Community engagement is a key component of effective school and district improvement. Without the support and investment of the community, change cannot take root. Aurora Public Schools has taken steps to engage the community in discussions about school improvement, particularly around the development of the innovation zone. The district, however, does need to find ways to ensure that families, students, and community feel welcomed and adequately prepared to participate in their engagement efforts.
The 130+ home languages spoken in APS presents a unique–but not insurmountable–challenge when it comes to communicating with families. The district’s strategic plan, APS 2020, enumerates: “Families are our partners in education.” Partnership requires communication and active involvement.
There seems to be a disconnect between APS attempts to make families feel invited and the actual attendance of families. The district made clear efforts to support family and community input at various community meetings by providing translated materials and interpretation. Unfortunately, many of these community meetings appeared to be poorly attended.
For example, the community meeting where APS families impacted by the innovation zone could give feedback on drafts of the innovation plans did not see a large number of community members or families in attendance. Interpreters were available for several of the most commonly spoken languages in the district, but few families came and took advantage of the interpretation. Though the district made a good faith effort to invite families into the school improvement process, those efforts did not fully paid off.
If APS wants to see its engagement efforts pay off, they need to first speak with APS families and community members to figure out what barriers to engagement families identify.
There were some bright spots in community partnership during the innovation zone process. RISE Colorado (an Aurora-based community organization and If Not Now coalition member) brought together APS families to provide feedback about the innovation plans for Aurora Central and Crawford Elementary.
Aurora has contracted with Communities in Schools to support community engagement at the school level. Community in Schools “positions site coordinators inside schools to assess students’ needs and provide resources to help them succeed in the classroom and in life.” The model focuses on meeting students’ needs through partnerships with community organizations. Building these partnerships between community resources and schools will support students, however, APS must ensure that students and families are also engaged in conversations about increasing student achievement.
Some best practices for building relationships with families and schools that support increasing student achievement are:
- Family-School Partnership Policies that have the specific intent of seeing every student succeed at a high level which drives the work of learning and relationship building for both the families and school staff.
- Including families in targeted areas of low achievement so that they can both lend their expertise about their own children and have the tools and information necessary to support student learning outside of the classroom.
- Offer community engagement professional development to school and district staff that focuses on how to work productively with families and use the assets of the community to increase student achievement. Invite families to be part of this process.
- Evaluate the district’s and individual schools’ family and community engagement plans: what is the intent behind the plans? Are the outcomes aligned with the intent? What is missing? (A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School Family and Community Connections on Student Achievement)
The changes necessary to see dramatic improvements in Aurora’s schools will not be easy without community support. APS risks significant community push back in response to changes if they do not find ways to hear from and incorporate the voices of those communities most impacted by reforms. The district can leverage strong partnerships with families and community leaders to ensure that change both reflects the needs of the community and draws from the community’s collective knowledge.
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