Many community development organizations approach the issue of public education with trepidation. Too many public schools have been entrenched in mediocrity for too long. The politics are messy. Public schools have become everybody’s favorite scapegoat.
And yet, if your organization’s mission is to stabilize and improve struggling communities, it is hard to ignore the effect of public schools on your ability to meet that mission. You may create affordable housing, bring a new grocery store into the neighborhood, organize to reduce crime or increase jobs—and succeed in these efforts only to see families move out as soon as their children reach school age.
Here are three simple questions to guide you in considering whether—and how—to engage with your local public schools.
1. How bad are they, really?
Sometimes our public schools have a reputation that is far from reality. Have you visited during the school day anytime recently? Talked with a variety of parents whose children attend the schools? Test scores may be the easiest data to find, but they don’t tell the whole story. Do some homework and find out what the problems really are, and how they are being addressed. You may be surprised to find some devoted, hardworking educators who welcome new partners.
2. Who are your potential playmates?
Are there education advocacy groups active in your state or local school system? Other community-based organizations or institutions investing in the schools? Research who these groups and individuals are, what their interests and activities are, and what kind of impact they are having. Be aware that there is a dizzying array of national funders and advocacy organizations working on “education reform,” a term that means different things to different people. Many come in with their own agenda, which doesn’t always focus on the best interest of the children. Ask where the voices of those most affected—families and youth—are in their efforts, and particularly those currently being failed by the schools. If these voices are missing, proceed with caution. Or consider being the bridge builder that brings them to the table.
3. How does it affect your ability to meet your mission?
Do families move out of neighborhoods in which your organization works because of poor-quality schools? What role do the schools serve, or might they serve, in meeting your organization’s mission? Local public schools can be anchor institutions—places to hold meetings and community events, sometimes one of few “neutral” locations where different groups can come together and not feel like they are in someone else’s territory. They are often the places where you can find the “hard to reach” families who don’t come out to your meetings or events. Sometimes these families have trusting relationships with one (or more) of their children’s teachers, who can become a bridge for you. If your organization’s mission encompasses anything more than housing production, it is likely that a working relationship with your local public schools has something to offer to help you meet that mission.
It’s true that public schools can feel like impenetrable institutions. It’s also often true that the people who run them want to see them work well for children. You can start small, for example, organizing homework support for struggling students or inviting parents and school staff to work with you on community projects. You don’t necessarily have to take on all of the bigger challenges. At whatever level you engage, the community is likely to be better off for it.