Thursday, March 31, 2011

Strong Community Needs to Be Built (#idesmar)

Another question I was recently asked to write about: How would you strengthen community among students, teachers, parents and other educational stakeholders?
A strong sense of community at school does not happen by accident; community needs to be cultivated by the principal. Each stakeholder has different needs.
Students need to feel a sense of belonging at school. Establishing a school-wide program such as Steps to Respect provides an avenue for students to feel heard and respected. This is followed by a common behavior code so everyone knows the expectations. I worked with faculty to create a positive behavior recognition (but not reward) program, so students feel appreciated for the good they do. The combination of a pro-respect program with a recognition program laid a foundation for our community.
To build on the foundation we need to gather the students on a regular basis. During my favorite gathering, held on day one, I introduce the entire staff to the students, while the students cheer for each adult. Everyone starts the year with a smile. I gradually turn over the responsibility for the assemblies to Student Council. We gather to learn, to perform and watch, and to celebrate.
The Student Council is my primary way to listen to students and to give them some control. I encourage the student council to listen to their classmates and to ask me to make changes. When they ask, I listen and consider. Some of the best initiatives to come out of Student Council are community service projects that engage the whole community toward a common goal. When we respect students and give them some control over their environment, the community is strengthened.
I am visible and involved in the classrooms, bus lane, lunchroom, playground, and evening events. Parents need to know that I am accessible and responsive, so I make sure to return calls the same day or have the secretary schedule a meeting. I also create a Public Relations plan to get information out to parents and the broader community. Most importantly, I strengthen the community by treating people with respect.
However, access to the principal and information about the school are not enough to engage the parents and the community. The volunteer coordinator starts with a small group willing to help with general tasks. The parent council creates a database of parent skills and interests that we can draw on. Finally, I invite parents and others to school to share their knowledge or skills, to volunteer, or to be the audience. I love watching the crowd at the Senior Citizen Luncheon and Concert. Of course, once we invite them, we feed them, as nothing attracts people better than children and food.
School staff love to eat as well; people who break bread together form strong groups. Since social events are vital to the health of the community, we create a regular schedule of staff parties. Teachers deserve some time enjoying themselves, so faculty meetings and professional development sessions always begin with social time and food.
Just as access and information are not enough for the parent community, food and laughter are not enough for the staff. They also need to be part of a learning community. The staff needs to work together to decide what they need to learn, because people will be most productive if given autonomy, time, and a sense of purpose. I often encourage teachers to work with other staff besides their teammates. There is a lot to learn all around the building.
Eating, laughing, and learning are building blocks of strong community. There is another component at school: shared leadership. To bring as much staff into the decision making process as possible, I created a Faculty Advisory Council, a Leadership Council, and other groups. So staff know what their role is, I use a tool called “Patterns of Participation Matrix” to be explicit whether I want staff to initiate, collaborate, advise, or support. The staff needs to feel belonging and ownership at school.
Building a strong sense of community among the students, staff, parents, and others is among the most vital work in which a principal engages.
Those are my ideas. What do you think? What are some ways that YOU can strengthen our school?