What are the best or most interesting ways you have seen schools become welcoming places that connect with their surrounding communities?
updated by @ron-dwyer-voss: 10/24/16 03:45:35PM
Hopkins Public Schools in Michigan had a Welcoming Schools Initiative from 2001 to about 2008. The purpose of the Initiative was to reach out to the families with children zero to five years old. This is a very small rural school district and often families didn't have any contact with the school until the first day they sent their kindergarteners off to school. The district recognized that this was not how they wanted families to experience their first contact with schools. Also, many of these families did not have any idea what their children needed to be able to do to be successful in school.
In the initiative we did three important things:
We delivered a bag of books and other information to the home of every family that had a child 0 to five years old. This was not a home visit like the Parents as Teachers Program, but just a time for me to say hello and we are glad you are part of our school community.
We held kindergarten readiness events in the Fall and invited families who's children would be old enough for school the following year. This gave parents inportant school readiness information a whole year before their children started school rather than waiting until a typical kindergarten registration event in the Spring.
We held playgroups in neighborhoods in the district. Apartment complexes, mobile home neighborhoods and parks. This helped the parents learn about schools and helped them get to know each other.
Some comments we received were, "I didn't know the schools cared about my children." "I feel so much more comfortable about the first day of school." "I started reading to my child more and we even started teaching him about the calendar."
I started the initiative in 2001 and left Hopkins Public Schools in 2008 to start working for The Arcadia Institute Community Participation Initiative in Kalamazoo MI. I know that the Welcoming Schools Initiative did last at least 2 years after I left. I just looked at their website and don't see anything about it anymore. It's a shame - they list all of the technolgy equipment that they have, but no mention of reaching out to families anymore.
Community Participation Initiative Coordinator
The Arcadia Institute
In order for schools to be more welcoming and connected with their surrounding community, it follows for me that a useful place to start is within the schools themselves.....particularly with the students as a primary source of fuel for efforts. How welcoming are schools for students? I facilitated a day last month with about 80 high school students, representing six high schools in the rural Ottawa, Canada area. They were gathered to discover their common interests in welcoming, and develop action plans for making their schools more welcoming. It is a student organized and led effort, supported by each school administration. At the end of the day, each school group had 2-3 ideas they were going back to begin working on. I am not involved in the follow-up, so can't comment on what has happened yet. What I can tell you is that the students fully grasped the idea of welcoming, were willing to share quite intimate stories with each other of when they felt not-welcome at their school, and eagerly worked together to come up with ideas. I believe part of the reason it was successful was that the students framed the language as "welcoming" rather than "inclusion" or "diversity" or some of the other terms that adults use to define special-interest organizing around welcoming efforts. This allowed all students to feel fully included in the stories, the idea generation and the resulting action.
I can't take the time at the moment to go into the many successful programs or projects that I have witnessed over the years, but I will mention that our greatest successes in relating to communities began with a basic respect for our constituents, by deed...not just words. One quick example, when I was a young principal I returned to the city school that I had attended as a kid. It was a school with a student population of 70% African-American and Hispanic, 30% white and 98% free lunch. The neighborhood was primarily challenged by the lack of jobs and resulting poverty. We realized that many of the parents had not had great experiences themselves, in school, and thus they were often absent from parent gatherings, or defensive or outwardly hostile to school activities. It was only when we assured our families that they were indeed our clients and treated them as such that they became supporters.
When I first arrived at the school I asked the faculty and staff what one problem they would fix immediately if they could. Perhaps only elementary school folks can appreciate this, but they said the general chaos that met them everyday at lunchtime was a huge challenge. Lost lunch tickets, playground problems, grumpy cooks, all were symptoms of an issue that impacted the educational atmosphere.
Consequently, I began a discussion with the adults before school started that year by asking what positives (assets) do the kids in this neighborhood bring to school that we could reinforce and build upon. Instead of thinking about the deficiencies in their home lives first, we changed the mindset to include some real life positives. For example, kids from this neighborhood knew how to care for younger brothers and sisters and they could be trusted to go to the store and bring back correct change. I had always wanted to experiment with a family style lunch program, so applying our knowledge of what the kids "brought to the table" along with the knowledge of what our adults were willing to give in order to have less lunchtime stress we were able to implement the following (although some of our colleagues thought the new principal was nuts!)...
