate in school the same way, so schools need to think about different ways that they can connect with families.

One strategy is to share what our hopes and dreams are for the children. When I was a classroom teacher, I used to send a Hopes & Dreams sheet home during the first week of school, and had them available at Back to School night. On the sheet, I asked families to write down one hope they had for the child for this year, and one long term dream they had for their child.

I always appreciated learning about how the families saw their child. They saw their children in ways that were very different from mine, and it enriched how I would think about the child as the year went on. Most importantly, asking the families to respond to these questions was one way that I communicated to them that their views mattered and that ultimately, their children mattered to me.

Families, you can also initiate a hopes and dreams conversation by writing or meeting with teachers and principals.

“What do you think?”

Of course respect is a two way street. There is a popular perception in the media that teachers, and especially veteran teachers, are lazy and uncaring. But like any other profession, there are some really superior teachers, there are some who fit the negative stereotype, and then there is the majority.

The majority of teachers are human beings that work hard everyday to do the best job they can. I think it’s critical for families to recognize that, yes, teachers are people too. These days teachers are working in really challenging conditions where expectations are high, resources are often missing, yet they bare the brunt of the blame for bad academic performances.

It’s important that teachers are treated as the professionals that they are. Families and school leaders can show teachers respect by keeping lines of communication open as much as possible. More importantly, we can ask teachers a very simple question: What do you think? It could be asking teachers what they think about the children, but I think we should also ask teachers what they think about future directions of the curriculum or other school policies.

While as parents and students we might feel that our voices are not heard by the school, teachers are also often silenced. But the voices of teachers, families and students should be central to the life of the school.

Asking questions and listening can be very empowering.

Planning opportunities for community building

Working toward deep respect and school-community partnership requires having opportunities to build community every day. Schools could, for example, have more multilingual greeters at the school that would include parents, students and local partnering community organizations.

Schools could think about ways to have Town Halls where issues are discussed amongst all community members (including students). Schools and families could also reach out more local community organizations that help anchor Philadelphia neighborhoods.

And don’t forget about social media. Some schools are using Facebook and Twitter, but given how ubiquitous mobile phones are, group texts are probably the most essential. Working with social media could also be a good space to provide student opportunities to be active in skill development and community building.

Creating high quality education opportunities for everyone is a community affair. When our children are going through a hard time, or when schools are experiencing a lot of pressure to perform, it’s so important that a foundation of community has been built. A collective feeling that “we’re in this together” can really go a long way in addressing concerns and centering hope over despair.

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