6 Ways Schools Can Involve Communities Better

“Our community is the epicenter of a big urban city facing a number of environmental and…

By Anna Sudderth

“Our community is the epicenter of a big urban city facing a number of environmental and social justice issues, like food deserts, gentrification, polluted air and water, flooding, and climate change,” says Furr High School principal Steven Stapleton “These are not abstract issues—they’re right here, right now, every day.” That’s why Furr High School, an XQ school in Houston, TX, redesigned its traditional high model into one that prioritizes learning about community-based problems and solutions. Located in east Houston near the city’s refineries and petrochemical plants, Furr doesn’t draw back from the challenges facing the surrounding community, they approach them head-on and with students at the center.

That’s right. Furr students aren’t just learning about community challenges. They work alongside community members and learn how to be part of the solution. Case in point: the Herman Brown Park Community Garden and Fruit Orchard. The garden is a community-driven initiative, funded by the National Recreation and Park Association and maintained by Furr students. Through the garden, students get to learn about ecology, environmental justice, and food sovereignty in a hands-on context. Students also get to contribute to their local ecosystem while actively learning from community members, like partner organization Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (T.E.J.A.S), a Houston-based non-profit dedicated to environmental activism. Yvette Arellano, Senior Staff, Policy Research & Grassroots Advocate at T.E.J.A.S., explained, “It’s awesome for us to be able to partner with Furr, and be able to shed some truth and break their reality a little bit and say, ‘Look, here are these problems and issues with systems. Here’s the problem with trying to address those issues in an equitable approach with folks who don’t necessarily look like you or share your backgrounds.’”

As Furr students learn from their community, they’re also contributing to it through cultivating the garden that all residents can enjoy—and in doing so, gaining confidence in themselves as citizens. “Furr makes me want to stay involved,” explains Furr student Juan. “I want to stay committed to what I’ve been doing. I’ll continue to be that voice locally and hopefully have an impact on a larger scale.”

High schools everywhere can learn from this approach.

Community Involvement in Schools: What, Why, and How

It’s easy to say that the community should be involved in high schools. But what does meaningful community engagement look like, and what are its concrete benefits—for students, and for the community at large? 

The most common understandings of community involvement in schools usually include community members dropping into preexisting school structures, through opportunities like: 

  • Volunteering in schools
  • Mentoring students
  • Inviting families to school events
  • School visits from local professionals
  • Workshops with community organizations

Taken alone, each of these examples can yield positive benefits for students and community members alike. However, community involvement in schools can go even further. High school should prepare students for success in the real world, as original thinkers, collaborators, and citizens. Part of this work means breaking down the barriers between the “real world” and the classroom, to create learning experiences embedded in the community. 

To do this, instead of asking, ‘How can we fit the community into what we’re already doing?’, educators should ask, ‘How can we partner with community members to design learning experiences that center the community from the very beginning?’ This question opens the door to examples of meaningful community engagement like:

  • Student projects that solve community challenges
  • Long-term partnerships with businesses and nonprofits
  • Sharing physical space and resources with community organizations
  • Family leadership in decisions about school structure
  • Student internships for class credit

The Importance of School and Community Collaboration

Community involvement in schools holds significant benefits for students. As this policy brief from the National Education Association illustrates, community involvement in schools leads to:

  • Improved attendance
  • Greater academic aspirations for students
  • Higher grades
  • Stronger school reputation
  • Positive relationships between students, teachers, families, and the community at large

Community involvement in schools also offers students the chance to gain real-world skills through solving problems and building relationships outside of the classroom. In doing so, students learn: 

  • Critical thinking
  • Project management
  • Problem solving
  • Collaboration
  • Self-awareness

Deborah Park, the curator of projects and partnerships at Círculos—an XQ school in Santa Ana, CA—summed up what these benefits look like in action for her students: “They’re getting access to experts in the field. They’re not just leafing through pages in a textbook. They’re learning from the world around them, and seeing how their work impacts the community. That’s a real level of empowerment for students.” 

Read on for six ways high schools can get the most out of community involvement, to foster this kind of deep, engaged learning. 

Six Ways to Involve The Community in High School

Involving the community isn’t a one time intervention. Getting the most out of community involvement means making relationships with the community a central tenet of school mission and culture. These six recommendations focus on how to do just that, building sustainable, equitable systems for community involvement.

