Secondary school principals, school leaders, education administrators, and teachers all recognize the importance of community outreach in the vision and mission of their schools. However, some may think that budgetary constraints, staff reluctance, and lack of outside support make community engagement difficult. That’s simply not true.
Collaboration between schools and communities can lead to many great opportunities. Whether it’s tutoring programs, student internships with local businesses, or private financial support to build and maintain facilities, schools do well to work with local individuals, organizations, and companies.
Your school has one great resource that communities need—space. And all types of space, at that. Your facility has dedicated spaces for lectures and learning, meetings and collaboration, exercise and sports, music and performances, and eating and gathering.
So, let’s put your facility to work. Consider these five extremely effective ways to use your facility to increase community participation in the life of your school.
Think Outside the Box
Your school building is a tremendous asset, and it can be used to transform neighborhoods and communities. Think about it: What are the needs of people nearby? Maybe your neighborhood needs a three-on-three basketball league—your school has a gym. Perhaps the elderly need a place for weekend socials—your school has empty classrooms, complete with tables and chairs. Maybe a local charity needs a kitchen to prepare hot meals for the homeless—your school has a cafeteria. More than likely, your school already has what is necessary to meet some very real needs in your community. Be creative and think outside the box.
Offer Health and Social Services
Your facility is a great place for people of all ages and backgrounds to connect, learn, and grow. The fact is, many organizations and community services could be amply served with the use of your school building. For example, faith-based fellowships, local recovery and support groups, and other associations may need a home for weekly meetings that you could provide at your school. Local fire and police departments may need a gym or workout facility. Maybe the local chamber of commerce or city council desires space for meetings and events.
Schools often have space that can be used by governmental agencies, as well as social and health services. Think about inviting health care professionals to utilize your facility. This partnership could make services such as dental checkups, vision and blood pressure screenings, or mental health counseling available to underserved members of your community. Schools that incorporate these health and social services benefit with greater family involvement in the life of the school.
In addition to providing an education to your students, school buildings are a great place to host educational opportunities for adult learners. Many adults are interested in taking evening and weekend classes on art, finances, or as a way to earn their GED. Parents especially may want opportunities to learn how to help their children in school, find the right college, or finance their child’s education. You can find local professionals who are looking for spaces to provide classes and seminars. Take advantage of these opportunities to make your school an asset to your community.
Develop a Volunteer Program
Effective leaders maximize available capital to achieve the best results for their organization. However, often leaders don’t consider what “human capital” is available. In the school setting, “human capital” is often students’ family members, local business leaders, participants in organizations, and other individuals who are willing to volunteer. An effective volunteer program can strengthen your school’s relationships with local community members and truly transform the culture of your school.
Tap into members of the community and ask them to volunteer as workers for events such as fairs, art shows, cultural festivals, or theater productions. Others may assist in spring-cleaning events, or they may offer help with lawn and landscaping work. You may be surprised by how many retirees love working in a tutoring program. Many schools involve parents and community members on advisory committees to address pressing school issues (e.g., facility improvements, budgets, safety issues, curriculum, etc.). Your facility is multifaceted with lots of space for volunteers to employ their skills.
Create Safety Teams
Few issues get more attention in education circles than school safety. You can maximize your efforts while accomplishing two goals: increasing the safety of your school, and engaging your local community in the process.
Parents, local authorities, community members, and first responders can be instrumental in making your facility a safer place. Consider developing teams to execute site assessments of your school buildings and develop plans specific to your facility in case of an emergency. In 2008, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) released A Guide to School Vulnerability Assessments, outlining ways to involve and encourage local participation in conducting site assessments of school buildings. In 2013, ED, in collaboration with other government agencies, produced the Guide for Developing High-Quality School Emergency Operations Plans, detailing an effective planning process for emergency response. These two resources outline ways for schools to assemble teams that would address safety concerns and plan a coordinated response in the event of an emergency.
As a school leader, be intentional about developing partnerships with community leaders, associations, businesses, and local government agencies. These partnerships can be invaluable and can advance the interests of both organizations. Whether your school chooses to partner with the Rotary Club, United Way, a local restaurant, a franchise of a national corporation, a media outlet, or a local business, invite the partnering organization to visit your school. Show them around and let them see the great things your school is doing for your students and community. Perhaps the partnership will lead to a facility investment, improvement, or needed service. Make partnerships a priority and aggressively cultivate these relationships.
As a leader, you play a crucial role in making connections with the people and organizations near your school. It’s important to take the time to develop connections with people and groups of diverse interests—invest time and energy in these relationships. While developing these relationships may seem like a daunting challenge, it’s easier when you’re able to use the facility you manage as a resource. By using your school’s facility in helpful and creative ways, you can greatly boost local engagement and build bridges that allow the entire community to connect, learn, and grow.
Travis Dunlap is a research assistant and Linda Lemasters is director of education at the U.S. Department of Education’s Education Facilities Clearinghouse at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. They will be presenters at Ignite ’16, Feb. 25-27 in Orlando, FL.