In many ways, the positions held by Joyce Epstein and Derrick Meador couldn’t be more different. Epstein is a professor in Baltimore at a big-city university complex and heads an organization working with roughly 600 schools in 23 states and several countries. Meador lives in Jennings, OK, where the population slipped last year by nearly 3 percent because 10 people moved away. Meador is the well-known and popular school superintendent there, having inched his way up from bus driver, science teacher, and principal to take charge of Jennings Public Schools.

But the two leaders have one thing in common: They are both passionate about how important it is to have the local community involved in schools—and they can each tick off creative ways to do it in a heartbeat (see “15 Ways to Engage Your Local Community” on the next page).

“Engaging the community is one of those things educators talk about as a priority, but too often doesn’t get the attention it should,” says Epstein, director of the National Network of Partnership Schools and a research professor of education and sociology at Johns Hopkins University. “It is unfortunate, because it pays off in many ways and is probably easier than they think.”

Meador, who has written about the topic, sees the connection as a win-win that benefits all involved—the students, the school, and the community. Partnerships can be purely social, enlist outside help with academics, or center around community service projects or local businesses and services, he notes.

Getting Started

Like a lot of other administrators who have had success getting the community involved in a range of school functions, Meador has found it often just requires that someone in the school take the first step. “Most are more than willing to help at the school. You have to provide them with that opportunity, and then from there you can build those relationships and maintain them,” he says.

Partnerships can start by just being part of existing community events or projects. For instance, for a decade Londonderry High School in Londonderry, NH, has sponsored an “Applestock” concert for the whole town, featuring high school talent as part of the community’s annual Old Home Day celebration. And students at Medfield High School in Medfield, MA, play a key role at the town’s Medfield Day by hosting and directing a variety of events for children and helping with setup and cleanup.

Other schools open their auditoriums, gymnasiums, cafeterias, and outdoor sports facilities to the community regularly for community events, Epstein says. Just offering the facilities publicly can improve relations. Cape Henlopen High School in Lewes, DE, makes its auditorium available for a local film festival, and Bradford Area High School in Bradford, PA, for years encouraged the use of its library by local book clubs. Classrooms can be used as adult learning spaces.

Epstein recommends developing relationships at several levels and then making sure they are sustained. “This can’t be one of those things schools do and then feel good about for awhile and forget. Just a phone call between a principal and a local official isn’t enough. They have to be designed to be ongoing partnerships that grow and benefit both sides,” she says. “That’s how they become most valuable and survive.” If an administrator is struggling to keep up with the responsibilities, assign duties to another staff member.

Teach the Value of Collaboration

One key piece of sustaining school/community connections is that the interaction gives students a better understanding of how collaboration can work, Meador says.

For instance, a unique “Kindness in Motion” incubator program at Northwestern Regional High School in Winsted, CT, involves the community by raising money from citizens and other sources for student-designed projects. Students submit ideas and get $100 in seed money if their project is approved.

One effort involved repairing an elderly neighbor’s home with support from a local hardware store and volunteers, says assistant principal Joseph Masi.

Another project invited residents to the school for a fundraising breakfast, then used that money for packages to be given to children being separated from their parents. A different group used seed money and extra funds from local citizens and bought games, activities, and treats they could use in visits to a nursing home. More than 65 projects were funded last year.

Cameron Soester, assistant principal at Milford Junior-Senior High School in Milford, NE, coordinates community involvement on a number of fronts, including a fundraiser for scholarships in which local residents match other funds that last year provided 42 of the school’s 55 graduates with scholarships totaling $65,000. “The financial support that we have received from the community is more than most districts can envision, even more than we expect,” Soester says. “There is a culture in our small community that we need to help where we can, and when we can,” he says, noting that it has grown as the school has been involved in the community.

Several local civic groups are directly involved with Milford Junior-Senior High School, including the Kiwanis Club, through a special student leadership program. One community group works with a four-state organization called TeamMates to provide mentoring in the Milford schools.

Soester believes involving community members has become a pattern of giving—the school reaches out to help locally, students get involved in community events, and then more connections and interactions foster more participation by local citizens.

“These connections build and become a cycle that pays off for the school and community,” he says. “When the community sees our students doing such awesome work, they appreciate it, and one kind act deserves another.”

Working Together

If you’re thinking about promoting community partnerships, consider tying an event to a holiday. While some schools have created Halloween activities in their town, McAllen Memorial High School in McAllen, TX, took it a step further. In addition to staging booths that offered candy to children, the school also offered information for parents about child safety and health. Attica Junior-Senior High School in Attica, IN, celebrates local residents who have served in the military with a special Veterans Day event where they are treated to a hospitality room with breakfast, followed by an event for the whole school during which they are honored. Some schools host special events for winter holidays—from craft fairs and game nights to student Christmas musical shows or special children’s theater performances.

Schools provide a great place to hold community health-related events designed to circulate information or offer screenings because the facilities have the space and are familiar for families. Laurel High School in Laurel, DE, partners with a local medical group annually. This year’s event featured free health screenings and vendor booths related to living a healthy lifestyle. Travelers Rest High School in South Carolina helps collect record amounts of blood through three blood drives at the school each year, with students helping to recruit and manage donors.

