HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


The New Coalition: Rethinking Family-School Collaborations

by Claire Smrekar and Lydia Bentley Issue: Strengthening Community
TOPICS : Parents Community

This article is designed to provide a roadmap for school leaders in Jewish community day schools who are contemplating new parental roles meshing with the realities of family lives, and who are interested in establishing a new set of engaged community partners in the larger quest for academic excellence and organizational effectiveness. Following a brief overview of three models of school-community relations (co-optation, management, and engagement), a fourth model—coalition—is explored in greater detail because it represents the most robust and potentially rewarding set of relationships between families and schools.

Mary Driscoll observes that “the concept of school community ... embodies the culture of sentiments, traditions, and practices that link its members and from which they take meaning.”

Models: Practices & Priorities

Cooptation model

The Cooptation model is derived from studies of public schools located in urban contexts characterized by high-poverty and social isolation. In these settings, schools often establish control as a goal in their association with families and community members, preempting other more collaborative two-way approaches. The relationship is defined by a provider-receiver arrangement in which a school assumes the role of provider (of educational services); families, in turn, are assigned the role of receiver. The essential outcome of the family-school relationship in this context resembles a contract. The contract may take the form of a school-wide, codified discipline policy, for example, and tends to delimit the nature of family-school relations to functions specified in a set of obligations that exist between parents and school officials.

For Jewish day schools, it may be more instructive to consider alternative models that move schools from cooptation to collaboration. Mary Henry suggests substituting the contemporary or “corporate” model in which “autonomy, separation, and distance” are valued with a more “democratic” one. The new model moves school communities to develop new priorities and processes that diminish conflict and distance between families and schools.

Management model

The extant research on school-community relations suggests the predominance of a Management model across public schools in the US. Schools in this domain emphasize certainty and structure as essential goals in their associations with families and external community members. The relationship is defined by a co-production orientation. Schools produce particular information resources and involvement opportunities for parents to embrace both at home and at school, with the expectation that parents will respond to these invitations in predictable and reliable ways. This model reflects efforts to provide specific categories of community involvement. Johns Hopkins University researcher Joyce Epstein illustrates this in her framework designed as a template for school administrators; in effect, the types of interactions and involvement identified by Epstein become the predictable categories of interactions with families and external community members that are (or should be) managed by school officials. Her framework includes six distinct strands of involvement, the first five of which pertain to school-parent interactions. The last strand extends beyond the school and family relationship to collaboration with the community, which includes the obligation of schools to identify and integrate community resources and services in order to enhance school and family practices and promote student achievement. Unlike the Cooptation model, the Management model presumes two-way communication across a more robust array of differentiated tasks.

The Management model provides an instructive note for Jewish day schools by underscoring the value of school communities and the importance of “bringing community back” to the discussion surrounding families and schools. Why does community matter? For general support and fundraising? For help with homework? Why is community valuable to parents? Our studies point to the importance of building networks of trust, respect, a sense of ownership, and familiarity in the construction of school communities. The next section explores the Engagement model in which a robust school community is fully realized in the context of public choice and Catholic schools.

Engagement model

Evidence suggests that public choice schools and many private (religious) schools develop an Engagement model with parents and external community members. Relationships in this model emphasize mutual respect, shared values, and a product-oriented goal of consensus. The process of consensus-building rests on relationships built upon shared commitment and sustained cooperation—across school families and between families and school officials. Mary Driscoll observes that “the concept of school community reflects the needs that are derived from shared activities and territory but also embodies the culture of sentiments, traditions, and practices that link its members and from which they take meaning.” The need for schools to address both of these elements simultaneously—shared space and shared meaning—forces educators to take account of the distractions triggered by work lives and family lives that render actual patterns of family engagement far short of promised (and optimal) levels in terms of magnitude and quality.

This principle of shared space and shared meaning provides the pivot point for Jewish day school educators to consider the distractions within every day work lives and family lives that render the realized patterns of involvement and sense of community in choice schools—public as well as private—far short of promised (and optimal) levels in terms of magnitude and quality. How can Jewish day schools knit together the elements of community fractured by the constraints imposed by competing work, school, and family demands? What new social scaffolding may be bolted to the infrastructures of working families? Our next model provides a blueprint for considering new social structures that promote authentic communities.

Coalition model

Coalition models—while rare—may be found in the relationships defined as partnerships between public choice schools and their corporate sponsors. Embedded in a school culture framed by focused instructional designs and sustained by a goal of collaboration with members of their corporate community, workplace schools highlight the orientation to familial functions among public school teachers, private corporate employers, and their employees. These schools produce an outcome closely approximating authentic community.

Among the multi-case studies of family-school-work integration, the Midwestern Downtown School (all school and business names listed here are pseudonyms) provides one of the most illustrative examples of the value of locating a school close to where parents work rather than where they live. The Downtown School reflects a partnership among a group of businesses that share a physical (downtown or business park) address and a school with whom all partners share an educational philosophy anchored to the value of authentic communities.

In the 2008-09 school year, The Midwestern Downtown School enrolled 268 kids from ages 5-11 years-old in a non-graded, year-round instruction program directed by a faculty comprised of 15 full-time teachers. No transportation is provided for students; parents simply walk their child to school on their walk to work. Over 90% of the parents are employed and most of these work in downtown Midwestern City in occupations that range from attorney and financial analyst, to waitress and data entry clerk. The school has grown from the original 5000 square feet of office space on the second floor of 501 Hill Street, to include additional nearby office and former commercial properties.