#1: Focus on Involvement from Families and Caregivers

Students’ families and caregivers are some of the most immediate and important community members surrounding schools. Families and caregivers have crucial insights into what their students need to succeed, and can help ensure that students feel supported academically at home, as well as at school. The Urban League of Louisiana synthesized several studies on the relationship between family involvement in schools and student success, to find that, overwhelmingly, family involvement creates positive benefits for students. These benefits include improvements in: 

  • Grades
  • Attendance
  • Graduation rates
  • College enrollment

However, despite these benefits, families often face barriers to getting involved with their children’s school. Some of these barriers are logistic, like not being able to make an in-person school town hall. Others are more relational, like parents not feeling that their perspective is valued by the school system. 

Brooklyn Laboratory High School, an XQ school in Brooklyn, New York, has worked to overcome these barriers to prioritize family involvement since day one. As a school with a commitment to serve all learners, where over a third of students qualify for special education services, Brooklyn LAB leaders understand that getting family input is crucial to supporting students. This became especially true during the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic, when educators and caretakers all faced a crash course in how to support a new set of student needs. To meet the moment, Brooklyn LAB stepped up their partnership with families to a new level: they hosted over 150 town halls, focus groups, and one-on-ones with students and families to ensure that families were heard, seen, and valued. Based on community feedback and expertise, Brooklyn LAB crafted a unique hybrid schedule that truly served students—allowing meaningful learning to continue with minimal disruptions. 

Brooklyn LAB’s approach is a road-map for how high schools can invite meaningful engagement and involvement from families. Based on their experience, Brooklyn LAB compiled equity by design, a resource that guides schools on how to communicate with families to foster involvement. Explore this guide to build relationships with families that are: 

  • Collaborative
  • Empathetic
  • Transparent and truthful
  • Accessible and inclusive
  • Resilient

For more examples of how to involve families in high school, check out our deep dive into the relationship between parental and family involvement and student success, where we’ve compiled resources around how to:

  • Create parent and family advocacy groups
  • Expand volunteer opportunities
  • Offer home visits
  • Get information out in the community
  • Schedule regular student meetings
  • Host family workshops

#2: Prioritize Flexible Learning Approaches

Inviting deep community engagement means having the flexibility to shape learning experiences around the challenges, expertise, and projects that community members bring to the table. Approaches to meaningful, engaged learning that offer this flexibility are often: 

  • Project-based: Students gain skills and knowledge through tackling real-world projects and challenges
  • Interdisciplinary: Students synthesize skills and content from multiple disciplines to come up with new ways to address challenges
  • Competency-based: Students progress through content based on how well they’ve mastered material, not the time they’ve spent in classroom seats
  • Student-centered: Learning is rooted in and driven by student interest, with students leading and evaluating their own progress

Círculos embodies how to build a curriculum that centers community involvement. Círculos’s place and project-based learning curriculum, P2BL, opens the door to meaningful community involvement by engaging students in projects in the community related to their interests. As part of this curriculum, Círculos students spend two afternoons a week with a local business or non-profit, working on projects to enrich the community. Through these partnerships, students gain confidence in their own skills as well as exposure to different industries and community expertise, opening the doors to their futures. 

For example, Círculos student Sofia discovered a passion for architecture, a field she had never considered through partnering with local design firm Visioneering Studios. Sofia always knew she loved art, but didn’t believe she could make a career out of it—until she saw architects working in the field. And Sofia didn’t just observe experts at work. As part of this partnership, she worked to design a public gathering space out of a previously under-used alley, gaining confidence and academic skills through real-world applications. Sofia described the power of getting to do this work in her community: “It’s a lot more fun to work on (a project like this) when you can actually be in the physical place you’re learning about. It’s inspiring.” Círculos educator Jessica Salcedo underscored this, explaining, “We’re taking all the resources of the community and making them available to our students. The mentors, the expertise—it’s all at their fingertips.”

It takes planning and intentional design to ensure that community projects map onto students’ academic development—but as Círculos shows, the benefits for students are well worth it.

