Community partnerships have never been more important than during the COVID-19 pandemic—and then again in facing the resulting budget cuts for many districts. Without being able to be in a face-to-face setting, teachers and administrators have had to get creative to provide their students with an engaging education. To get some ideas on how to involve community members to help students, we spoke to Nancy Dowling, principal of Frank Scott Bunnell High School in Stratford, CT; Tron Young, principal of Joseph Arthur Middle School in O’Fallon, IL; and Mahina Anguay, principal at Waimea High School in Waimea, HI. Each participant has been recognized as an NASSP 2020 State Principal of the Year. Principal Leadership senior editor Christine Savicky moderated the conversation.

Savicky: Through the COVID-19 pandemic, how have you developed your community relationships?

Without being able to be in a face-to-face setting, teachers and administrators have had to get creative to provide their students with an engaging education.

Dowling: Since we closed in March, I have found that communication—frequent and consistent communication—has been the cornerstone of community relationships. It has been those relationships that have sustained our school, our students, our staff, our families. To that extent, going back to March, we began with daily or nightly emails to students, families, and our staff. As we approached the end of the school year, there was a need to personalize additional communications with the senior class and their parents because of prom, graduation, and the typical end-of-year events. Beyond that, we have tried to utilize livestreaming as a tier of communication. Using livestreaming has allowed us to have special guests and to spotlight community members and peers, to highlight and give insights into opportunities still in the community, and to maintain the relationships that existed pre-COVID.

Young: Developing relationships is an ongoing process. I agree that it starts with communication that is frequent and on multiple platforms. I do a daily video message that I send out to my students, staff, and parents. We had community members, parent members, and staff input on our advisory committee for our return to learning for this academic year. The parents indicated that they wanted consistent and open communication, so for our district we found ClassTag—a free parent-teacher communication app. Yes, the parents had to learn the app, but we’re all on the same page now. We had teachers that were using Remind, some were using ClassDojo, some using email. Additionally, for message blasts and announcements, we have a district Facebook page. I put all that out there for our community and everyone to see.

Through ClassTag and Facebook, we can let people know how they can support us. In the beginning of the year, many people gave us school supplies and backpacks, and they were sorely needed, but based on our communication about what we were doing, we had community members asking, “Hey, we want to do that, too, but what other things can we do to support you?” I think with that communication, that allows people to reach out to us and say, “We want to partner with your students,” who are also just all remote. It’s been really nice.

Anguay: I have learned that there’s no such thing as over-communicating with people. Not only with the community, but also my staff, because my staff lives in the community. I always tell them, “You are the first line. I need you to really understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, so when you get stopped in the grocery store, you can explain,” or when you’re at church, or anywhere in the community, when people stop and ask you, “Hey—you work at Waimea. What’s going on? What are they doing?” you can tell them why we’re doing it. From March onward, life has been so uncertain, and I had regular in-person staff meetings as long as I could and then we all became Webex [a secure online conferencing app] experts really quickly.

We conducted the spring semester, counseling, prom planning, and our alternative graduation virtually. We had tremendous support. We ended up graduating our seniors at a drag strip down the road from our school. We really had to get our community involved—police, the fire truck, and the ambulance. Our students could come in two different cars. It was quite the event. We had a helicopter do a flower drop. It was fun! It was exhausting, but there’s no way that we could have done it without our community’s help. Additionally, our side of the island is very much a Title I community, so we were a grab-and-go meal site. We also used that opportunity to get messages out to our families.

Since we’ve been back at school, we have begun to work with the food bank, so now we’re a food pantry school. Just the other day we had about a hundred families come in and get food. This year, since we’re distance [learning], we did a virtual Flipgrid open house, which is kind of fun. Like Young said, my teachers were all using different communication platforms, so we settled on Zoom when we’re synchronous, and everything is on Google Classroom, so we had consistency for the students and parents.

What I’m really, really thankful for is we have two partnerships right now with two young Kauai men who are very well-respected in our community by our students. They run two separate nonprofits. I have a big farm on my campus, so Iwikua comes to campus and helps us develop the rest of our farm using aquaponics. This way my engineering students get to do practical physics and my natural resource kids get practical experience. The information tech students are creating an app for us. It’s really cool. Then, Kaina Makua has opened up his nonprofit [Kumano I Ke Ala]. He also has a farm in the valley where kids can go and get out of the house and work. They work on the farm for a few hours, burn off some energy, and get to see their friends. They like it and I love it because for my at-risk kids—native Hawaiians and males—it’s a perfect place. Josh Mori and Kaina have been really beneficial in helping us to bridge trust not only with the kids, but also the parents

Savicky: Have you had any community members really come through for you and help your students?

