By Becki Cohn-Vargas and Debbie Zacarian

Strengthening Community Partnerships

As educators, we should celebrate the Herculean shift that we and our students have made from in-person to distance engagement to in-person and repeating this cycle as the crises continues. We know that these transitions and our future success are dependent on parents and guardians. Whether our students are being reared by two parents, a single parent, foster parents, grandparents, a blended family, unrelated people who live cooperatively, or with extrafamilial support, the glue that binds our success is the strength of the partnerships we build with them. Working together allows us to expand our students’ infinite capacities to be empowered as learners and contributors in school and beyond.

As we stand on the bridge between our “pre-COVID-19” selves when we were in-person educators to whatever is to be our “post-COVID-19” new normal and we become more comfortable, confident, and competent with the tools we are using to reconnect with students, we have to be just as comfortable, confident and competent in reconnecting and re-engaging and partnering with families—especially the ones whose personal, social, cultural, linguistic, educational and life experiences are distinct from our own. Consider the following:

Our rapidly changing society requires that we be more intentional in taking into account our own biases as well as the structural inequities that can fool even the most veteran among us. We say this as it is so crucial, at this particular time, to help students as they make adjustments to living on the same bridge as we all are and succeed in a distance and in-person learning format where cooperation, self-direction, self-reliance, communication and interdependence are more needed than ever.

Moving Toward a Community Partnership Approach

This moment calls for us to think about how we are viewing all of our students. Take, for example, a student whose family lost its business or a student we haven’t been able to reach because, we believe, their family doesn’t have an internet connection, or a student whose grandmother died from the virus. Some of us may feel so sympathetic toward such students and their families that we might not be able to see or, more importantly, draw from the many strengths and capacities they possess, including their capacity to cope with such circumstances. Rather than make assumptions about our students and their families, we can be far more successful in partnering with them when we take time to build and strengthen the special qualities that a family-school community partnership can bring us. 

An example is the Brockton Public Schools in Brockton, Mass., an area that has been greatly affected by the virus. Their district team of bilingual and bilingual-bicultural community relations facilitators, school adjustment counselors, parent/caregiver advocates, and paraprofessionals work closely with families. During the pandemic, they are providing families with information about various community services (e.g., health, food and work-related assistance) and have launched a multilingual call center staffed with volunteer school nurses and school adjustment counselors to offer additional support. The district also furnished the team with smartphones to ensure that the type of one-to-one family contacts that had worked successfully in the past continue during the pandemic.

Other examples include schools that are monitoring contact to ensure that every child and family has access to school-related information and is supported. Some schools have held webinars—in English and other languages—on using various distance learning formats and sponsored virtual meetings to offer tips as well as to listen to parents’ challenges and concerns. Even for those who have no computers at home, Zoom can be accessed by telephone. One teacher wrote, “With distance learning, I have found that about half of my families are very adept at the tech side of this, but the other half have little or no skills navigating things like the student portal, etc., that we are asking them to navigate; and few have the tech proficiency needed to help their children.” The same teacher tells us that it is helpful to work individually with families who need extra support. She says, “We are all getting there and have been successful in helping parents. I am pretty impressed with the increased participation and engagement I am having each week.”

Community Partnership: A Home-School Culture of Learning

Another important way to connect with families is to provide learning activities to do together at home (using online or paper suggestions). Teachers can work collaboratively with students and other community members to create lessons that affirm student identities and draw from their backgrounds. There are many examples of a home-school culture of learning. These include planting vegetables as well as herbs whereby families can discuss their health benefits, measure growth, and write fiction or expository stories about the plants. Cooking can also provide opportunities for students to learn about family cultures, measuring, following recipes, nutritional values, and making balanced menus and can include a collaborative activity of a class recipe book. Also, educators can celebrate students’ home languages by creating bilingual dictionaries, stories and songs. Further, older siblings can read aloud to younger ones, and together they can create skits based on stories, even using costumes. Families can also work together on intergenerational activities that draw from their rich family backgrounds, including interviewing grandparents, writing family stories, and creating captions or adding short paragraphs in photo albums. Educators can help parents understand how these types of learning experiences will help students continue to grow academically.

Community Partnership: Showcasing Student Work

For many schools, a strategy for getting parents to attend meetings is to feature student performances or presentations. This can also be done remotely, featuring students sharing from projects, singing together, or even performing in a talent show of sorts. With four days of preparation, third-grade students at Arborland Montessori Children’s Academy in Fullerton, Calif., turned their annual Children’s Night into a virtual performance.

Kim Sakai Bowen, a first-grade teacher, in Brentwood, Calif., always has a yearly Student Author Celebration. This year, she turned it into an online event. “I have done this event every year since my first year of teaching in 1993,” she says. “It wouldn’t be right not to hold it.” Each student writes a story that is published in a little book. This year, Kim helped her students edit their stories, and with parent/caregiver help filmed a short video of them reading on cellphones. One of her students whose family got stuck in Kenya was videotaped reading her story from there. Kim has been in contact with families in English and Spanish to ensure all 25 students will have videos posted in their Facebook group.

New Community Partnership Traditions and Rituals

Schools are finding new ways to come together with new community traditions and rituals. The Chino High School choir in California performed “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” virtually while each student was in isolation. Other schools have come together to remember those who have died of the virus through planting a tree in honor of a loved one or having students send condolence cards. In New York City, elementary students and parents/caregivers filled a message board with tributes to teacher Sandra Santos Vizcaino who died of COVID-19; and in Caldwell, N.J., middle school students built a makeshift memorial (using social distancing) to remember their principal, James Brown, who also died of the virus.

This time is extremely challenging and difficult for everyone—students, educators and families alike; maintaining links to keep the spirit of community will go far to promote healing, emotional connection and learning.

This article originally appeared in AFT @sharemylesson

About the authors

Becki Cohn-Vargas, Ed.D., consultant and co-author of Identity Safe Classrooms: Grades K-5 and Identity Safe Classrooms: Grades 6-12 (scheduled for August 2020), has worked as a teacher, principal and superintendent. Her website, beckicohnvargas.com, and Share My Lesson partner page, Identity Safe Classrooms, feature equity-focused resources.

Debbie Zacarian, Ed.D., an educational consultant and author of multiple books, including Teaching to Empower, brings three decades of experience as a district administrator, university faculty member, and educational service agency leader. Visit zacarianconsulting.com to learn more about her focus on culturally responsive community partnership practices.

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