CJ Huff, Former Superintendent of the Joplin, MO Schools, shares Part 2 of his blog series on building relationships in the school community, focused on reaching outside the school to strengthen our schools. Click here to review part 1.
Over the past 20 years I have had the opportunity to work with community partners in a variety of capacities. I have also learned that among school districts, buildings, and classrooms, school/community partnerships range from open door to appointment only. No question–there has to be a balance–but I believe it is important to err on the side of inclusiveness whenever possible.
Schools give many reasons for keeping the community at arms length. Security, fear the school day will be disrupted, legal liability, and concerns about confidentiality are often at the top of the list. Each of these issues is legitimate, but not insurmountable. Developing well-defined parameters for community involvement are important. But it is also important to keep in mind that there are many wonderful people in your community wanting to help, if given the opportunity.
A mistake schools often make is asking for support (usually financial) only when we need it. There have been few times in my career that a local business or organization didn’t step up and help during those times. However, the message we are sending can easily be interpreted as, “Don’t call us. We’ll call you.”
There are many benefits of engaging the community in the schools. At a site level, new resources are brought to the table. When parents, educators, businesses, human service agencies, and churches (Yes…they can be involved too AND it is legal.) sit down together at the same table to talk about kids, good things happen. A few thoughts to consider…
- The Sleeping Giant: Faith-based organizations are mission driven and full of individuals who are seeking ways to give back to the community. Does this mean they will be preaching to the kids at school. No. That isn’t legal. But as a local minister in Joplin put it, “We know we can’t be the voice of God in our schools, but we can be the hands and feet of God by supporting our children and educators.” I often refer to faith communities as “The Sleeping Giant.” When given the opportunity they will respond quickly to the needs of the school. No questions asked.
- Treasure: I learned quickly that treasure doesn’t necessarily mean monetary resources. In fact, some of the best “treasures” that have been brought to the table are not monetary. Volunteers knitting stocking caps for needy kids in preparation for the winter, organizations donating school supplies, service organizations taking on special projects – the list goes on. The point is that there are many giving hearts in your community with treasures to offer. Although it doesn’t look like cash, these treasures are priceless.
- Advocacy: Community complacency towards our schools has come about as a result of decades of schools pulling down the blinds and shutting the doors. Unfortunately, when our doors are closed and our windows are covered, others can’t see the good things happening in our schools, or spot challenges and potential solutions. I would ask you to think on this for a second. How might the tides turn if members of your community could see—and be a part of–the good work in your schools? What would happen if in your community you had dozens or even hundreds of volunteers working in different capacities supporting your children and the good work of educators?
Ultimately the purpose of opening the doors of our schools is to move our communities from complacency to action and from action to advocacy. In this era of limited resources and high accountability, I’d encourage educators and school leaders to take that first step and open the doors…even if it is just a crack. You might be surprised to find who is waiting for you on the other side of the door ready to help.
CJ Huff is the retired superintendent of Joplin Schools in Joplin, MO. He is recognized nationally in the field of community engagement and 21st century education programming.