Engaging community members in improving educational outcomes is key. Both federal and local levels seem to agree that extensive government intervention in the “how to” community engagement process is not the answer for local implementation of new educational reform policy initiatives. The challenge is to develop a comprehensive community engagement approach in order to convert policies to the best practices that yield desired results.
As communities are engaged, identifying who to engage and providing clarity around tasks are critical first steps. Initially, there are two groups that should be identified for engagement: grassroots and grasstops.
The grassroots are the local informal community leaders with prolific social capital in the community and a dynamic social network that can engage community members who feel left out of the decision making process. These informal leaders are savvy with the amplification of information via technology or persuasive dialogue; most importantly, they can quickly mobilize community members. The grasstops leaders are the local business and policy partners with key access to legislative and monetary structures. The grasstops leaders can help advocate for and sustain the long term goals of the local initiatives, even as local and federal leadership structures change. Engaging both grassroots and grasstops groups can create a robust driving force to amplify local initiatives any time and any place.
The initial phase of this robust community engagement process is being implemented by EDWorks New Start partner Central Collegiate Academy, a Detroit public high school recently featured by the U.S. Department of Education. The work at the local level by Detroit Public Schools is designed to build capacity and sustainability from a combination of community members and business partners. Implementing such a community initiative requires the development and cultivation of authentic collaborative relationships across all formal and informal groups.
In Detroit, like many other communities across the country, schools are synergy of the local community. At Detroit’ Central Collegiate Academy, the school made it a goal for students to engage their community by applying what is learned in school to help solve a local problem. The school hosted a summative performance-based assessment gala with their various community engagement partners so students could showcase their efforts. They combined both grasstops organizational leaders (St. John Hospital, Detroit Parent Network, United Way, Sodexo USA and Focus Hope) and grassroots leaders (students, parents and community advocates).
The students provided academic tours and demonstrated how they applied what they learned in school to enhance their greater Detroit community. Students provided performance-based demonstrations of their work with local homeless families, alternative and sustainable energy resources in Detroit and genetics and family health services in Detroit. Additionally, St. John Hospital provided a tour of the new health facility inside the school, designed for students and families to have access to quality preventative health care screening. Detroit Parent Network, Focus Hope, United Way and Sodexo were able to engage parents and families with the daily services they provide in the school for families daily.
The reason why the school was able to have such a success in their community engagement process was due to their block-by-block approach. The school identified every community membership group in each block of the school’s attendance zone. The school recruited both grassroots and grasstops members into the school to develop a sustainable private-public partnership that is built to last.