Food and clothing drives also represent an easy way to forge school/community partnerships. If your school decides to go this route, promote the event in creative ways, like giving each drive-by contributor a raffle ticket. Texas High School in Texarkana, TX, collected supplies—and some cash contributions—to fill 300 backpacks for distribution to children who were working with court-appointed attorneys.

Community Pride Comes Into Play

Local beautification projects showcase the community and tap into the pride of everyone who lives in the town, including students. For instance, McAlester High School in McAlester, OK, undertook a “Keep McAlester Beautiful” campaign in which students helped repair and replace local playground equipment, planted trees, beautified a local park, and painted and fixed other town structures. They started with a planning and brainstorming meeting at the school with students and state and local officials. Then students worked closely with a nonprofit that hopes to improve the downtown area. Their efforts won them a statewide Keep Oklahoma Beautiful Youth Achievement Award—and praise from the local community.

When the City of Chesapeake, VA, undertook a project to put blue heron sculptures in various locations in the community, Western Branch Middle School students got involved. They worked with a local business to create an appropriate flower bed at their school, met with the artist and civic leaders, and raised $1,400 to put one of the 14 sculptures on the school grounds.

The customized piece—with school-related messages—was unveiled at a ceremony at the school with local leaders and the superintendent of schools, school administrators, staff, and students. City leaders praised the effort, and Superintendent Jared Cotton cited the effort as an example of a project that shows that when students take a leadership role, they can do great things in the community.

“I am a big supporter of student leadership opportunities and showing our students the value of community connections,” Cotton says. “I believe anywhere you find a highly successful school system, you find a community that believes in education and is actively involved.”

Jim Paterson is a writer based in Lewes, DE.

Sidebar: 15 Ways to Engage Your Local Community

Need some fresh ideas? Peruse these 15 projects recommended by Derrick Meador, a strong advocate for community involvement in schools and superintendent of Jennings Public Schools in Oklahoma, and Joyce Epstein, director of the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships. In a new guide from her organization, Promising Partnership Practices 2018, she says there are more than 150 different ideas for community connections that “enrich programs of school, family, and community partnerships.”

  1. A tech open house can allow local residents to tap into the knowledge of the students and staff about technology—from options for off-cable television viewing to using cellphone features and apps, or installing the right security software. Local related businesses may want to sponsor or display their goods.
  2. Once a month, hold a game night. Each teacher can design games or activities geared toward the particular subject area they teach, and extracurricular groups can also provide some ideas. Design the event for younger students, or target the whole community.
  3. Hold a potluck dinner during the long stretch after the winter holidays when there isn’t a lot of activity. Give it a clever theme and make it an annual event. Consider making it a multicultural celebration to show off cultural delicacies and build understanding, even adding a talent show or presentations about various regions.
  4. Hold a business fair where students can learn about local companies and careers and potentially find internships or jobs, Meador suggests. He invites local companies to a fair each April, where all the students get to hear presentations and chat with representatives. “We have students who attend and come away with genuine interest in a local career that they didn’t even know existed before attending,” he says.
  5. Ask for nonparent volunteers for a reading program for students with lower reading levels. The volunteers may come in as often as they wish and read books one-on-one with the students. Recruit broadly, but give participants lots of flexibility as long as they provide notice in advance.
  6. Have students explore local history by interviewing someone in the community about a particular aspect of the region, and then put the information together in a program for students—and the public. Build on the information each year, connecting students with experts in local history, and create a center in the school library with the information collected by students.
  7. Hold a fun campus campout featuring a bonfire and a movie—and raise funds for a special community-based project as part of the event.
  8. With all the attention on STEM careers, Epstein suggests a family STEM night, with information about what students at any level are learning in related classes and what they could do with their knowledge in more advanced classes and careers.
  9. An evening of the arts can show off the school’s art, theater, and music programs and provide community members with a pleasurable activity for an evening. A small admission charge can help fund school art programs. Collaborate with local artists, too.
  10. Coaches and sports team members could be on hand for a sports information night, talking with younger students and community members about their sports. Younger students or even adults often see them as celebrities but rarely get to interact. Sports safety could be an interesting theme.
  11. A parenting workshop can benefit parents with students of any age. Get sponsorships from a variety of related local services and businesses that might also want to provide advice.
  12. Holding a career night rather than a daytime activity can allow students of all ages—and sometimes presenters—to more easily attend. It can include booths with information, presentations, college information, and an opportunity for students to take interest inventories.
  13. School-based scavenger hunts for future students get community members into the school but also allow younger students to become familiar with the facility.
  14. Schools can be the center for welcoming new residents—connect with local real estate or community offices and then inviting the newest residents to the school once a month or a few times a year.
  15. Schools can raise money and support small businesses by holding mini mall expos where local companies without a main street storefront can promote their businesses, perhaps with a focus on a specific field: home improvement and landscaping, recreation and health, or technology.