How Community Conversations Can Drive Educational Change

Community engagement is an essential part of redesigning schools to meet the needs of all students.

At the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, we seek a public education system where all New England schools and communities fully prepare their students for life after high school, so they can succeed in college or career and contribute to their communities as informed citizens. To do so, we support the people and organizations who contribute to making our public school system the best it can be — including students and parents, teachers and administrators, policymakers and thought leaders.

Every public high school should provide their students with the modern, relevant, and student-centered teaching and learning practices they need to succeed — where education is personalized, engaging, not restricted by time or place, and where students are ready before they move on. This kind of transformational change, however, is impossible to be done in a vacuum. That is why we support a robust effort across our region to connect school districts with their communities in an authentic way, where key district and school decision-makers are co-constructing this change with students, parents, community members, and others through genuine, meaningful engagement.

For the past three years, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, in partnership with Great Schools Partnership and Everyday Democracy, has deployed engagement and school improvement coaches across more than twenty New England districts, helping them build their own capacity for authentic school and community engagement. This key element of our work is based on a relatively ordinary belief that change ought to start with the population it is meant to impact. In fact, no modern, successful social movement has ever started anywhere else. While top-down change is commonplace — such as with state or federal mandates, or executive orders — rarely is such change systemic in nature, nor is it sustainable.

We believe that if we are to engage in transformational change of an important, valued social institution like a public school system, we ought to first start with the public. In short, if we plan on renovating the house, we ought to be talking to the family that lives there.

In the districts that the Nellie Mae Education Foundation supports through its community engagement work, this starts with a conversation about what the future of learning might look like. From Attleboro Public Schools in Massachusetts, to Washington West Supervisory Union in Vermont, the Foundation is supporting New England communities to host these conversations. If we were to start from scratch and build a system that meets the modern needs of kids today and tomorrow, how would we do that? Inevitably, these conversations turn to things like real-world relevance, future preparation for our graduates, knowledge combined with applied skills, and rooting student learning in the experiences and interests of the students. These conversations turn to student-centered learning.

The difference is that when these conversations start from a future-oriented, asset-based lens, communities build their own buy-in. They break down the walls of false assumptions and fatalism, and begin to see that meaningful, systemic change is not only possible, but imperative.

Schools are not silos, and therefore students should not experience their learning journey devoid of the kind of connections that authentic community engagement can offer them. By co-constructing an educational experience with the very actors that inhabit the world in which the student lives their life, we are both increasing the chance of success for that student as well as building community understanding, support, and demand for the kind of systemic change that can make such a system the norm, and not the exception.