How We Invite Students’ Families to Plan Together With Our Staff

I lead a high school in a beautiful, vibrant community, with 90% students of color and an active, devoted alumni association. It also happens to be a school in which over 90% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch – and one of the lowest performing schools in the city.

In a school balancing such complex variables, educators can sometimes make the mistake of thinking our students need us to “save” them and even encourage our students to seek a future outside of their community. But I’ve spent years here, as a teacher first and now as a school leader, and the message that I’ve heard loud and clear from my students is this: We’re proud of our community, and our community has high expectations for us.

As a school leader, I want to make sure our staff overcome any deficit thinking to see the neighborhood and the students in a way that centers the assets that shape them: their language, their culture, their families, their persistent high expectations for their futures.

That’s why we decided to hold a Community Feedback Workshop before heading back to school this year. Since we know our community has high expectations for their students – and high expectations of us – we need to know if our plans are meeting those expectations. We invited about 30 community members – alumni, current parents, current students and community members – to talk with us about our teaching plans and strategic goals and to offer feedback to push us further.

1.) Collaborating with staff to establish a shared vision

We first invested in internal staff pre-work to establish a shared vision and set our intentions for the event.  That included a staff walking tour, in which we walked the community, taking pictures of art and beautiful things we saw in our neighborhood. We debriefed our experience, grounding our discussion in a core belief: We are part of this community, and this community is beautiful. It’s full of life. It’s full of art. It’s full of creativity.

We discussed the question: What role should our school community play in the community? We landed on the idea that we can serve as a hub for community dialogue. Our school can be a place where the community can come together to express their hopes for their children.

2. Inviting the community in for dialogue

When our community members, families and alumni joined us, we sat in a circle outdoors on our school grounds. I told the group that I didn’t quite know what would happen or what our dialogue would look like, but I knew that holding this dialogue was the right thing – the way to bridge our work. 

I read the following quote from Dr. Eve Ewing’s “Ghosts in the Schoolyard” to help set the intentions for the session:

“A school is never just about a school. A school means the potential for stability in an unstable world, the potential for agency in the face of powerlessness, the enactment of one’s own dream and visions for one’s own children.”

We broke into small workshops first, in which teachers could share their plans and goals.

Teachers invited feedback by choosing from a series of driving questions on the topics of curriculum, community and culture.

After small group workshops, we came back together. I’m a believer in the power of being able to see everyone eye to eye, so we sat in a big circle for an open dialogue that stretched to 90 minutes.

We heard from an alum who is now a city council member. We heard about the high hopes and expectations of our immigrant community. One mother called us out for being too permissive when students act out in class, pointing out that a lack of accountability can be a form of low expectations. The message we heard is that families are sending us their children, expecting them to be their best every day, and wanting us to help them fulfill that expectation.

3. Carrying community voices into our planning

A couple weeks after the workshop, a teacher came up to me at school and told me that it had been the most formative experience of her career. Hearing directly from families and community members shifted her approach to planning. She will have those voices in her mind as she approaches her students every day. That’s what matters. That was the goal.

What I want more than anything is for us as educators to center our students and this community in all we do. Of course, we have our standards that we’re teaching, but I want us to ask: How can my work around this standard evolve to meet what matters? How can we build on this standard in a way that allows the community to be part of the content?

Too often, educators and families and community members compartmentalize our role in students’ lives. We think: Here are the roles that fall under the responsibility of the school, and here are those that fall under the responsibility of families and community. But students’ lives aren’t compartmentalized in that way. We need to cross-reference our work. We need to reframe the relationship by building a bridge between us – a bridge that families and community members can walk across to be heard by the school, and a bridge that teachers cross frequently to reach out and partner together for our students.