The power of community

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.17, 8 May 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.
Wellington

Last year I came across a programme in Washington DC in a school called “Communities In Schools” which, I was told was a national organisation that helped schools stop students from dropping out. I appeared that this group set out to provide community resources for schools in order to support students and keep students in school, learning and developing ambitions and goals.

They did this by bringing what they called “caring adults” to the schools to provide a “link between educators and the community”. This they claimed left teachers free to teach and students free to learn.

I thought no more about this until several experiences during the past week reminded me of the importance community to education and the work done by this group.

I visited Tauranga to meet a commitment and was met at the airport by an old friend, Brendan Schollum, who had gone to Tauranga as the foundation principal Aquinas College an integrated Catholic secondary school of special character. He offered to show me around.

What was instantly obvious was the sense of community that pervaded the school. This might be expected in a school that held philosophical connection to a religious community but it was something more. It was the expression of pride from the adults that impressed. At the airport a parent had come across to chat about progress a son who had been a student at the college was making. A parent walking along the footpath near the school waved a cheery greeting.

By the time we got to the school it was just after the last bell of the day. But I got the tour nevertheless. Teachers were still busy and happy to chat about what they were doing – cleaning up after a busy day, getting busy for another day and so on.

In one room a team of mothers were busy sewing costumes for a Gilbert and Sullivan production. In another a teacher had forty students singing beautifully. Sports action of different kinds outside.

I have often wondered why only some schools claim special character when if a school is connected to a community they also ought to be able to claim special character. But how is this to be described?

At Aquinas College they have a series of “touchstones” which capture what they see as their special character – prayer, truth, scholarship, service, joy and family. That was their expression of what mattered – and they had these qualities each on real stones that sat up the front of the chapel – touchstones to test the gold!

I have argued from time to time that all schools should be able to capture their “special character” in such a set of values, not these ones but ones that reflect their special community. I was interested to see a statement in the Aquinas material that “at Aquinas, we enrol families, not just students.” My point exactly just a couple of weeks ago.

The other experience was a visit to New Plymouth where the regional polytechnic, the Western Institute of Technology Taranaki, had organised a meeting of what I guess should be called stakeholders but in reality this was another expression of community. The turnout was impressive, the commitment and enthusiasm of the group even more so. This was a community coming together with a purpose, to expand the range of approaches and to work together to keep students in education and on the road to success.

Now that took me back to thinking about that crowd I had bumped into in Washington. The “Communities In Schools” (Iand remember that the US use of the word “schools” is wider than our our use of it) has worked to ensure that every child has access to their “Five Basics”: 

  • a one-on-one relationship with a caring adult;
  • a safe place to learn and grow;
  • a healthy start and a healthy future;
  • a marketable skill to use upon graduation;
  • a chance to give back to peers and community.

Parents at Aquinas and the gathering in New Plymouth were both motivated by just these concerns which recognise that schools / institutions cannot operate in isolation from communities nor can our young people make it on their own.

Some young people do not have a caring adult who can provide support while in our communities are many older, wiser, fit adults who are probably waiting to be asked to contribute through such involvement.

Safe places to learn and to grow need to be created and not simply assumed.

We know that a healthy start is sine qua non to a healthy future.

And is not a key purpose of education to have a “marketable skill upon graduation”?

By seeing members of the community working to help students in a variety of ways, young people learn the value of service and of membership of a community.

Some schools can create communities seemingly on their own while others cannot and require greater contribution from a wider community. Even postsecondary institutions require a community to support their students. While the communities of other providers, business, industry and commerce are obvious ones, there are also members of the communites of practice – current and retired – who could profitably be harnessed to help.

I think that in the old days the School Committees had a real sense of we are the community and we are here to help and there was probably a more benign attitude among the business community towards the training and preparation of the novice members of the trades and professions.

Many of the reforms of the education systems in English speaking countries have excluded communities though changes that would claim to give them closer connection. The turning of preparation for the trades and professions into the business of the education institutions, the use of a community groups to govern, the artificial complexity of the education discourse, the repeated patterns of failure in some families and throughout some communities and so on have all conspired to push communities back from engagement in the most critical experiences of their young ones.

It is time to get communities back into education and to use effectively the power of community members to work alongside the education professional.

One comment

  1. locksmith says:

    Hi, You have a Great Blog, I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep it up.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *