Authentic Community Engagement in Schools: How to Hear What is Not Being Said

Authentic Community Engagement in Schools: How to Hear What is Not Being Said

In the fall of 2016, Walter H. Dyett High School for the Arts reopened as an open – enrollment, arts high school.  Now a level one high school located in the heart of Washington Park, Dyett High School of the Arts was born out of both struggle and compromise, as community stakeholders raised their voices and District leadership responded to their call to ensure that area students could receive a high quality education in a school that is nestled in the heart of the community.  Today, as the principal of this school, I am inspired by the level of authentic engagement and commitment to excellence the community exhibits daily. Both Bronzeville and Washington Park residents hold us accountable, provide support, and challenge us to provide the best education possible to our students.

Having said that, many have asked, both parents and educators alike, how our team managed to effectively engage community stakeholders.  And while the work, for me, was an extremely intuitive process, grounded in love for my community and passion for children, I can say that the following guiding principles were crucial to our attempts to gain authentic community engagement in and hear what was not being said.

1. Define and communicate your “North Star” clearly and consistently.

For all intents and purposes, “North Star” is the goal, mission, or vision that drives anyone’s work.  In this case, I am and always have been committed to ensuring that students have access to high – quality education, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or zip code.  It was my job, as the incoming principal, to reiterate that vision at every community meeting, every town hall, and every breakfast I attended.  Not only that.  It was also our team’s job to design a curricular scope and sequence that reflected these principles.  That is why we offer AP classes at the freshman level, early college courses, and much more.  You see – the truth is that I have never met community members who wanted anything less than good schools for their children, and when I identified that as my “North Star,” the path to collaboration became less difficult.

2. Focus on what binds us, not what divides us.

During my year of planning, I attended several meetings – meetings in which some people supported the concept of a new school and others did not.  But during those times, I kept one thing in mind – that was that in a crowded room of people who voiced opinions on one side or the other, everyone ultimately wanted one thing – that was to prepare our children for the future by equipping them with the skills necessary to compete in a global economy.  So, at every meeting, I took the opportunity to remind each adult in the room that we had similar goals.  We all wanted students to have robust science programs.  We all wanted students to have robust math programs, and allowing students to pursue their passion in the arts made them more likely to engage.  So, we focused.  We focused not on the nuances that separated us, but instead, the similarities that were interwoven throughout each elevated voice.  By doing so, little by little, bit by bit, we were able to build bridges where craters of separation had otherwise existed.

3. Identify what people fear, and speak directly to that.

Several months prior to opening the new school, I conducted listening tours.  During those tours, people expressed a wide range of emotions.  In some spaces, people questioned my authenticity.  They questioned my motives.  They questioned whether or not I truly cared about the community’s students and parents.  And while I listened to what parents said, I also heard what they did not say.  I listened, intently, to identify their fears.  When people yelled, “Where were you when we had to comfort students?” I heard, “Will you abandon us?  Will you betray us?”  When people yelled, “Our students are already talented artists!  They need science and math!”  I heard, “Our students need to be able to compete for jobs!  Can you guarantee that your team’s curriculum will do so?!”  Instead of focusing on the noise, we made a conscious decision to focus on nuanced mission and vision.

Even with the aforementioned suggestions, the truth is that obtaining authentic community engagement is not a perfect process.  It is oftentimes messy and unpredictable.  But if all of the adults involved galvanize around a common mission and vision, ensuring students’ success, it can serve as the oil in the engine of change and academic excellence.