A community member volunteering in a local school
Tips for School & District Administrators

Getting Started with Building School-Community Partnerships

By Jennifer Gunn

The research is clear. Community engagement can be a driving force for student success. “Parents, families, educators, and communities — there’s no better partnership to assure that all students PreK through high school — have the support and resources they need to succeed in school and in life,” says former National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel. According to the NEA’s Parent, Family, Community Involvement in Education policy brief, “The positive impact of connecting community resources with student needs is well documented. In fact, community support of the educational process is considered one of the characteristics common to high-performing schools.” But how do you start the process of connecting your school to the community? Take a look.

Bring the community into your school

Schools can start by considering small ways to improve the lives of their students and families. Perhaps this could involve seeking community donations for in-school washing machines so that students can have clean clothes. Or your school could try soliciting food donations from local businesses for a school pantry so that families can have food at home over weekends.

Thanks to local and community support, West Side High in Newark, NJ has started Lights On, a Friday night program where high school students can hang out and socialize safely. The program also runs three nights a week during the summer, so that students can stay off the streets. Local volunteers and businesses can offer to cook or cater dinner throughout the year — they serve 6400 meals! — or donate to an Amazon wish list of recreational items. In a neighborhood plagued with violence, the program is working. “I haven’t lost any more kids to gun violence since the start of the school year,” Principal Akbar Cook says. The school also installed free washer/dryers, so that students can do their laundry and have clean clothes to wear to school, which increased attendance. The local community donates detergent and dryer sheets so that students can easily do their laundry at no cost.

Look for local partners who can work with your school and its families. This could involve connecting to a local mental health resource or a free medical clinic for school visits or neighborhood wellness visits.

At the Faubion School in Portland, Oregon, Trillium Family Services provides on-site mental health and wellness prevention services. Rather than parents having to take time off from work to take their child to see a doctor, dentist, or therapist, the student can be seen while at school.

5 simple ways to bring the outside community in

  1. Business/corporate in-school mentoring programs
  2. Skype sessions with experts or business/political leaders
  3. Bring in guest speakers or hands-on demonstrations from the community
  4. Invite organizations or companies to teach electives or take over a class for a day
  5. Allow organizations or companies to attend or sponsor school events.

Your starter list of whom to contact

  • senior living facilities
  • farms or greenhouses
  • nature centers
  • the parks department
  • local military outposts or veterans groups
  • homeless shelters
  • nonprofit organizations
  • local companies
  • local laboratories or science centers
  • community centers
  • youth groups

Elements for success

The National Association of School Psychologists shared a downloadable list of the necessary elements of effective school-community partnerships. One of the most important factors in developing a strong and lasting partnership is having a designated school contact person to liaise with and manage the school–community partnerships over time. Constant turnover or inconsistent leadership can break down a partnership. “Coordinators help maintain partnerships with community agencies and facilitate effective communication and collaboration among the leadership team, specialized instructional support personnel, service providers, school personnel, parents, families, and members of the community,” says NASP. They also recommend working on a plan for sustainability. How will the program last, grow, evolve, and expand over time? “Develop a plan to maintain your community partnerships across multiple school and fiscal years. Try to create a diversified funding stream to support service delivery work from multiple funders.” Sustainability is also helped by routine reflection and evaluation.

If you are interested in helping schools and communities work together, learn more about our MEd in Curriculum & Instruction: Community Engagement in Education program.

Jennifer L.M. Gunn spent 10 years in newspaper and magazine publishing before moving to public education. She is a curriculum designer, teaching coach, and high school educator in New York City. She is also co-founder of the annual EDxEDNYC Education Conference for teacher-led innovation and regularly presents at conferences on the topics of adolescent literacy, leadership, and education innovation.

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