1. In the past, lunch recess always took place after the kids ate. This encouraged kids to eat fast and go outside as quickly as possible. The constant movement created noise and havoc. We changed that to recess first, then lunch.
2. We eliminated lunch tickets so they couldn't be lost. (Duh! If everyone was on free lunch we didn't see a need for tickets. It was much more efficient and easier on teachers to keep track of the exceptions.)
3. Grumpy cooks were grumpy because the only interaction they had with their "customers" was at the end of a spoon while they line-ladled their way through three lunch periods. We did away with lunch lines by having the kids come from the playground directly to the lunch room and be seated. Actually, before they sat, it gave me a chance to call on at least two different kids per shift to tell us what they were thankful for that day. (So sue me.) It also gave me a chance to commend the students for their contributions and to mention any concerns that may have arisen lately. It also gave me a chance every day to tell them in person how much they were loved by their parents, teachers and community...evidenced by the meal and school that was provided.
4. We changed the playground dynamics by sending sixth grade to recess and lunch with first graders. ('Tis true.) Fifth graders went with second graders, and third and fourth graders went together. Numbers of fights and arguments were reduced to where not one child was sent to the office all year because of a lunchtime altercation. The school secretary could hardly believe it.
5. We held training for the older kids (grades 4-6) to learn how to be table captains, calling upon them to join in the important work of helping the younger ones learn. They were in charge of the younger kids assigned to them. When it was their turn to take charge, they came in from recess early to set the tables. (We did away with institutionalized trays.) One of the rules we agreed upon was that every child (including them) needed to try some of every offering. They needed to ensure appropriate table manners were taught and followed. The food was served in proper bowls and was passed around the table. The table captains understood that their responsibilities including soliciting comments and input from all at the table so everyone had a chance to take turns and share their thoughts. (We don't often teach "speech" in elementary schools, and this really allowed younger kids to develop confidence in front of their older school mate "heroes".)
6. When the table groups felt confident and competent, they were allowed to invite parents, school board members, congressmen, local sports celebrities, etc. to join them for lunch as their guests. Believe it or not, many teachers chose to join the kids during their lunch times because the interaction was so civil. Because everyone ate at the same time, and cleaned up at the same time noise was reduced significantly. Conversations were actually held at a normal tone, in a room with 150 kids eating lunch.
7. At the end of the meal the table group was responsible for clearing the tableware, removing waste, and cleaning their places for the next group. We found during that year that the students drank 1/3 more milk, ate more nutritious food, and the entire waste from 450 kids including paper could fit in one regular wastebarrel.
8. The grumpy cooks deserve a lot of credit for moving from the kitchen during lunch to being present in the lunchroom with the kids since there were no more serving lines. They delivered frozen treats for dessert at the right time, surveyed the kids for likes and dislikes, became more creative with theirmenus, joined in discussions when invited, answered questions about food and cooking, touched kids instead of spoons. They became resources to the students and as a result didn't need to be grumpy any more. They loved their new role. Smiles ensued.
9. When lunch concluded, the teachers took their kids directly back to class. Instead of losing valuable instructional time due to sweaty, revved-up kids, arguing about recess issues...teachers often used this time for reading to the kids or reflecting upon how we were accomplishing our objectives and what yet needed to be done that day. In other words, good use was made of this "found" time.
How does this relate to the original question? The parents and grandparents (and politicians) enjoyed the tangible evidence that their children were benefiting from a public school that invited them to be part of a first class effort. This program garnered much positive attention in the press and on TV. An urban neighborhood isn't often portrayed for its positives. Not only did we grow community support that year because of the lunch program, but it allowed us to enjoy our first Parent/Teacher Organization with hundreds attending one of the meetings.
I can still remember how I felt when one of the local politicians, intending a compliment, said, "Isn't this great for THESE kids?!" I have been a principal in upscale communities, too. I can assure anyone, what was accomplished at this urban school would benefit ANY of our kids, anytime, anywhere.