Start with Diverse Shared Decision-Making Teams
Students, Families, and Community are Essential to Transforming Schools & Neighborhoods
Students, families and communities of color have always been at the forefront of transforming California schools. For decades, many of the wins we’ve had, including the passage of California’s historic Local Control Funding Formula in 2013, can be credited to community organizing led by students, families, and community, in partnership with educators.
Community partners frequently build the capacity of administrators, educators, and school staff to fill in gaps to serve the community.
A powerful example of this is the story of Felicitas & Gonzalo Mendez High School found in this brief published by the Learning Policy Institute.
Learning Policy Institute, August 26, 2021
Felicitas & Gonzalo Mendez High School (Mendez) is a community school located in East Los Angeles. Named for the plaintiffs in the 1946 landmark desegregation case, Mendez has deep ties to the Boyle Heights neighborhood in which it is located, including a robust network of partnerships that engage and support its students and their families. Staff, families, and partners share leadership opportunities at this 12-year-old community school and provide students with rigorous and engaging academics in a nurturing and inclusive environment.
Mendez at a Glance
Mendez High School is a community school in the Eastside of Los Angeles. Mendez opened in 2009 to relieve overcrowding at neighboring Roosevelt High School. The byproduct of a grassroots campaign for new schools, it was the first high school to open in Boyle Heights in 85 years. Today, Mendez serves 1,013 students: 97% identify as Hispanic or Latino, 94% are socioeconomically disadvantaged, 13% are currently classified as English learners, and 17% are students with disabilities.
Community organizing laid the foundation for Mendez, beginning with a campaign to establish the first new high school in its neighborhood in 85 years. To reflect the social justice values and cultural heritage of the community, this campaign advocated for the school to be named after the Mendez family. School staff and leadership are quick to connect their mission and vision as a community school to the Mendez legacy. Principal Mauro Bautista gives first-time visitors to the school a brief history lesson that draws a through line from the Mendez family’s fight for desegregation to the school’s commitment to providing its students (who are predominantly Latino/a and from low-income families) with equitable education opportunities.
The school carries on this legacy with its two signature equity initiatives—AP for All and Computer Science for All—and its school safety strategy that is rooted in relationships and restorative practices, rather than punitive measures. In 2019, as part of the school community’s commitment to restorative practices, students and staff led a movement to end the district’s policy of randomly searching students for weapons as they arrive on campus.
Mendez High School’s community-based and equity- focused practices have made possible an impressive shift in the academic outcomes of students in Boyle Heights. By 2020, just 11 years after the school’s establishment, the graduation rate had reached almost 90%, and the school had a 90% college-going rate. The school has had zero expulsions since 2011, and in 2021 over 75% of students reported feeling safe and happy at Mendez. They are also engaged as leaders in their school and in their community.
“Mendez is a place where students can be themselves … where students can master anything they want,” noted senior Eduardo Ruiz. Eduardo gained admission to several University of California and California State University campuses, including University of California Los Angeles, and chose to attend California State University in Los Angeles.
“Trust the community to know what’s right for the community…Each community is going to need something different, but the community members – the parents, the community organizations and especially the students – know what they need.” - Inland Empire parent and advocate
What is Authentic Student, Family and Community Engagement?
For the California Partnership for the Future of Learning, real community engagement is simply “nothing about us without us.” Students and families must have an equal and respected voice in decision making at the school site and district levels.
Shared decision-making means having shared power and authority to impact decisions: It is not enough to merely seek the input of students, families, and school-involved community groups. Rather, their priorities must impact decisions and be reflected in how dollars are invested to support all aspects of community schooling - from climate and culture to teaching and learning.
"It takes all of us to create racially just, relationship-centered community schools. I hope this brings those closest to the pain into the decision making. School-site and district multi-interest holder shared decision-making community school teams must have decision-making power and include directly impacted students and families that reflect the diversity of the school community; community schools must be developed with students and families who share power and decision making with educators and community-based organizations to create schools that meet the needs of their unique community." - Lucero Soto, parent and community organizer, Sacramento Area Congregations Together (SacACT) / PICO CA Education for Liberation
We know it’s hard to change the mindsets of decision-makers to believe in this type of shared-power and governance. They also might not have the knowledge or skill to govern in partnership with students, families, community partners, and school-based educators.
The Spectrum of Family-Community Engagement for Educational Equity by Facilitating Power, BHC Comite de Padres Unidos-Salinas, and BHC-Monterey County, and the Spectrum of Community Engagement adapted for Students by Californians for Justice are helpful tools to guide your school site or district to be in shared power with students, families and communities.
The Spectrum of Family Engagement for Educational Equity is based on the Community Engagement to Ownership Spectrum, which was created by Facilitating Power & Movement Strategy Center to chart a pathway towards racial equity and environmental justice through the shift from community engagement to community ownership, referencing Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation, the International Association of Public Participation’s Spectrum of Public Participation, and the work of grassroots organizing & advocacy groups working to hold local systems accountable to communities impacted by racial and environmental injustices
Padres Unidos-Salinas, a parent organizing group that was founded in 2016 to ensure parents on the Eastside of Salinas, CA (as well as across other school districts), have a voice in their students’ educational success, collaborated with Rosa González of Facilitating Power, to adapt the tool for use with school districts. This toolset is grounded in research on best practices in family/ community involvement.
