The formalized preparation of educational leaders, while stacked with standards and credentials, often leaves community behind. To bring community into school and school into community, we must work with—not for—one another. We believe schools and school leaders are uniquely situated to be catalysts for school and community partnerships. Since 2003, we have worked with educational leaders across the country to plan and facilitate Community Learning Exchanges (CLEs).

CLEs are not trainings or workshops, but rather collaborative, community-based, multiracial, and intergenerational dynamic exchanges of ideas, events, and strategies for school and community change. These exchanges offer experiences that facilitate individual and collective learning, leading to concrete action. The quintessential element behind this work is neither secret nor magic, but rather involves tapping into deeply rooted, cultural ways of teaching and learning that predate recorded history: the invitation for people to share their stories, assets, and wisdom.

CLE Topics

CLE topics can vary depending on the expressed needs of local citizens and can include themes such as igniting youth voice, improving parental involvement, engaging indigenous heritage, and racial healing in schools.

Be intentional about who you invite to CLEs, and strategically place team members. Teams can comprise school staff, students, families, and community members. There is further diversity within teams by roles, including district and building leaders, teachers, counselors, parent leaders or coordinators, nonprofit partners, university partners, school board members, and students. CLEs can be conducted over days or within hours.

The agendas and protocols may vary, but there is always a common flow. The rhythm of CLEs begins with participants introducing themselves and sharing stories related to the exchange theme and within the community context. This sharing helps the group uncover historical elements, dynamics, or trauma that may have produced the issues at hand. It also provides opportunities to uncover community assets and gifts, setting the necessary conditions for collective planning for improvements based on the hopes and assets of the community.

At the core of this work are five CLE axioms, or guiding values, that are affirmed the more we engage in them:

  • Learning and leadership are a dynamic social process. Relationships—individual and group connections—are at the foundation of effective school and community change efforts and the learning that must occur to support them.
  • Conversations are critical and central pedagogical processes. Relationships are the first point of contact in learning and leading—and conversation and storytelling breathe invitation, grace, and dignity into relationships.
  • The people closest to the issues are best situated to discover answers to local concerns. Surfacing and empowering local perspectives and wisdom fosters a creative agency that helps people strengthen and use their power and voice to respond to their local communities and own their destinies together.
  • Crossing boundaries enriches the development and educational process. Crossing boundaries between schools and the surrounding communities—as well as the borders between generations, races, cultures, economic classes, etc.—are an integral part of this work.
  • Hope and change are built on assets and dreams of locals and their communities. When CLE participants tell their own story and express their dreams, they begin to map their assets, gifts, ideas, and hopes, allowing themselves and others to view their roles and power in their communities in different, collective ways.

A touchstone of our CLE approach involves shifting from traditional instruction around technical processes and theories of leadership to weaving CLE strategies into the practice and development of educational leaders and communities in which they lead and live. Below is an account of how one school leader enacted a CLE in a rural North Carolina middle school.

Larry Hodgkins was an aspiring school leader when he attended his first Community Learning Exchange. Afterward, he reflected, “I was struck by the authenticity, openness, and honesty of the process. Everyone was a learner and a teacher simultaneously.”

When he was named an administrator at South Creek Middle School in Martin County Schools (SCMS), he strove to bring CLE pedagogies to his school community.

Hodgkins invited school teachers and staff, students and their families, school board members, university faculty, and community leaders to spend a Saturday together at SCMS engaged in a CLE. In preparation, each participant was asked to bring an artifact that represented SCMS for them.

The morning portion of the CLE focused on uncovering of the history of the school. (SCMS was created through a series of consolidations over the course of several decades, dating back to segregated schools. Alumni of several of the original schools brought photos and yearbooks and shared stories about the schools they attended. The sharing and listening across boundaries of age, race, and position brought a vivid energy to the event.) The afternoon focused on collaboration on what the community wanted SCMS to become.

Community members reflected publicly that this was the first time they felt the schools cared about students in ways that went beyond test scores. Hodgkins shared, “The CLE at SCMS magnified student and community voices heard for the first time by people in power. We learned about the gifts and assets they want to offer our school community. At the same time, the CLE has given me a voice in a community I previously had little awareness of and no access to.”

Hodgkins has made CLEs a regular part of his leadership and development practice. In doing so, he has shifted the dynamics of leadership in his school and community.

School leaders often cite discomfort and a lack of knowledge and skills for building relationships and navigating the micropolitics in the communities that surround their schools. The CLE pedagogies become principals’ leadership practice because they see tangible results emerging and mindsets changing before their eyes. The CLE process creates a conceptual model that invites leaders to see themselves as unfinished-but-engaged learners. As they grow, their teachers, students, and community partners grow alongside them.

CLEs give participants a new language, a different way of looking at their organization, and hope for the world around them. The framework helps leaders create networks of support that expand their community of practice while simultaneously breaking the isolation that traditional systems create. In short, the CLE framework disrupts the traditional and mythical models of heroic individual leadership.

School Leader Traction

We have witnessed how school leaders like Hodgkins have gained traction in their communities when they co-​construct and co-facilitate CLEs. These exchanges are vehicles for school leaders to lead and act upon critical issues of equity and engagement in their schools. No other approach has been more successful in transforming the theories of assets, distributing leadership, and lifting all voices into practice.

Leaders who embrace CLEs become a catalytic force who listen to and partner with their community members, so that together they strengthen the social fabric of their communities. Mobilize the power of place and wisdom of people in your district in order to build stronger community schools.

Matthew Militello is the Wells Fargo distinguished professor of educational leadership at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC. Christopher Janson is the Robinson Eminent Scholar and Endowed Chair and director of the Center for Urban Education and Policy at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. Francisco Guajardo is professor and the executive director of the B3 Institute at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Brownsville. Miguel A. Guajardo is a professor in the Education and Community Leadership program at Texas State University in San Marcos. They are authors of Reframing Community Partnerships in Education: Uniting the Power of Place and Wisdom of People.

Sidebar: Making It Work

Here’s how to optimize CLEs in your school:

  • Shift your leadership mindset from individual to collective—from “I” and “them” to “we” and “us”—and from deficits and problems to assets and possibilities.
  • Be inviting and dynamic—think beyond the traditional “stakeholders,” and include diverse community voices across multiple generations.
  • Utilize Community Learning Exchange resources. (Visit