Our approach to creating a community-centered school

If you haven’t worked with a Community School Liaison before, there are many different aspects of the role to consider. We do a little bit of everything: greeting students in the morning, helping families access information through technology workshops and translation support, providing backpacks, you name it. But a huge part of my role is cultivating partnerships within our school, across our associations and committees and with supportive organizations in our broader community so that students and families can access the resources they need. 

As a community-centered school, one of the ways we show up for our families is through our many events. We have Wellness Night, Math Night and Literacy Night events, and in general, around 500 to 600 of our families join us for each. I know not every school has a Community School Liaison to spearhead this process, and even though I may hold a lot of the responsibilities for planning these events, it really is a collaborative process. No one can do this kind of work alone. It takes input from all the experts on our staff to make our programming a success. That’s why I want to recommend 5 strategies that you and your team could use to design an impactful family engagement plan for the coming year.

1. Inviting staff to plan an event and design activities

We’ve built in opportunities for staff to have input on all activities and the event schedule, ensuring that families have multiple ways to participate and interact with our team when they join us. 

When it comes to our Math Nights, for example, there’s dedicated time for all of our math coaches to get together and design activities for everyone – kids and grown ups – to participate in. Then, we pass those details on to our administrators, who coordinate with our full staff and make sure everyone who is interested has an opportunity to sign up and support the event. Similarly for Literacy Night, our reading specialist and her team spearhead the activities and the schedule, and again we make sure to open it up so interested staff can sign up for supporting roles. Our team has built a strong sense of clarity and collaboration over time so that staff know exactly what’s being asked of them and the value that it holds for our community, and can find points of connection to their individual interests.

2. Building community partnerships

We use a slightly expanded process for unique events like our Family Market Day, because of the community partnerships and beyond-the-building participation that come into play. For Family Market Day, I’m coordinating with our local food bank, with family volunteers, high school volunteers and other partners to make it easy for families to access as many resources as possible – from fresh produce to community health offerings.

3. Showing families we’re centering them from the moment they walk in 

No matter which event we’re planning, we think ahead about our families’ experience and bundle resources to make them easy and straightforward to access. That might mean having someone like me on hand at the sign-in table to provide translation services as needed. If our event is around dinner time, that might mean working with our community partners to provide a meal – removing one practical obstacle to attending. Bundling can also mean having to-go bags of resources ready right as families arrive, so we can get them into their hands in a seamless manner, and combining that with informational resources by inviting our community partners to table at our events. In principle, we want these resources to be impossible to miss and to clearly demonstrate to our families that we’re here for them in every way we can be. Centering that tangible support encourages our families to join us consistently, and to really see our school as a key center of community life.

4. Reach out to families again and again – and again!

One reason we’ve been successful in honing in on the kinds of events our families find value in and building up really strong event attendance is simply by reaching out again and again. I’m active on our school’s social media, and families know that they can quickly connect with me there. And I’m a part of our regular parent meetings – taking those opportunities to be very vocal and transparent about the importance of joining our events, how much it means to our community as a whole and the support our families can expect from us. More than pushing out information, these online and in-person opportunities are key to building familiarity, trust and a willingness to engage on an ongoing basis. 

With the clarity we’ve built over time, our staff is all in on our shared commitment to really being there for our families and making our school a center of care and support. This means we’re consistently communicating and creating opportunities for families to connect and get the information they need to participate in our events. It also means that families consistently receive the message that they are welcome, that their participation is actively wanted and that we are genuine in our commitment to their well-being. Then when it comes time to attend an event, I’ll work with our staff to reach families online, on the phone, through flyers, signage and one-on-one conversations.

5. Use staff, community and family enthusiasm to keep the momentum going

If you’re looking for ways to increase support for families in your school community, I encourage you to look at the positive relationships you’re already building. Have the conversation with educators on your team about their strengths and interests to find the ways they want to contribute at family events. Notice the ideas that generate the most excitement and, with the help of your planning team, circle back to solidify those opportunities. Thinking broadly about partnerships in your building, your district and with organizations in your community can also reveal positive assets and potential collaborations. Consider local organizations with missions that align with your family engagement goals and could assist with removing obstacles to families’ participation. That may range from providing dinner or diapers to offering health insurance navigation support. 

When we really embrace supporting families’ needs, whatever they might be, we create the space for them to fully be a part of our community life and the learning journey of their children. Don’t underestimate the value of what you can do and the difference it can make for families in the immediate moment and over time. In my experience, families are always meeting us with gratitude for our efforts – because in addition to inviting them into the space, we’re showing them that we recognize their experience and that they can count on us today and into the future.