The Benefits of Community Engagement in Education
Much like the soil we build our schools upon, people need solid footing and an appreciation for the environment. When looking at community schools as a construct, one must consider all the nuances that make a community significant. Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory is useful in unpacking the multiple layers and perspectives that make a community (1979) with an exploration of four environmental elements concerning the individual: microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, and the macrosystem.
Recognizing the intricate pieces of what makes a school create a community, also requires the observation of the individuals which it includes. Having been a part of a unique and robust school community that was both static and entopic at once, I have a personal connection to the imperative of inviting community engagement to the educational system.
It is common for a school with a high level of parent/family volunteer involvement to be viewed as community-minded. But is this really the case? There are specific questions that can be asked to verify this assessment: Which parents are volunteering? Who are the individuals that sit at the highest level of committee assignments (PTA, Site Council, event planning…)? What families are not represented in positions of power or decision-making? An evaluation of the people who represent the community will reveal which stakeholders are missing; an issue that can be addressed by true reflection and analysis of the school’s community system (McKenna & Millen, 2013).
Using the Ecological Systems Theory as a means to analyze community engagement is one strategy which will allow for a complete analysis of who in the community is represented in the collective voice of a school. For instance, the first and simplest step is to acknowledge who is part of the student body — family members, teaching and support staff, and administration and community partners. Let’s examine the process of community engagement in schools with this theory as a guide.
Ecological systems theory and schools
Johnson describes the utilization of Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems as an alternative model for accountability in education (2008). Starting with the microsystem, we must acknowledge that a school is more than a building. A school’s microsystem includes students, families, administrators, teachers, support staff, surrounding community, and a variety of stakeholders which provide supports, dependent on need. For individuals, such a student, this microsystem would include family members, faith community leaders and members, teachers, and many other relationships that contribute directly to their development.
This connection and contact are multi-directional, and nonlinear with further exploration. The mesosystem is the linkage between those microsystems to create the whole. An example of this multi-directional relationship would be between families and teachers, or support staff and administrators.
The exosystem is the connectors between all areas of the ecological system. Once becoming familiar with the micro, meso, and exo levels of the ecological system, it becomes clear that the macrosystem (i.e., culture, social norms, political and economic climate) affects all areas of each system. For instance, the overall climate and culture of a school is an outcome of the cultural and political environment of not only the immediate community, but also the city, state, and the nation as a whole. The same is true for individuals, and how a person’s ecological system is impacted by all the layers and connections, the nation’s cultural climate (macrosystem) is fundamental in development and in education outcomes.
Now how does all this connect with the conversation of community engagement and education, and what can we do as educators to empower and lead in our communities? I argue that an ecological perspective is a lens through which educators need to view classrooms and schools — accepting that schools and all the members of a school community are not static, but an ever-changing and evolving system that needs regular reflection and evaluation of stakeholder investment. In simpler terms, when students and family demographics shift, or teacher and staff turnover occurs — the system changes. One piece of the system that often remains consistent over time is the community, or the sense of place.
Community and place in education
The Institute for Educational Leadership and the Coalition for Community Schools developed a framework which can be used to create a community-inspired and supported school. They describe a community (public) school as “a hub of its neighborhood, uniting educators, community partners, and families…” (pg 1). Accepting the school as the community hub creates an expectation of belonging and high expectations academically and relationally. Relationships between all stakeholders are key to the development of interdependence and accountability among all within the ecological system of the school community.
Community Schools Framework (2017) is a helpful tool to assess whether our educational communities are authentically creating space for all members of the community to have their voices heard. In the document, there is recognition that community engagement goes beyond the PTA and classroom parent/family volunteers. The value of those who are part of the community as faith leaders, nonprofit and community organizers, and leaders in wellness is evident and explicitly embraced. When those voices are not part of the collective, the school community asks why.
The 3toPhD® initiative in Portland, the collaboration of efforts between Concordia University-Portland, Portland Public Schools, Faubion School, Kaiser Permanente, Basics, and Trillium Family Services is an example of how the community can be incorporated into a school system. Although the initiative is still in its infancy and has many years of learning and growth to do, the commitment to the community as the bedrock of student and family engagement enables all stakeholders to evaluate who is at the table and who is missing when decisions are made. It is important to keep in mind that it is in the decisions where a community is tended — the soil with which our school communities are cultivated — and all perspectives (or crops) need to be considered for a fruitful harvest.
Annie W. Scott completed her undergraduate work at Lewis and Clark College with a BA in Communications, with an emphasis on Interpersonal Communication and Organizational Development. She has her MA in Community Psychology from Concordia University-Portland with research in the discipline gap and attendance in K-12 Schools.
Now employed at Concordia University-Portland, Scott is the chair of the COE Equity Committee, coordinator for MEd licensure practicums, and adjunct professor for MAT and undergraduate programs with the specialization of equity in education.Learn More: Click to view related resources.
- Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979), "The ecology of human development," 1st ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press
- Johnson, E. (2008) , "Ecological Systems and Complexity Theory: Toward an alternative model for accountability in education," An International Journal Of Complexity And Education, 5(1), 1-10
- McKenna, M., & Millen, J. (2013) , "Look! Listen! Learn! Parent Narratives and Grounded Theory Models of Parent Voice, Presence, and Engagement in K-12 Education," School Community Journal, 23(1), 9-48