Building Stronger Communities – School Boards Should be More Involved

Last week there was a great announcement in our school neighbourhood. The City of Ottawa, Ottawa Community Housing and surprisingly, the French Public School Board of Eastern Ontario have joined together to develop a 7-acre piece of land right in the heart of Ottawa. The project will include affordable housing, a new French public school, single-family homes, and businesses to support the new community. The development has the potential to stretch into a 15-acre project if an additional piece of land adjacent to this section can be brought in.

The new development is called Gladstone Village and it has the potential to transform this neighbourhood in some really important ways. In my opinion, the most significant aspect will be the addition of good, affordable housing for families that live in this community.

I have worked in this community for three years as a principal of a local school and now as a community volunteer.

One of the saddest parts of my job as a principal was to say goodbye to families who could no longer afford to live in this wonderful community. Housing prices have been going up steadily in the area, forcing lower income families to move to other parts of the city that generally are not as well set up to offer important social services to these families.

Hopefully, with the building of Gladstone Villiage, this trend can be reversed.

What is especially gratifying is to see a public school board take an active role in the partnership that will construct the new village. This is unusual. School boards traditionally do not get overly involved in community development. As traditional institutions, they see their primary role as educators of children, not community developers.

The French Public Board is showing that things can change and school boards can take an active role in developing and enriching the communities that surround them. What school boards will find once they start looking to get more involved is that there are lots of organizations out there that would love to work with them.

While I was principal of St. Anthony School – close to the new village – we developed some incredible partnerships with organizations like the Aviva Community Fund, TD Friends of the Environment, (@TDFEF), Evergreen Canada, the City of Ottawa and the wonderful local Italian community. Together, these groups helped us to raise over $165,000.00 in less than two years to transform our dilapidated school yard.

the new yard – the shrubs, fencing, grass and stone paving are all part of the renovation 

Evergreen consulted all the students and developed the first plan for the yard. The Italian community got interested and held a huge fundraising dinner for the school – over 400 people attended and we made over $20,000 in one night. We entered the Aviva Community Fund competition and with the help of a huge on-line community, won $100,000. The Ottawa Community Foundation also made a very significant contribution allowing us to complete the renovation of the yard.

Along with Gladstone Village, this is a great example of partners coming together to reshape and build a new community.

Education institutions like our school and the Eastern Ontario French Public Board illustrate the importance of reaching out into the community to create something better for our families.

It is no longer acceptable to sit back and wait for the students to show up. This passive approach misses many opportunities to engage actively in the community.

We could have done more. We could have opened adult literacy classes for parents at night or during the day so that they could stay close to their children. We could have constructed a computer room with free wifi so that parents could access the internet – something many of them could not do from their homes. We could have offered space in our building for community agencies to connect more readily with the families they served.

All of these ideas were discussed and unfortunately, none were ever implemented.

That is too bad. This has to change.

School Boards need to start to realize that their buildings do not belong to them, they are community assets that need to be shared. The community can not be blocked out of these spaces, they need to be welcomed in. Education really needs to become public in a much wider sense. To ignore our larger public responsibility is to retreat back into the 19th century – we simply can’t do that.

Congratulations to the Conseil des écoles publiques de l’Est de l’Ontario.

 

How to connect parents to your school

One of the most important parts of my job has to do with finding new ways to connect our parent community to the school.  It some areas where I have worked this has not been a big problem.  I have worked in schools with strong parent councils and parents groups who have the time to put a great deal 0f time and resources into the school.

Not all communities are like that however.  For a variety of reasons, it is a challenge for the parent community to connect to the school.  There are a whole host of reasons for this.  It might be the culture of the community or it may have a great deal to do with the need of parents to work several jobs to make ends meet. Whatever the reason, it can  become a real challenge for the school.

I have written in the past about connecting to the community through social media.  This can work really well, but what if your parents don’t have access to social media, or don’t have the language skills to follow school events through blogs or Facebook?

We are beginning to find ways to make these connections, but it really is a challenge for our community.  Our parent community does not connect in the traditional ways.  We have always had a very small school council and parents are generally too busy to spend much time in the school.  They connect to the school through their children and support the school through their work with their kids at home.  What I am learning is that we need to connect with our parents by holding more events that can draw them into the school.  I think we are starting to have some success.

Our first real success was a June BBQ that we put on for the whole community.  We brought in a special caterer and got some great deals from a local business who rented out inflatable castles and mazes.  We didn’t charge any admission and used money from parent engagement grants to cover our costs.  One drawback with this event is that it all had to be planned by staff.  Still, it was a great success and convinced one parent to take on the school council for this year. She is doing a great job now and has focused all her efforts on getting parents out for short, fun social events like a Halloween party and a Christmas sing-a-long.

We also made a real effort during our Education Week activities last year.  Instead of holding an event at night that parents would not be able to attend we had a five-day open house.  Every morning we had coffee and homemade snacks made by our staff out in the yard ready for parents as they brought their kids to school.  As the week went on, more and more parents stayed behind to talk with each other and some of the teachers.  We invited them into the school every day and some did come in to visit the classrooms.  One thing we did that I really liked involved taking pictures of the parents with their children.  We then asked our photographer to make a montage of all the pictures.  We also gave all the parents a print of their picture.  We were able to take over 30 photos and the montage now hangs in our main hallway.  Kids and parents really liked this and it was a really easy way to strengthen the connection between school and our community.

This year we took an idea from another school that experiences similar challenges to ours.  We usually hold a ‘meet the teacher’ event about ten days after the beginning of the school year.  This year, we invited all the parents into the gym the very first morning.  I introduced all the staff to the parents and the kids found out who their teachers were.  Then, all the parents were invited to follow their kids to class for another short introduction to the new year.

All these events have one thing in common.  I want our school to be our parents’ community center.  I want them to feel welcome at our school not just on special occasions, but every day of the year.  I am hoping the more we hold these social events parents will begin to see our school as their school and gathering place.

at our June event, we invited local community agencies to set up booths so families could sign up for summer recreational programs

 

We have a great deal more to do.  We are now focussing our attention on making the yard more inviting for our students and our parents.  We have done a little work in this area by providing more benches and more greenery in the yard.  I have noticed that in the good weather parents will now linger in the yard before and after school to chat and enjoy the yard.  We have big plans to do much more in this area which i think will make a huge difference for students and parents alike, but that is another post.

For now, we will continue to look for ways to make our school a community hub for our parents and students.  We will continue to break down any and all barriers so that we really become a second home for the entire community.