Developing A Human-Centered Approach to Community Engagement

By Jeremy Divinity, Marketing Specialist

September 25, 2019

It’s not only important to identify a school’s most significant stakeholders, it’s also essential to engage with them. This is where the idea of community engagement comes into play. Community engagement is the active participation and shared responsibility for student success between school, families, and the community. Research has proven that active community engagement can improve school readiness, academic achievement, and graduation rates.

When it comes to community engagement for charter schools, it’s beneficial to take a human-centered approach. Human-centered engagement approaches engagement from a place of deep understanding and is a way to help ensure that your community engagements are collaborative. This approach places emphasis on understanding the community’s values and hearing the families’ voices. Empathy drives the idea of human-centered engagement.

There are many ways school leaders can develop a human-centered community engagement strategy to support learning and development. Here are a few helpful recommendations for the various stakeholder groups.

Parent Engagement

Your school’s parents and families want the best for their kids, so fostering relationships with them is critical to student success. Often, parents feel like they aren’t contributing to their child’s education, which can make them feel unheard or unvalued. Involving parents within the school through active engagement efforts that communicate their roles and responsibilities as members of the school community is mutually beneficial.

You can start by asking a guiding question of “What can you tell me or what can we do that will help us to help your child learn or meet specific academic goals?”

When school leaders and parents actively co-create and co-design, it leads to the development of better programs and services that benefit students. This process begins with developing a family engagement action plan. This action plan should focus on fostering a welcoming school climate, identifying the leaders’ roles in creating a welcoming school climate, and investing in families to meet school goals.

When it comes to developing a welcoming environment, it’s essential to be visible and approachable. Enhance the experience of parents with the school through increased access to teachers and staff. First impressions are made in the front office. Michelle Gayle, a principal from Tallahassee emphasizes the importance of a friendly front office, “Office staff, teachers, and aides all take responsibility for making sure guests feel welcomed in the front office. Saying hello, providing useful information, and having a warm smile all make a difference.”

Lastly, go the extra mile! Don’t wait for parents to come in voluntarily but engage by actively reaching out. Outreach is a very human activity and can take many forms. Each touchpoint outside of the school setting, such as home visits, can make parents feel welcomed and valued as an integral part of their child’s education.

Engagement with the Broader Community

It isn’t just parents who are critical to student success and achievement; the broader community plays a role as well.

One human-centered approach to engaging the community is to create a Community Advisory Council. The council can include teachers, parents, and leaders of local businesses and organizations. A goal of the council is to identify challenges faced by both the school and the community so the two groups can work together to solve those challenges.

Like parent engagement, engaging the community requires open dialogue. In addition to the community advisory council, there are other initiatives you can take to further community participation in the school’s mission and vision. A two-way dialogue starts with inquiring the community through conversation by means of forums, surveys, canvassing, and focus groups. Townhall meetings are another way to have your ear to the voice of the community. The overall goal of inquiring initiatives is to foster relationships between your school and the community.

The other side of the dialogue is to inform the community using both traditional and non-traditional communication tools. These tools include newsletters, mailings, blogs, email, open houses, picnics, and various workshops. It’s vital to begin outreach early and consistently. Informing the community helps the community to stay in touch with what’s happening, and helps you to proactively build a network of supporters for your school.

Partnership Engagement

“I think a great partnership begins with organizations and individuals who can check logos and egos at the door and focus on what needs to get done. It’s being able to use a strengths-based approach and ask, who does what well, and then supporting that work of one another,” said Carrie Holden, president, and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of South Puget Sound.

A human-centered approach to community partnerships can provide the needed resources and benefits for school success and is a great way to leverage your school’s limited resources. There are three types of partnerships to consider: partnerships with non-profit organizations such as community organizations, cultural institutes, and education institutes; partnerships with for-profit organizations such as local businesses; and partnerships with public agencies such as public-health organizations, government, and police.

It’s critical to ensure that your partnerships within the community are natural partners. To do so, first identify the strengths of each organization through open communication, focusing on how it can support students’ social, emotional, and academic development, and how this work advances the organization’s mission. Partnerships should address gaps in the school’s abilities to serve students as this approach also provides opportunities for businesses and educators to join forces, rather than duplicate efforts, and work together to enhance outcomes for the community’s youth.

For community partners, a partnership with a charter school is beneficial to expand the reach of their services and work toward the fulfillment of their goals. As an example, many museums conduct outreach to schools to integrate their programs into the school curriculum and fulfill part of their organizational missions. For charter schools, community partnerships can help in providing needed resources in terms of facilities, funding, curriculum instruction, and other administrative support. To use the example with museums, schools benefit from receiving free educational tools and experiences to incorporate into underfunded programs.

A charter school in Memphis enriched its music program by sharing a space with a museum that was commemorating a renowned record label. As a part of the partnership, the museum brought in the Memphis Symphony Orchestra to formally mentor students. As a result of this partnership, the museum advanced its mission, and the school benefited from access to resources that resulted in a stronger music program for its students.

Implementing Engagement Strategies

A human-centered approach to community engagement starts with empathetically listening to both parents and the community alike, and then creating opportunities for these stakeholders to get involved and help to work together to boost school and student success. The key signs of success may range from increased parent attendance and participation in school events, to improved student achievement!

Have you implemented successful community engagement strategies at your school? Let us know about it in the comment section!