Building Bridges to a Strong School Community

02/22/2017
By Steve Frey

Schools with a strong sense of community are positive places where children, parents, and staff all work together in an environment that has the potential to help each individual find success. Creating that sense of community is similar to building a bridge, and the principal is the primary architect.

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Notice in that first paragraph the use of the word, "potential." There are many schools that have an enjoyable sense of community, but never reach the achievement goals they have set. The goal for the school should be for every student to reach his or her full potential. It is not enough to just "feel good" about going there. Also, notice that each individual has the ability to find success. In a school with a strong sense of community, children, teachers, parents---everyone---feels positive about their own individual contributions to the overall success of the school. They feel a sense of ownership and involvement.

Of course, the principal, as the architect, facilitates the creation of the bridge to a strong school community. She doesn't do it alone, but everywhere you go, you see indications of the principal's vision and influence. 

Build a Strong Foundation
The floor of the bridge forms the strong base that supports everything moving across it.  That foundation is the sense of order and procedures embodied in the code of conduct for the district or school. These conduct expectations are developed with input from the entire school community. The principal needs to make sure that every voice is heard and that the final product reflects fair and achievable expectations. These expectations need to be communicated to the students, parents, and staff, so that everyone understands their roles in the process and the consequences of their actions. Finally, they need to be consistently followed. Collaboration, Communication, Caring, Consequences, and Consistency are the five "C's" that should guide the process in the development of the code of conduct.

Add the Support Braces for the Trestle

The development of the trestle and support braces for our bridge include several important components. The principal needs to develop a strong leadership team. An excellent format for this is the development of Professional Learning Communities by grade level or subject areas that come together regularly. The Leadership Team, facilitated by the principal and other staff members, becomes the conduit for the development of school goals, instructional strategies, and curriculum development. The Professional Learning Communities for the grade levels or subject areas look intensely at the needs of their students and develop systems for helping every child be successful. This sense of shared decision making, goal setting, and instructional study on the team and school levels helps the community feel the strength of all of its members and develops a strong sense of camaraderie and teamwork.

Parents should be included on the leadership team, but, additionally, the parents should have other opportunities to participate in and influence their children's educational experiences. Another strong brace for our bridge is a strong parent organization. Again, the principal has an important role. She must help show how the parent organization can help to support the school and its goals. Through constant communication and guidance, the principal can focus the group on academic and social growth areas for the children and school. The PTA or PTO can do many things with and for the students and staff to help make school a fun, interesting, and strong learning environment.

Another important support brace is the principal. She should always be looking for ways to be involved with the children and staff. Visiting classrooms, greeting students and parents as they come and go from school each day, participating in special events, talking to children in the lunchroom, spending time with them at recess, leading special recognition or learning programs, acknowledging achievements of students and staff are just a few ways the principal can help develop a sense of community. Have the students be involved in everything from announcements to being on the Safety Patrol. Every day is a new opportunity to develop a sense of esprit de corps and fun for the children. When the principal is visible and involved, everyone in the school feels better connected.

Regular Inspections
Once the bridge is built and the school feels a strong sense of community, it is important to regularly inspect its strength. Getting input from parents and children, having open discussions with the Leadership Team, analyzing the achievement and progress of the children, and having a chance to regularly discuss projects and progress with the parent organization will give the principal and team a great sense of what is working and what needs to be tweaked to improve the community. Ongoing communication from the principal to the school community helps everyone understand that school improvement is always a work in progress, but that the school is consistently moving in the right direction.

Building a bridge to a strong school community takes the efforts of everyone, but the principal has a unique perspective from which to see and organize those efforts. Once the blueprints are drawn, it's time to roll up our sleeves and go to work. Before you know it, that bridge will be carrying every member of the community to a strong sense of achievement, involvement, and community. Time to sharpen those pencils and go to work!

Steve Frey is a former teacher, principal, and district administrator who now supports and consults in the areas of curriculum development, instructional design, and school administration.
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Issue 19.1 | Summer 2017

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