Parent Engagement in Education: Transforming Schools and our CommunitiesBy Myrdin Thompson
I recently returned from two back to back trips to Washington DC, where I was able to dialogue with parent engagement advocates and other community leaders from all across the nation about issues and concerns that are particular to our lives. While many of us work on creating better school environments by encouraging stronger parent/family school connections, that work is really not just about the quality of education, but about the quality of a community. At the core is the idea that in order to have a livable or sustainable city we must work together to create that environment. Certainly this is no small task, as a livable city has many different facets to what makes it, well, livable. And I am keenly aware that education is but one part of the strong solid foundation we need to build in order to create communities of care and connection.
Sustainability is a term used to describe how cities can develop to provide a reconciliation between the environment (the current drive to create greener, more ecologically sound buildings), social equity (fair housing practices, access to health and education), and the economy (job opportunities). While we often don't stop to think about how education is interconnected to these other issues within our communities, the truth is that they are intertwined in ways where changing one element can impact, for good or for bad, the other elements.
For instance, many parent advocates strive to create school environments which promote healthier meals and greater opportunities in physical fitness. This can mean building partnerships between a school and local farmers, businesses, and restaurants. Many school districts, while still working within the constraints of budgets and USDA guidelines, are working with local chefs to create recipes that utilize fresh, local produce. Many schools contribute to the larger community by creating above ground gardens and greenhouses and grow fresh herbs that can be used as well. In order to make sure the gardens remain viable, students use the education they are receiving in school and put that knowledge to practical use. While this is a microcosm of what sustainability is, the partnerships created here are often duplicated on a larger scale within the larger community outside of the school environment.
So while it may appear that the parent advocate is focused solely on their child's nutritional well being, they are actually advocating for a community to support health and wellness initiatives. Good food opportunities in our schools need to be extended into the "food deserts" which exist in far too many environments. An increase in physical fitness and recess in our schools can't simply end when the doors on our buildings close at 4 pm. We need to have cities that have outstanding recreational opportunities for all it's citizens, not just those that live in certain areas. If you have a city that has "food deserts" chances are you have "play deserts" as well: areas where the park is not a lovingly maintained, where accessibility to the park is limited because of broken sidewalks or neighborhoods filled with abandoned and neglected housing. Instead of working in a silo, parents need to start thinking about how critical their advocacy is to their community as a whole, and how they can better partner with other advocate groups to enact change.
For instance, recently both MIT and Harvard announced that they will be offering free on-line courses open to the public. This is a tremendous opportunity in terms of expanding educational opportunities for everyone...everyone who has access to the technology to support this endeavor. For many families, there isn't any access to the type of technology needed to support this. Limited computer access can impede progress. However, for some there are certainly libraries and community centers which can be utilized (although for a limited amount of time) in order to take advantage of this and other supplementary supports (TedX, Kahn, PBS Kids, to name a few). But imagine the family where there is no Internet because broadband doesn't exist. Rural communities face this challenge. And if educational opportunities are limited for those families, then other opportunities might be limited as well. So while the parent advocating for education might not think to connect with the advocate who is trying to get broadband (or something else much needed for the community at large), the truth is that their combined efforts (a partnership) might be the tipping point needed to create change and build a stronger, more sustainable community.
So while it is important to continue to pay attention to and focus on what is happening in education (or often times not happening) in regards to policy decisions (whether at the national, state, or district level), it is also essential to connect with others in your community who are working on issues concerning immigration, homelessness, healthier lifestyles, veterans, energy, fair housing, and transportation, because they all impact educational opportunities for the children in our schools. Working together we can transform education, but we also need to make sure that there is a community that supports, encourages, and respects the future contributions they will be making for that community.
Family engagement in education is really about family engagement in one's community. As Marian Wright Edelman says "education is for improving the lives of others and for leaving your community and world better than you found it." So while we start to plan our summer hiatus from education, we need to remember that "education reform and transformation doesn't take a vacation." By continuing to work in our communities we will, in essence, be continuing to work for our children and our schools. Together we can make difference.
Posted on May 17, 2012 by Myrdin Thompson
Myrdin Thompson has been a public school parent, volunteer and advocate since 2002. She is the Parenting Mom Congress delegate for Kentucky (2010), and also a United Nations Foundation Champion for Shot@Life and was recognized by the White House as a Champion of Change. She writes about education and parenting/family engagement on her blog and you can follow her on Twitter.
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Tags: *School-Family Partnership
, Character Development
, Ed Reform