• by Rosana Rodríguez, Ph.D. and Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • August 2000 • Rosana Rodriguez Dr. Abelardo Villarreal

Education has traditionally been the business of the professional educator. Engaging the community is often looked upon with nervousness and as an effort to pre-empt the educator’s role. Yet the literature points to the value of partnership, of pulling together as a learning community to create schools, colleges and universities that work for our diverse student population and our society. We shortchange ourselves when we do not partner with the community meaningfully and create an environment that fosters human development, creativity and academic achievement.

Why is it that in some communities, families and schools can be very effective in creating successful educational experiences? It is the formation and nurturing of strong consistent relationships built on respect and trust and focused on the well-being of youth that makes the difference.

Successful relationships are based on recognizing the critical roles that communities, families and educational institutions play. There are certain elements at the community, family and educational institution levels that must coexist if youth are to maximize the benefits of the educational process (see figure). Experience shows that effective engagement is more than merely getting parents to sponsor class parties or even to participate in the decision-making of the school.

The term at-risk has become educational jargon to describe individuals and groups who supposedly lack resources or the ability to achieve. But, an at-promise individual or community is one whose potential and commitment is waiting to be tapped. Our premises of an at-promise community are based on the work of various individuals and institutions that have devoted themselves to creating models that consider human beings as valuable with great potential for contributions that enrich all of our endeavors and result in meaningful civic participation.

This article is the first part of a series of three articles written for educators around the topic of engaging youth, community and institutions that are at-promise. These articles also embrace the goals of educational equity. Engagement is an indispensable step for educational systems in achieving equity as described by Bradley Scott, director of the IDRA South Central Collaborative for Equity:

  • Comparably high academic achievement and other student outcomes,
  • Equitable access and inclusion,
  • Equitable treatment,
  • Equitable opportunity to learn, and
  • Equitable resources (2000).

At-Promise Models

The Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) based its Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program on the premise that all children, families and communities are valuable, none is expendable. In his article, “Keeping the Faith: Valuing Parents,” Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed., describes a paradigm that contrasts with the traditional deficit-model orientation that characterizes most educational programs designed to serve minority and economically-disadvantaged students (1996). He describes this “valuing” model:

Valuing assumes tremendous potential. Applied to adults it means: Parents want the best for their children in education, career choices and future economic security. They want happiness and tranquility. They want to be viewed as capable and intelligent, regardless of background, educational experience and economic status (Montemayor, 1996).

Other disciplines, such as health, social work and psychology, show a deep concern for labels such as “at risk” that denote a self-inflicted insufficiency, and furthermore, a focus on the “victim” as the culprit for such a condition.

For example, the National Resilience Resource Center (part of the University of Minnesota’s Maternal and Child Health program) presents a powerful new paradigm for reculturing health systems with youth resilience in mind. Known as the health realization model, the goal of their approach is to view all students, residents or clients in a community being served as being “at promise” rather than “at risk” (Marshall, 1998). Their philosophy is grounded in resilience research spanning more than 50 years in many disciplines.

As a corollary, the Search Institute has identified 40 developmental assets and supports a growing network of 450 communities seeking to unleash asset-building power through the Healthy Communities – Healthy Youth national initiative that began in 1996. Models of developmental assets and assets-building approaches are spreading as states team together to share lessons learned (Benson, 1998).

Other significant efforts at the international level describe a development matrix, with a strong emphasis on the role of human creativity as a transdisciplinary process, a process of ongoing interaction and interdependence, a process in constant motion, whereby systems can empower one another through engagement and mutually supportive action. The matrix identifies support systems within a community and moves along a scale of independence to one of interaction and synergy (Max-Neef, 1991).

The At-Promise Community

Creating a partnership relationship requires a paradigm shift. The at-promise way of thinking pursues, values and unconditionally integrates the “soul” of the community into the educational process. Recognizing communities as at-promise rather than at-risk means capitalizing on the community’s assets, pointing to possibilities rather than stressing dysfunctionality, and turning away from limiting labels and diagnostic approaches. This fundamental shift implies greater engagement of communities at all points of the educational pipeline (Marshall, 1998).

The at-promise view focuses on capitalizing potential and broadening possibilities. It builds on a vantage point of strengths. It contrasts with the idea of labeling communities that are primarily in need of intervention as at-risk (Marshall, 1998).