You can ensure that community-based projects meet rigorous academic standards by asking these questions: 

  • Does the project address an authentic community need? 
  • Does the project support interdisciplinary learning, requiring students to draw from a range of knowledge and skills? 
  • Is the project student-driven, connecting to student interests?
  • Has the project been designed with attention to school and state academic standards and competencies?
  • Do students have an opportunity to demonstrate and evaluate their learning?
  • Do students have an opportunity to receive feedback on their work from teachers and community members, and revise based on that feedback?

#3: Design Learning Experiences Together

For better community involvement, don’t wait until you’ve already planned a lesson or designed a class to invite community partnership. Instead, invite community involvement from the very beginning of a design cycle—whether designing a class, a project, or even a whole high school. This approach ensures that community interests are represented from day one, creating partnerships that are rigorous and mutually beneficial. 

No school community exemplifies this community-based approach to design more than Iowa BIG, an XQ school in Cedar Rapids, IA. School builders made Iowa BIG with the vision that students and community members could work together to solve real problems in Cedar Rapids. To put this vision into action, 60 community members representing a wide swath of Cedar Rapids went “back to school” for a day—and used what they learned to build a whole new model for high school. Now, Iowa BIG students learn by doing, and work on community “initiatives” proposed by community partners, like partnering with a non-profit helping immigrant and refugee families to build a 20-plot community garden, or building a replica Berlin Wall for a local museum. These projects empower students, and they also help the community—Iowa BIG now receives more project proposals from the community than they can actually take on!

While designing alongside community members is crucial, it’s not always easy. Engaging a wide range of community stakeholders—from business leaders, to activists, to families, to artists, to nonprofits—also means navigating a big range of opinions and interests. Our comprehensive design tool, XQ In A Box, can help navigate these conversations. We built this tool to help schools engage in the process of redesigning and rethinking the high school experience—and we specifically focused on how to engage the community. Explore XQ In a Box to find conversation-guiding resources on:

#4: Center Equity

Equity in Outreach: Bring all Voices to the Table

At its best, community involvement is a powerful way to ensure that high schools function by and for the communities they serve. However, this isn’t always what happens in practice. Too often, the way that high schools facilitate community involvement excludes large portions of the community. Jonathan Santos Silva, founding executive director of The Liber Institute, explained, “The people who are most impacted by the way our system is designed to reinforce oppressive structures or White supremacy are the last ones we usually engage.” Recognizing and correcting this pattern is crucial to promoting equity for students and community members alike. Santos Silva described what this looks like: “It’s really about elevating these talented, innovative, creative leaders so that we can say, ‘Hey, these communities have ideas and solutions, if we would only engage them to truly be partners.’ Our work is incomplete without those perspectives.” 

Elevating all community voices starts with communication—with who schools reach out to, and how they do it. Our colleagues from the Educating All Learners Alliance shared tips on how to promote equitable communication around school decisions: 

  • Recognize the cultural values that parents bring to the table
  • Prioritize input from BIPOC families, low-income families, and families of students with disabilities
  • Communicate with consistency and intention, following up if initial outreach efforts don’t work
  • Be transparent about how community feedback is being incorporated into school politics

Equity in Resources: Make Sure All Students Get What They Need

Equity in high schools means that every student is given the tools and support they need to succeed in school. Community involvement can supply students with these resources, going beyond what high schools alone can provide. 

These benefits of community involvement for students are evident at DaVinci RISE High, an XQ school in Los, Angeles, California. School builders founded Da Vinci RISE High to meet the needs of students undergoing serious disruptions to their academic journeys: students in foster care, students experiencing homelessness, and students involved with the carceral system. In order to succeed in school, these students need more than the academic support that teachers can provide. To fulfill these needs, Da Vinci RISE co-located with community nonprofits: A Place Called Home, a multi-service agency for Los Angeles youth that provides support in the arts, education, and wellness, and New Earth, a nonprofit providing mentor-based arts, educational, and vocational programs to juvenile justice and system involved youth. Students can easily access these community resources as part of their high school experience, enabling them to show up to class fully supported and prepared to succeed. 

Your school doesn’t have to co-locate with community organizations to take a lesson from Da Vinci RISE’s model. Consider how you can weave community resources like counseling, mentorship, arts programming, and wellness into your high school through these questions:

  • How can we gather input from students and families about what resources they need?
  • Where are the gaps in terms of resources our school can provide?
  • What community organizations and stakeholders provide those resources?
  • How can we integrate opportunities for students to access those resources into the day-to-day structure of the school? 