Young: One of the biggest helps at the end of last year and over the summer was a program called Feed My Lambs that worked with community businesses and got restaurants to donate food. Our kids really like Chick-fil-A, so they were able to get Chick-fil-A sandwiches. The school provided frozen lunches that could be heated in the microwave, but then this program took over which freed us to focus on education. Feed My Lambs was able to continue throughout the summer. They provided food not only for our district, but all of the local surrounding areas. They were crucial to helping our families continue to meet their basic needs. We are also a Title I school, so being able to meet those basic needs and supporting our families that way was huge. Community members have stepped up and helped our families in need by donating supplies, food, and basic materials. We have come together as a community, as a family, and it’s just so awesome to see and to feel that change taking place.

Anguay: I would say the food bank, for sure, because they are able to help. We pass food out not only to our families but even to our staff members to help make ends meet. Having work or an internship with Josh and the Kindness Program has really helped open up the possibilities for my kids who may not have considered looking into natural resources or some sort of a sustainable science as a career path. By working with them, our students are learning how to create apps, how to make sure that the pH balances in the soil are correct, figuring out the optimal conditions for the growth of our tilapia, as well as how can we turn around our vegetables more quickly. It’s really fun to watch the kids and our teachers go with that.

We are very fortunate. Our high school is the hub of this west side of the island, so we’ve had parents and families who have just come in and donated money. We have families who couldn’t afford school shirts—even though we’re not in session—so other community members buy shirts for the kids. They have paid student fees for kids. It’s been a real blessing. I don’t know how else to explain it. We’re very grateful for everything. It’s not like the people who are giving have a whole lot to give from the beginning on their own, but they’re giving. They do whatever they can because they understand that we’re in this together, and the only way we’re going to make it out is if we work together. 

“Using livestreaming has allowed us to have special guests to spotlight community members and peers, to highlight and give insights into opportunities still in the community, and maintain the relationships that existed pre-COVID.”

—Nancy Dowling

Dowling: I have just a few examples that I wanted to share, first regarding the class of 2020 and how the spring into graduation season benefited from local benefactors and our community. First and foremost, our mayor and town council partnered with our Board of Education and central administration to purchase and display the photo banners for each and every graduate in our town. We have two high schools in town—almost 500 students—but each graduate and his or her family enjoyed a 4- by 3-foot colored poster hung at one of the lampposts throughout the town through late June into early July, which was a thrill for them. It really acknowledged the sacrifice and losses of the members of the class of 2020. Secondly, we had a local parent who owns a printing company. His daughter doesn’t even attend our school but attends a nearby private school, and he was kind enough to print very large 20-foot banners for each of the local high schools that listed every graduate’s name for display at our graduation ceremonies. Verizon, here in our town of Stratford, also gave gift cards to every graduate of the class of 2020 for use in their postsecondary pursuits.

A nice story in-house was one of our teachers and his wife donated their government stimulus checks. They each donated their stimulus checks to the class of 2020 so that no graduate had to pay for his or her cap and gown. That meant a lot to our students. We were able to use some funds from them also to pay off lunch balances for any of our students, so they didn’t face those expenses. From March through the summer, and now that we’ve gone from closure to a hybrid model, our local YMCA has consistently been available to help families with child care. For parents who have had to work while our students or our elementary kids were on closure, and now that we’re in hybrid, kids are home two or three days a week. We have a local community center with deep roots in the community—Sterling House Community Center—and there’s a food pantry there that has worked in collaboration with Sodexo Food Services—our school lunch and breakfast provider—to ensure that families and students have access to their daily breakfast and lunches, despite whatever the status of school has been.

Savicky: How do you go about making these community partnerships? Do you do outreach, or do you find that most come to you?

Anguay: I would say when I first started, I just hustled. My first week that I was at my school, I actually walked and visited every store, every business in my town. Then I started going to the surrounding towns, just to introduce myself and to meet people. Even though I’m from here originally—I grew up here and attended this high school—I still hustled a lot at the beginning. After a while, people started to come to us. Hawaii is small and Kauai is even smaller, but people talk, and then we would talk. The next thing I know, we would be sitting or having another meeting and another opportunity would open up for our kids. We’re always looking; we’re always open for anything that ties in that can help our kids, anything that ties in with our academies. We also have the Academies of Kauai where all three high schools work together. We have a common board so we can share ideas. So, at first, I went out and hustled; now, it’s a blend.

Dowling: My response is much like Anguay’s. I do a lot of legwork, but I also make connections through my own memberships in community organizations. I sit as a member of the Juvenile Review Board. The benefit there is we are comprised of our representatives from the Stratford police, the Stratford Library, community services, and the Recreation Department. We are a problem-solving team. We are each other’s best resources when it comes to needs—whether for an individual student or for the schools. I also attend and participate in local Rotary Club meetings, which has allowed me to build relationships and connections with members of the community who are in a position for me to turn to and say, “Hey, can we work together on this, or can we collaborate with you with this fundraiser on behalf of this school organization?” Or, I may specifically say, “I have a child in need when it comes to prom season. Is there any way the organization could support this particular child?” I happen to be a graduate of Bunnell High School, so my community connections also run deep there.

