Community Engagement at a Personal Level

Principals are tasked with a myriad of responsibilities that consume their daily schedules. Amidst these duties, it is crucial for them to prioritize community engagement, particularly in educational partnerships. To underscore this importance, a comprehensive plan and program outline have been curated, which can be easily replicated or customized based on the context.

Initiate the process by delving into successful programs implemented by other principals. Valuable insights can be gleaned from publications by state and national professional principals’ associations. Subsequently, encourage district leaders to convene all building-level administrators to collaborate and brainstorm strategies for fostering school-community partnerships that cater to the unique needs of individual schools.

Effective partnerships offer invaluable assistance and resources that enable principals and their staff to address the diverse needs of students, parents, and families in ways not typically achievable solely through the school system, thereby fortifying the local community.

Reciprocal rewards

Through my experience, following a planning meeting, principals were motivated to identify and engage with a community member within the school’s vicinity, inviting them to shadow the principal for a day or a significant portion of it. In return, the guest would host the principal at their place of business for a similar shadowing experience.

Prior to the shadowing sessions, principals provided guidelines to their guests regarding areas that could or could not be observed, particularly emphasizing the importance of confidentiality pertaining to students and staff. The main objective was to offer the community representative a glimpse into a typical day at the school, allowing them to witness firsthand the role and impact of the principal, similar to the reciprocal experience at the guest’s workplace.

Mutual visits and shadowing sessions between principals and their guests were scheduled within the same month, such as October, coinciding with the National Principals Month celebrated by the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP). It is advisable to replicate beneficial programs every five to ten years.

Furthermore, expanding the concept by involving principals from neighboring districts or even across the state can be achieved by presenting a proposal to the state’s professional principals’ association. The Ohio Association of Elementary School Administrators (OAESA) successfully introduced such a initiative in the late 1990s known as SWAP (Supervision with a Principal).

To conclude the shadowing experience, a districtwide luncheon, covered financially, provided an opportunity for principals and their guests to share their observations, receive public acknowledgment, and further nurture their relationships. Notably, feedback from SWAP participants, including influential community members, highlighted their surprise at the demanding nature of a principal’s role, leading to long-lasting partnerships and support systems.

Long-Term Benefits

Following the visit of my guest, who managed a local food pantry and men’s homeless shelter near the school, I volunteered at the shelter as a supervisor. Subsequent conversations focused on strategies to support students from unstable families residing in the neighborhood, with a commitment to prevent homelessness among all children.

Those discussions paved the way for the establishment of the West After School Center (WASC) in Lancaster, Ohio, in 1997. Through the support of community volunteers and my guest, the WASC evolved into an after-school tutoring program that flourished following our SWAP experience, attracting involvement from various community leaders.

The partnership expanded as a nonprofit organization (501(c)(3)) was formed by volunteers, securing grants and resources far beyond initial expectations. Over 100 community volunteers provided after-school tutoring to a significant percentage of our most vulnerable students, demonstrating substantial human resource support.

Within five years post-SWAP, the WASC Board of Directors acquired property adjacent to the school and constructed a community center, aiding other district schools in obtaining grants for after-school programs. The relentless efforts of the school staff and support from the community resulted in West School students achieving the highest reading scores in select grades within the district.

In his book Schools Cannot Do It Alone, Jamie Vollmer chronicles his transformation from a critic to a staunch advocate for public schools, offering valuable insights for enhancing community engagement practices.

Individuals harboring doubts regarding school operations can be invited for a SWAP visit to witness the reality firsthand. Experiencing the school environment authentically may inspire them to contribute ideas and support that can positively impact lives and change perceptions permanently.

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