If school reform is going to be long-lasting and successful, it must involve the voices of the community. The regeneration of urban schools and communities are intrinsically linked, as it is difficult for communities to improve without good education, but it is also difficult for schools to improve without support from an energized, active community.
Districts have typically found it hard to improve schooling in poor districts, as these efforts are generally carried out entirely separately from other community-enhancing efforts. Linking these efforts is preferable, as children cannot be expected to achieve at school if they lack adequate housing, nutrition, or safe communities.
It is unreasonable to expect that schools alone can make up for debilitating factors such as poverty and racism, although they must undoubtedly improve their efforts in teaching inner-city children. Community-based organizations that deal with issues such as housing, health, and regeneration would profit from partnering with schools and working together to improve the lot and the education of children living in these areas as a means of benefiting both schools and the community.
Engaging community groups with schools has the added benefit of helping teachers and other educators to better understand the communities and lifestyles of the children they teach, and thus to better adapt their style to meet their needs. This humanizes the student population, treating students not as simply a problem to be fixed, but as a group rich in heritage, culture, and traditions that adds value to the public education system. Community groups working with schools provide a vital link between schools and the families of inner-city students.
Racism, often fuelled by ignorance and isolation, is another problem faced by many inner-city schools. This often leads to teachers discriminating – however unconsciously – against students of color, and particularly against low-earning ethnic minority parents who are sometimes seen as being part of “the problem.”
Financial and social resources are not enough to solve these issues; the entire culture of schooling needs transformation. Inner-city schools tend to be underfunded compared with schools in more affluent, suburban areas. In order to achieve change in this area, it is necessary to create a political constituency around the issue of school funding made up of community groups who are passionate and motivated enough to force positive change.
Key contributions that community initiatives can make to school reform include helping children become better equipped to learn at school through improving the social context of education, and encouraging parents and communities to become involved with schools and participate in the education of children. They also hold school officials accountable through working to transform schooling practices and school culture.
Perhaps most valuable to the process is the fact that communities are able to build a constituency around public education that can be mobilized to support the delivery of more and better resources into schools and address any other inequalities that may be found within the education system. Despite these obvious and comprehensive benefits, it is clear that in many urban areas, the reality reflects isolation and ignorance more than it does community participation and cohesion. Teachers often report feeling isolated within these schools and many inner-city parents do not ever go into the school unless the school has a problem with their child. This results in a dearth of schools offering meaningful participation opportunities for parents.
Focusing on social capital between groups of people better equips them to achieve common ends. This is substantiated by the finding that schools with greater amounts of social capacity – even though they might only have limited resources – make better use of the resources they do have, and use their social capital in productive relationships in order to obtain influence and further resources. The usage of social capital fosters better relationships between adults and children, creating an atmosphere of transparency and trust within schools as well as between schools and communities, and among parents.
Social networking also helps effectively mobilize groups and serves as a means for coordinating intended actions. When a network of trust is developed among teachers, principals and parents, it allows them to work together to develop a common vision for school reform and implement that vision with fewer issues than they would have otherwise.
Power within communities impacts school reform. Communities with a high number of ethnic minorities are often poorer than average, and lack the means to challenge unfavorable views of them. Negative perceptions about the community, from those both inside and outside of the community, can lead to community decline and even school failure.
These pejorative views are exacerbated by powerful leaders who often redline these communities and burden them with environmental hazards. As long as these communities lack the necessary power to mobilize in any great numbers, urban schools will continue to fail the children they serve. Greater community engagement in school reform will not correct this without comprehensive restructuring of inequality, particularly in the underfunding of schools in inner-city areas.
Lack of power causes problems between parents and teachers as well. Any effort to increase social capacity must also address this power imbalance, in order to ensure that maximum productivity is being gained from the engagement of the community. If this does not happen, then any effort to push reform forward is likely to end in disagreement and unresolved conflict. If parents do not feel they are being given sufficient opportunity to participate or feel that their opinions are not being respected, they are not likely to be effective as agents of change.
In order for community groups to work with schools to implement change, the focus should be on relational power, which, in theory, should be a win-win situation. Relational power refers to the power of groups of people to get things done, as opposed to zero sum power, where one group leverages influence over another. Focusing on relational power placates teachers and principals concerned that some community groups may try to make unreasonable demands that cannot be accommodated.
Collaboration between groups and schools is the best option for working together and avoiding confrontation without ignoring confrontational issues, such as overcoming prejudices related to race or poverty. Working to build both social capital and relational power in order to form collaborations is arguably the best way to expand the capacity of school communities, while allowing latitude to build an electorate that can push for urban school reform. Traditional, elite school reformers cannot complete their mission alone. They must work with communities looking to make a difference.