And, as I always say, I have raised my children with my friends and former peers here at Bunnell as they have raised their children. So, we’re in it together, and we are each other’s best resources. I believe you just have to ask, and people stand up and are ready to help at any time. For example, I have a friend that I graduated with from Bunnell who owns a towing business in town, and in the past five years I’ve asked him twice for cars for our auto students. He comes through for us, and we tear those vehicles apart, put them back together a couple times, and then it’s time for another ask. That’s just one specific example of how to build relationships within the community.

“Community members have stepped up and helped our families in need by donating supplies, food, and basic materials. We have come together as a community, as a family, and it’s just so awesome to see and to feel that change taking place.”

—Tron Young

Young: Making community partnerships is, I think, two things: Being present and telling your story. I think my colleagues have said it best: It’s being present. Being present at community events, being present in community organizations, civic organizations, functions that include students—like festivals. My wife teases me because if it’s a community event, I’m wearing my school apparel and letting people know who I am. She asks, “Do you always have to mention you’re a principal?” No, but if the opportunity exists, then I do, because I never know what someone could do for my building and my students, and I don’t want to miss that opportunity.
The other thing is telling your story. We live in a day and age that if you don’t tell your story, somebody else will tell the story for you based on social media and potentially false information.

So, we’re back to communication. I tell my story. I tell our story over and over again. Some people get tired of hearing the story, so I’ll tell the story again a different way. I came into a building where I was a principal of a district that was my hometown, and everybody knew my name and was glad that I came. I had many great partnerships and was doing amazing things there, and I just understood it was because I was telling people what we were doing there. Then I moved to a different school. One of the building goals that I had with my staff was for them to get more involved with the community. What I found was that when I started telling our story, no one knew that the school existed. The students and teachers weren’t getting resources. They weren’t getting calls from community businesses.

Now that we’re involved with the community, I have businesses—say a dentist—call and say, “Hey, we want to help out your school. What can we do?” I tell them, “Hey, get my kids lanyards. That would be awesome and you can put your name on it,” or “Hey, we have a back-to-school shirt that needs [to be] sponsored.” We also start the year by doing a “get on the bus” tour, where I get all the teachers in our district on the bus, and we select five [or] six kids’ names out of a hat—purposely out of the hat—and go to their homes. We take our entire district faculty to their homes, have balloons, cheer, have our mascot cheer. Local businesses have helped to support that.

Savicky: How do you get community buy-in for ideas to support the school community?

“We make sure that whatever we are doing, we are sharing it by telling not only ‘what’ but ‘why’ we are doing some things.”

—Mahina Anguay

Anguay: It really goes back to communication. We do it through a variety of methods electronically, but I’m always reminded by my PCNC—parent community network coordinator—somebody who’s been here forever, “Not everybody has a smartphone, Mahina. You still need to go put up a flyer.” We make sure that whatever we are doing, we are sharing it by telling not only “what” but “why” we are doing some things. One thing that we’re really starting to understand as we begin to develop our Career Academy models is the idea of getting the word down to our elementary schools. The older students in my different academies go down and work with their little brothers or sisters or cousins in the elementary and then the middle schools, which has been a big help for us. They’re modeling our story. They’re telling the younger generation, “Hey, when you come to Waimea this is what you’re going to be able to do.” Our [junior ROTC] is also really strong and gives back to our community. We want to give back and serve our community, and I think that’s huge for our kids to understand, that that’s their responsibility as well. We give back through our academies.

Dowling: I would like to go back to what Young said earlier about being present and showing up and always being a public representative and advocate for your school and your students. Then, I’ll echo what Anguay just referenced in terms of the “why.” You have to be consistent with your vision for your school, and the “why” behind the needs, and the request that you might make of the community. I think, too, initiatives or efforts need to be student-led. The students need to be the face of the school. You are the support. You’re the conductor of the train, but they are the person who drives that “why.” Then I would just add to ensure recognition for any constituency or support and ensure that, for the benefactor, that their contributions will continue on in perpetuity in terms of the effect he or she is having upon our school and our students.

Young: Community buy-in is only as strong as the direction you want your building to go. You have to have that leadership, that vision, and that mission for your school. As a middle school, we understand that we are not the start or the stop of this kid’s future—we’re just a part of that journey. We’re trying to get people to come in to be part of that journey, so I have my students writing letters to businesses asking about their companies and getting buy-in by having businesspeople do a Future Friday.

On Fridays, businesspeople come in and our students are given the opportunity to ask them questions. One question I suggest that they ask is, “How does your business impact our community and our school?” which gets them thinking about that dynamic. Then, since I’m not from here, I have people who’ve graduated from our school who are in the community come in and talk to and work with the kids. I try to get as many community people in my building in front of my students as I can. The last thing is I do a “Friday Five,” so I contact one student and we talk for five minutes. I ask the kiddo about their future, one thing they like about our school, something they’ve learned, and just put that out there every Friday. It lets people know who we are, and what our kids are dreaming about, and what they like about our school.”