#5: Make the Community the Campus

Expand the possibilities of community involvement by expanding your idea of where a high school campus starts and ends. Instead of asking community partners to come to you, consider how you can facilitate community involvement within the community itself.

One literal way to make the community the campus is to co-locate, like Da Vinci RISE, sharing classroom space alongside community partners. That’s the idea behind Crosstown High—an XQ school in Memphis, TN. When Memphis community members began the process of dreaming and designing their ideal high school, they knew they wanted to set students up for collaborative, real-world learning. So, in partnership with Crosstown Arts, they located their school in Memphis’s newly developed Crosstown Concourse, a hub of local activity that includes arts organizations, health care providers, a YMCA, restaurants, a credit union, a pharmacy, higher education institutions, foundations, and nonprofits. By sharing space with these community businesses, students get to learn from and with community members on a day-to-day basis. This includes informal interactions as well as formal projects, like a partnership with a local graphic designer to design logos for student-run businesses.

Of course, not every school can physically share space with community organizations. But even educators working in traditional school buildings can adopt the mindset of making the community the classroom. Crosstown environmental science teacher Nikki Wallace embodies this mindset, expanding her classroom beyond the walls of the concourse to include the city of Memphis as a whole. Wallace asks students to examine the city, including their own backyards, for evidence of the concepts they’re learning about in class. For example, Wallace is working with doctors at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis to create a curriculum called Cancer Learning in My Backyard, exploring how diet, environment, behavior, and other factors impact individuals’ cancer risks. By making the community the classroom, Wallace empowers students to connect their learning to their real lives—and to take action as a result. She explained, “In order for kids to ‘get it,’ they have to see what the problems are in their own communities. But that makes them more committed to learning, too. I tell my students, ‘you are the ones who are going to solve these problems.”

#6: Create Real-World and Workplace Experiences for Students

Community involvement can lead to concrete outcomes for students beyond just grades—like job experience, and even compensation. Facilitate these opportunities to motivate students and prepare them for success after high school. 

Skylar, a student at Elizabethton High, an XQ school in rural Tennessee, experienced the benefits of a paid internship first-hand. He spent the summer after his junior year of high school completing a paid internship at Lobaki, a small tech firm that creates virtual reality experiences for schools. While Skylar was nervous at first, the experience ultimately changed his life. “I love it here. It’s been amazing. I wake up excited to go to work,” he explained. “And there’s nothing like real job experience. I’ve learned and progressed so much. … And it’s exciting to be a part of the VR industry. VR has so much potential, and we’re only beginning to see what that is.” Getting paid to complete this internship was a crucial factor for Skylar. ​​“I grew up in a poor family. If this job didn’t pay, I never could have done it,” he said. “I’ve even been able to save some money.”

This transformative experience was possible because Skylar’s teacher, Alex Campbell, pursued a partnership with Lobaki’s chief executive Vince Jordan. After Campbell heard about Lobaki and realized it might be a good fit for his students, he invited Jordan to campus to build a relationship and see what Elizabethton students could do. Students were ready to seize the opportunity, thanks to the preparation they’d received in school: in an effort to prepare students for well-paying jobs in tech industries, Elizabethton launched a virtual reality program that gives students the skills they need to do entry-level VR work. Now, students like Skylar are more than prepared for opportunities like the one at Lobaki. 

Educators can set up students for internships and paid work experience in the community by:

  • Identifying sectors that align with their students’ career interests
  • Looking for areas of mutual interest, where working with high school students can benefit an organization’s goals
  • Building relationships with community business leaders
  • Designing learning experiences that will give students the skills they need to be prepared for work in the field

Building Stronger High Schools Through Community

Ultimately, high schools are community institutions. Each day, students come to school carrying their experiences of community, and when they leave school, they take the knowledge and skills they’ve gained back out into the community with them. Intentionally involving community resources, energy, and expertise in high school improves learning outcomes for students, has a positive impact on the community, and contributes to the sustainability of high schools moving forward. We hope you join us in continuing to build strong partnerships with communities on behalf of students.