President's Corner

Rallying the Community Behind Its Schools
By Alton L. Frailey/School Administrator, August 2016

We must shift the context of the current dialogue about public education and accountability. The way politicians, critics and others talk about schools says to too many children, “We have you in a terrible place that will do nothing for you. It is failing! It is worthless!”

In one state recently, an advisory board appointed by a top state official referred to public schools as “godless.” I share that not to promote or discount anyone’s faith but rather to illustrate just how extreme some of the rhetoric is. And, it occurs with no repercussions. The silence with which these statements and attitudes are met is almost validation and, in a real sense, encourages more of the same. None of this negative narrative and framing serves our schools, our children or our society well.

Much of the focus of school reform has centered on inserted programs. A myriad of curriculum and assessment programs are available for purchase, touting promises of high student achievement. Many states have acted on the belief that simply raising standards or offering monetary incentives to teachers will improve the condition of education. Others have sought punitive measures and rating systems. Some critics call for more competition between public and private schools. I propose these noble efforts will give us spotty and nonattributable improvements at best.

Are there problems in some public schools in this country? Absolutely! Are there places where folks seem to be doing it right? Absolutely! Rather than continuing random and sometimes misguided efforts to improve education led by those with less experience and with varying motives, I offer we consider a concept I’ve been pondering for a while.

I believe the whole community serves as the foundation for our schools. Many schools benefit from school and community partnerships already. But what about community ownership, shared responsibilities and advocacy? I call this concept Communities 4 Schools, or C4S. At the core is the belief that each community must own, protect and defend its schools, students and staff.

Communities 4 Schools embraces the idea there are communities we can learn from. In his book Inventing Better Schools: An Action Plan for Educational Reform, Philip Schlechty contends successful schools, public or private, share certain replicable attributes. Considerable research substantiates that shared agreements about what children are taught, how they are taught, how their learning is supported, respect for the authority of the teacher and school, and accountable governance are attributes of successful schools. A sense of shared ownership and responsibility exists for the success of the school. Private schools and some charter schools enforce it through exclusion. Public schools can only do so with the permission of the public it serves.

In places where this permission is granted, and you have a healthy degree of community advocacy, you will find a school that is regarded as successful. In places absent permission and advocacy, you will find a school that struggles.

Jamie Vollmer, in Schools Cannot Do It Alone, says, “You cannot touch a school without touching the culture of the surrounding town. Everything that goes on inside our schools is fused, in some transcendental way, to local attitudes, opinions, values and beliefs.”

In far too many places, the voices of school staff and leaders do not enjoy the high regard and respect of the past. Our advocacy is expected and often dismissed as spin. As school district officials, we must continue to speak up. However, our voices must be joined and enhanced by parents, community, civic and business leaders and local elected officials.

Communities 4 Schools seeks an attitudinal and behavioral shift. To promote the survival of public schools will require ownership, advocacy and political cover that is provided by the whole community.

Alton Frailey
is AASA president for 2016-17. E-mail: Twitter: ­@altonfraileyC4S