This view does not naively dismiss the realities of circumstances. Rather, it incorporates an aggressive, pro-active assets-based approach. This approach governs how we design effective development strategies to address issues that impede student success and have a negative impact on access, retention and graduation rates for all youth, especially those in under-resourced communities (McKnight and Kretzmann, 1993).

The key actors in a community are described by Peter Benson as the “people of the city, all of the socializing systems and the community infrastructures that inform them, including the media and local government” (1998). Knowing the key actors needed, the critical question in establishing strong relationships between educational institutions, communities and families now becomes: How can this paradigm shift occur?

In essence, educational institutions must partner in this effort and provide resources that can unleash a movement toward asset building that is related to students’ academic success. Educational institutions should initiate efforts whereby the community profiles itself and identifies those assets from within that can be tapped or enhanced. Schools should re-examine their goals for parent and community involvement programs to ensure that their energies are channeled to accomplish a working partnership between educational institutions and the community. Colleges and universities can be important catalysts. They can develop strategies and provide leadership and resources to foster greater community engagement throughout the educational pipeline.

Benson presents a framework of community assets that are related to “the kinds of relationships, social experiences, social environments, and patterns of interaction” that produce the community support necessary for an effective partnership (1998). This framework includes eight asset types:

  • Support: family involvement in the educational process, home support for education and the school’s ability to provide a caring and encouraging environment;
  • Empowerment: the community’s actual and perceived sense of being valued and considered in key educational decisions;
  • Boundaries and expectations: opportunities created for students to feel valued and understood, to experience friendships that model responsible behavior, and to develop in an environment of high expectations, both in the community and at school;
  • Constructive use of time: families’, students’ and schools’ actual use of time in and out of school to promote student success and achievement;
  • Commitment to learning: families’, communities’ and schools’ perception of the value of education and the motivation to excel and succeed academically;
  • Positive values: a family’s experience in the community in areas of social equality, integrity and compassion for others;
  • Social competence: the community’s ability to solve conflicts, experience and capitalize on diversity, and defy any negative or dysfunctional behavior; and
  • Positive identity: a community experiencing a purpose in life and exercising control of their own lives.

The figure below delineates the expectations to be realized in a productive relationship among the educational institution, the community and families. It shows the possibility of opportunity and the promise that communities and educational institutions can create when they work in concert and move united to unleash the power of their assets.

A Challenge and Opportunity for Engagement Across the Educational Pipeline

A major challenge for engagement is to eliminate misconceptions about communities and families that impede effective partnerships.

Misconception 1: Communities do not have the expertise to provide meaningful input or play a significant role in the educational process.

This misconception is based on the myth that communities want to pre-empt the professional educator’s decision-making authority in matters related to schooling. This false notion has been promoted often when community or parents are involved in what is called an “advisory role.” Communities are asked for their input but ignored on matters related to a school’s decision making. Mistrust and a posture of adversity have emerged as a result of this practice.

Misconception 2: Educational institutions can be successful without the support of the community.

The speed with which changes occur in this era of information technology puts excessive demands on families and communities. These demands strain the role that educational institutions and communities have in educating youth. For example, intellectual and social tasks are more complex than ever. Communities respond by creating an array of service institutions to help meet these demands. These institutions can better serve our youth and families when they partner with communities and families to create healthy and caring neighborhoods.

Misconception 3: Some communities do not care about the success of education and consequently do not get involved in the educational process.

Many times, community members and families feel unwelcome and intimidated by schools, consequently avoiding getting involved. Communities and families are aware of the importance the educational institution has on the future and welfare of its citizens and seek ways of becoming engaged. The responsibility of the institution is to create the avenues of opportunity and the vision for engaging communities in ways that strengthen those relationships and create nurturing environments that lead to happy and creative young people.

Engaging An At-Promise Community

The move toward greater engagement is a critical step in creating a new paradigm of promise for student success. Engagement refers to educational institutions that have redesigned their teaching, research and outreach functions to become pro-actively involved with their communities, however these may be defined in the local setting (Kellogg Commission, 1999).

All sectors have a stake in the process. Educators, parents, community members, researchers, policy-makers and other stakeholders can be catalysts to build broader ownership.

