K12 Insight Guest Blogger, Mychal Frost
Summertime affords us all the opportunity to recharge both our personal and professional batteries. As an education professional, this time is full of reflection on the year gone by and intensive planning and preparation for the year to come.
In what has become an annual tradition, I recently attended the National School Public Relations Association seminar, a four-day workshop where like-minded school communicators gather to learn the best practices in our field. While a myriad of topics were presented by colleagues across the country, the greatest lesson I took away was a deeper understanding of the power of true community engagement. Such engagement cannot be “done.” It must be cultivated, embraced and nurtured. It must be a rallying point for the community to affect change in our schools. There must be buy-in around a centrally identified issue, whether it is how to improve graduation rates or how to provide basic needs for underprivileged students.
Nowhere is it more abundantly clear how each of the puzzle pieces join together to address a community’s need, a district’s need, than in Joplin, Missouri, and the district’s response to the horrifying F-5 tornado that leveled the town in May 2011. During a session at the NSPRA seminar, Dr. C.J. Huff, superintendent of Joplin Schools, spoke of how he connected the pieces of the puzzle to engage his community. He shared how he championed the effort to assemble the puzzle pieces that later served as the foundation to help the Joplin community rise from the rubble in the aftermath of the tornado that destroyed the town and impacted the lives of all students and citizens. His real-life story should be a lesson to us all.
Three years earlier, faith-based groups, businesses and human services agencies had joined forces with the school district to address graduation rates. In the years leading up to the tornado, therefore, relationships and partnerships were forged that made the community a stronger, more prepared place. Needs were recognized and met. Collaboration was the rule, not the exception. That foundation of strong community engagement, Dr. Huff says, played a pivotal role in helping the schools to open 87 days later, just in time to start the 2011-2012 school year.
While the tragedy in Joplin provides a shining example of engagement in times of extreme crisis, we must also leverage relationships with communities in good times. Communities across this country are filled with people who can and want to help. We must build the capacity through community engagement so that sustainable efforts can take root. We must harness the time, talents and treasures of our stakeholders. Working together, our communities and schools can begin to make an even greater difference in the lives of our students.
Mychal Frost is the Public Information Officer of the Clover (S.C.) School District.