Schools belong to their communities. Governance is the mechanism through which a community claims ownership of schools. In our democracy, governance – as the governing body made up of elected officials –exists at the will of the community, becoming the voice through which a community speaks with educators. Most existing governance models are described in terms of relationships between a school board and a superintendent. Governance roles are primarily concentrated on policymaking, public relations and fiscal guardianship. Yet, unlike in other types of organizations, the owners here often are seen as intruders or are excluded from participating in most internal decision-making.
We propose that students and communities are better served through a governance model where existing roles remain with the school board, but the community becomes involved in four additional roles that are particularly important for greater public support and accountability for student achievement. As a community-engaging endeavor, governance begins at the grassroots level and cannot be limited to the school board. It manifests itself as an ongoing and living process throughout a school district’s hierarchical structures with intentional and participatory community engagement designed to empower the voice of parents and community.
A principal once said, “If you want to be successful in a school with culturally and linguistically diverse students, co-create a school culture of high expectations with students, teachers, parents and community, and the rest will fall into place.” One can ponder about the interpretation of this statement, particularly the second part. What did the principal mean by “co-create a school culture of high expectations” and “the rest will fall into place”? These profound thoughts with multi-layered ramifications encapsulate what we know about successful schools for minority and low-income students.
This article provides a scenario where students, parents and community expand the role of governance beyond that of policymaking to a more inclusive community governance model where parents and students play four major roles: (1) as co-designers; (2) as partners and critical friends in the educational process; (3) as pro-active feedback providers; and (4) as gatekeepers and guardians of success. This community governance model, embodied in IDRA’s Quality Schools Action Framework (Robledo Montecel & Goodman, 2010), correctly marks three levers of change – accountable leadership, enlightened public policy and engaged citizens – as a powerful triad upon which rests the foundation of strong schools.
Parents and Community as Co-Designers
A school culture is defined by a set of expectations based on equity and excellence, stakeholders’ relationships and roles, community aspirations, quality of instruction, and holding itself accountable for high student academic achievement. In the best of worlds, this culture is co-created by stakeholders, including students, parents, community leaders and educators. Co-creation means co-ownership. And as co-owners, each stakeholder has a responsibility to play his or her role in a manner that does not allow the school to fail nor, for that matter, is the stakeholder allowed to fail.
Co-creating a school culture requires parent and community involvement in visioning, assuming specific roles to partner for success, engagement in shared goal-setting and decision-making with teachers and students, and shared accountability for support and commitment. Once stakeholders share the passion and commitment to succeed and claim ownership of the school, shared expectations can be realized.
Parents and Community as Partners and Critical Friends in the Educational Process
Having parents and community as partners and critical friends with educators requires recognition of the value and contributions of each stakeholder in making the education enterprise a success. Partnership entails acknowledgement, respect and honoring of each others’ contributions in making education work for each student. It also means tapping into diverse assets and strengths of a culturally diverse community to strengthen the teaching and learning process at every level.
Parents and teachers, in collaboration with students when appropriate, set goals and monitor their accomplishments. With the support of parents and community, teachers and administrators are now empowered to make a positive difference in the lives of students.
Parents and Community as Pro-Active Feedback Providers
Research has confirmed the benefits of a well-planned system that engages parents as providers of feedback as an integral part of continuous improvement. Parents and community often make themselves available to work with the school, but their support becomes more evident when schools are facing difficulties. Our children’s success requires no less than our full commitment to make sure that parents and community are fully informed and have mechanisms for providing input with regularity throughout the year and at key decision points.
Parents and Community as Gatekeepers and Guardians of Success
For this article, parents and community as gatekeepers serve different purposes, primarily to ensure that: (1) failure is not an option; (2) equity and excellence becomes a school’s mantra and practice; (3) every student is engaged, none are unattended; (4) everyone graduates ready for college and career; and (5) the sanctity of the school as a center of learning that fuels progress in the community is maintained. As guardians of success, parents and community keep tabs on progress achieved by all stakeholders and become co-catalysts for change. Accountability is shared; all stakeholders collectively assess success, reflect on the actions taken or needed, and redirect efforts to increase a school’s effectiveness.
Nothing is impossible for a principal with the complete and unabashed support of parents and community. A community governance structure assumes that the responsibility for education rests in shared accountability to ensure equity and excellence where all children – regardless of economic status or ethnicity – graduate ready for college and the workforce. This means reclaiming ownership of our schools, taking time to share our leadership and getting involved.
As diverse stakeholders in this process, we must begin a new, enlightened relationship with educators based on mutual respect and recognition that parents are leaders and advocates for quality education who are willing to partner with educators in making equity and excellence a reality. Parents possess unique gifts that, when coupled with those of educators, become a powerful force. The reality in our schools is such that we must purposefully create mechanisms to engage in new relationships with one another, planning and co-designing the future for our children.
Robledo Montecel, M., & C. Goodman (eds). Courage to Connect: A Quality Schools Action Framework (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2010).
Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D., is director of IDRA field services. Rosana G. Rodríguez, Ph.D., is director of development at IDRA. Comments and questions may be directed to them via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©2011, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 2011 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.]