For teachers, these events are considered “field work” (not an isolated “trip”) and are designed to capture the downtown neighborhood as canvas for students’ learning and expression.

The Downtown School embraces its urban geography. The teachers and students incorporate the city neighborhood as their school without walls. This “sense of place” pays rich dividends to teachers, parents, and community members who nurture the notion that the school’s location is much more than an address. For teachers, the freedom to be innovative in the production of knowledge is a manifest element of the Downtown School ethos. This translates into an integrated, seamless connection to the physical and cultural landscape enveloping the school.

For a study of physics, teachers “borrowed” the skating rink at the Veterans’ Auditorium two blocks away. Lessons were followed by demonstrations of ice-making and melting, and of course, ice skating. Nearby, the highly regarded Midwestern City Art Museum, where a handful of parents of Downtown School children work, provides a free and readily accessible material lesson in art history, architecture, and sculpture. The City Library is the school’s library—and the collection is impressive. An invitation issued by the Jefferson Hotel (an architecturally distinctive landmark listed on the Historical Registry) last October involved students in a pumpkin-judging contest. The four minute walk down Hill Street gave teachers the opportunity to pepper students with questions regarding their earlier lessons on “pumpkin math” (geometry of pumpkin cutting), appropriate standards of aesthetic quality, and other essential measurement criteria. The students’ artwork is regularly displayed on the walls of the skywalk, the corridors of American Equities Group, and in the windows of the Convention Center. Each year, students from the Downtown School make the five -minute skywalk trip to the Bank of America where bank officials (some of whom are parents of Downtown students) relate the concepts of mathematics, currency, and investment strategies to the children. For teachers, these events are considered “field work” (not an isolated “trip”) and are wrapped around the curriculum in fundamental ways that are designed to capture the downtown neighborhood as canvas for students’ learning and expression.

When the workplace and the neighborhood are fused, as in the Midwestern Downtown School, the “coalition” is fully formed, and the concepts of functional and value communities (and new geographical communities) merge into something new. The Coalition model explicated in the workplace school community creates new collaborative agreements between schools and employers/employees in terms of more fluid communication, more natural and organic interaction, and greater financial and cultural interdependence between schools and workplaces. To be sure, these are unusual structural and social arrangements forged between corporate/workplace sponsors and public school districts (fewer than fifty in the US). These unique and distinctive partnerships render this model a bit more remote conceptually and perhaps more distant from the realities of Jewish day schools. Nevertheless, the intent here rests with identifying mutually adaptive strategies and concepts designed to link families, schools, and communities within the realities and practicalities of families’ work lives.

The social scaffolding rooted in conceptions of authentic community helps form relationships intentionally more familial and interdependent than the social fabric interwoven in the Engagement model. These relationships among parents and between the workplace partners and school officials promote the shared expectations that form the uniformity and interconnectedness of functional communities. What are the implications of such seamless coalitions for issues of authority and control? Whose values and what priorities are privileged in these new workplace schools? Indeed, how far can the “corporate community” (or governmentally-sponsored organization) move into the discreet sphere of Jewish day schooling without violating cultural norms and sensibilities? Is this coalition model—conceptually and practically—a smart move for Jewish day school leaders? Who benefits? Who loses?

Summary

The school community models described in this paper (Cooptation, Management, Engagement, Coalition) are examined against the backdrop of contemporary social conditions and realities of family, work, and school demands. The findings provide a framework for considering how these comparative school contexts may increase school leaders’ understanding of community building in Jewish schools. These school leaders must now consider which models (or hybrids) best “fit” within the cultural priorities and organizational constraints of Jewish day schools. To what degree do (or should) Jewish day schools reflect movement across the continuum toward greater social integration and interdependence of school, family, work, and community? John Goodlad has labeled this interdependence “the new ecology of schooling.” From our vantage point, this “new” interdependence is well established and firmly rooted in a recognition that the integration of work life and family life is a cultural priority in an era of competitive labor markets, dual-career families, and the social pressure to materially succeed in both work and family (including schooling) endeavors.

In the 21st century, the family has been made visible in the social milieus of work life and school life. Moving forward, Jewish day school leaders are obligated to define the “sense of place” that characterizes their school’s community and to move all members along the continuum of social integration—toward engagement and coalition designs. This challenge involves leaders rethinking school culture and organizational priorities to produce a more robust model of school community. The rewards are immense, including a committed, cohesive, and connected parental community. This is your roadmap for action, alignment, and renewal. ♦

Dr. Claire Smrekar is Associate Professor of Education and Public Policy at Peabody College, Vanderbilt University. She can be reached at claire.smrekar@vanderbilt.edu

Lydia Bentley is a former public school teacher and current doctoral student at Vanderbilt University. She can be reached at lydia.c.bentley@vanderbilt.edu.

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Strengthening Community

What do we mean when we call our schools a “community”? How does the Jewish diversity that typifies community day schools coalesce into its own community? What happens when the various communities that exist both outside and within the school come into conflict? Discover ways of understanding and strengthening the community of your school and its position within the larger surrounding communities.