How can this successful engagement occur? First, we can start by fostering a culture of at-promise thinking that capitalizes on resilience and adaptability. Second, we prepare educational systems at all levels for this paradigm shift and the systemic changes that will be required to engage communities in a more formal and productive way. Third, we must evaluate our strategies and share our best practices with other institutions and other sectors. We must foster opportunities for participation and multi-sector relationships around those best practices.

Interdependence is the underlying principle in this shift toward development through engagement. In establishing interdependence, the former self-reliance of each sector needs to be viewed in terms of an emerging horizontal interdependence across sectors including kindergarten through 12th grade schools, institutions of higher education, parents, and community entities that support youth and families.

The harmonious combination of objectives among these partnerships can achieve the individual and collective energy and satisfaction in planning for educational success. Ultimately, the at-promise approach benefits students at all levels.

Benefits of Engagement

Parents are a child’s first teachers. That context and environment contribute in equally critical ways to promote positive characteristics and values in young people not only in the early years, but across the educational pipeline. Parents escort their child through all the dramatic “firsts” and set the tone and style for their child’s later life-long learning and social relationships with all others (Bornstein, 1998). Home and family provide multi-levels of caregiving and support for lifelong learning. These include:

  • Nurturing – meeting the biological, physical and health requirements of children;
  • Socialization – visual, verbal, affective and physical behaviors parents use to engage their children;
  • Didactic caregiving – strategies parents use to encourage their children to engage and understand the environment and enter the world of formal learning by providing opportunities to observe, imitate and learn; and
  • Material caregiving – ways in which parents organize and arrange the home and local environment.
  • Engagement promotes a greater understanding of educational systems and communities and of the benefits of a working partnership that is based on mutual trust and respect.

Importance of Language and Culture

Honoring and preserving language and cultural traditions is an essential factor in successful engagement. It has been said that a people without knowledge of their language and culture is like a tree without roots. Parents, families and communities help to foster the values and culture that sustain a civilization. The community can help create or break a person’s self-esteem for lifelong learning.

Therefore, any effective strategy for engagement must honor, incorporate and aggressively seek out effective means for parent, family and community participation to act as a key resource for learning at all levels throughout the educational pipeline from pre-kindergarten to college graduation. This is key throughout the educational pipeline because not only is language the expression of a culture, but it also generates culture.

IDRA has been on the threshold of this new paradigm and has designed ways of working with educators and communities to forge alliances among schools, colleges and universities, and communities. The opportunities and the challenges are there for educational systems and communities to value and empower one another in ways that can result in more inclusive educational settings, increased academic achievement for all students, and a synergistic relationship that promotes growth and well-being across communities. Schools gain when they see the role of communities differently and tap into the assets of the community. Schools gain when they collectively and continuously transform themselves to keep pace with the extraordinary societal changes and expectations that this information technology age causes.



Benson, P. “Uniting Communities to Promote Child and Adolescent Development,” Promoting Positive and Healthy Behaviors in Children (Atlanta, Georgia: Carter Center Mental Health Program, 1998).

Bornstein, M.H. “Young Children and Positive Characteristics,” Promoting Positive and Healthy Behaviors in Children (Atlanta, Georgia: Carter Center Mental Health Program, 1998).

Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land-Grant Universities. Returning to Our Roots: The Engaged Institution (Washington, D.C.: National Association of State Universities and Land-grant Colleges, February 1999).

Marshall, K. “Reculturing Systems with Resilience/Health Realization,” Promoting Positive and Healthy Behaviors in Children (Atlanta, Georgia: Carter Center Mental Health Program, 1998).

Max-Neef, M.A. “Desarrollo a Escala Humana – Human Scale Development,” Human Scale Development: Conception, Application and Further Reflections (New York: Apex Press, 1991).

McKnight, J.L., and J.P. Kretzmann. Building Communities from the Inside Out (Chicago: ACTA Publications, 1993).

Montemayor, A.M. “Keeping the Faith: Valuing Parents,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, September 1996).

Scott, B. “We Should Not Kid Ourselves: Excellence Requires Equity,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, February 2000).

Rosana Rodríguez, Ph.D., is the director of the IDRA Division of Community and Public Engagement. Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D., is the director of the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to them via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2000, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 2000 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]