This tool was adapted from the Spectrum of Family Engagement 1, Motivation, Engagement, and Student Voice: The Students at the Center Series 2 to illustrate what shared power looks like for students in the education system.
Californians for Justice is a statewide youth-powered organization fighting for racial justice. They believe that young people are the leaders we need to create the healthy, just, and vibrant schools all of our communities deserve.
Before you start to take action on your community engagement efforts, we encourage you to use both of the tools to reflect on where your district or school site is currently. It’s important to have honest reflection with your team. This process creates shared understanding and builds trust, which is critical to creating the foundation for a strong team and process of continuous improvement.
Use the following questions adapted from Californians for Justice Student Voice Continuum Training
- Where is your district and/or school site on the spectrum when it comes to student, family, and community engagement?
- Are there any examples of shared-power with students, family, and community at your district/school?
- What are the challenges/barriers for students, family, and community to have shared power at your school site?
- What support does your school site need in order to address those challenges/barriers?
Designing & Planning: Needs & Assets Assessments
Listening Campaigns: An Approach to Needs and Assets Assessment
Listening Campaigns can be a powerful approach to conducting needs and assets mapping, deepening relationships across race, culture, language, class, and roles, and establishing strong diverse shared decision-making teams. Listening campaigns can directly address issues of power differences across school communities. When school community members engage in deep listening with one another, they have an opportunity to build the mutual understanding, respect, and trust necessary for shifts in culture and practice. Additionally, structured listening campaigns incorporate leadership engagement, development, and team building. These are critical building blocks to establishing shared decision-making teams grounded in the values and practice of active and ongoing listening, engaging all members of the community, and reflection, assessment and planning based on data analysis and findings.
Photo credit: Nikita Williams
Garfield Elementary is a community school in the Oakland Unified School District that conducted a listening campaign during the 2011-12 school year. The listening campaign was co-led by a partner agency, the East Bay Asian Youth Center (EBAYC), who provided a part-time community organizer dedicated to supporting the campaign. A Core Team consisting of Garfield and EBAYC staff and parent leaders met on a weekly basis for the entire 2011-12 school year to plan and conduct the listening campaign, and to propose and implement changes based on the findings.
In October of 2011, a Core Team of 15 people was formed to conduct a listening campaign with Garfield families, under the leadership of Principal Nima Tahai and EBAYC Director Jamie Lopez. The Core Team consisted of parents, EBAYC staff, classified staff, the principal, and Liz Sullivan, a community organizer contracted by EBAYC through a LISC grant. Some of the Core Team members also served on the School Site Council and English Language Advisory Committees, although the Core Team was an ad hoc group working independently of traditional school structures. It was decided to integrate the Listening Campaign process with the OUSD School Quality Review (SQR) self-study as much as possible, in order to avoid duplicative, parallel efforts. The Goal of the Listening Campaign was to create a unifying vision and values statement to guide dramatic improvement in achievement for Garfield students.
In October and November, 277 Garfield parents and 182 4th and 5th grade students completed written surveys. In January, the Core Team conducted 134 face-to-face meetings with parents. The parents who participated in the survey and in the “one to one” visits represented the diversity of Garfield school: Latino, Vietnamese, African American, Chinese, Khmer, Filipino, Pacific Islander, Portuguese, Mien, Native American, and others. In addition, Liz Sullivan conducted 1-1 visits with 23 teachers and classified staff.
From the surveys and one to one meetings, the Core Team learned that families think highly of teachers and the principal. They like the after-school programs run by EBAYC and Oakland Parks and Recreation. Parents appreciate the programs and services that are offered through the parent center and the preschool programs such as Lotus Bloom. They also like the programs and services available for disabled children. When parents were asked to “dream big” for their children, they consistently expressed that they want their children to be caring people who graduate from college and get good jobs.
Families expressed concerns about the academic level of the school. Many would like to see more challenging curriculum and homework. Parents would like to see stronger relationships and better communication between the school and the home. They also mentioned the need for more supervision on the yard, especially before school.
Most teachers felt the school was starting to move in the right direction, but they expressed concern about the uneven level of instruction from classroom to classroom, and dissatisfaction with the quality of collaboration among teachers.
Achievement Data Analysis by Subgroup
In February, the Core Team looked at achievement data for the entire school, and for racial subgroups, and discovered that there is a 200 point gap between Asian students and African American students, and a 100 point gap between Asian students and Latino students. This brought up difficult feelings and the Core Team took the month of February to create a values framework that would help guide conversations with parents about unequal outcomes between subgroups. The Core Team felt a sense of urgency to accelerate learning for African American students and English Language Learners, and agreed that the rapid 2-3 year achievement gains associated with a “turn-around” strategy were preferable to the slower incremental approach of “school improvement,” which yields gains in a 5-7 year timeframe.
Vision and Values Statement
In order to undertake school turnaround, the school needed a powerful, unifying vision, and a common set of values to guide the work. After studying the themes that emerged in the parent surveys and the one to one visits, the Core Team distilled a vision, and four values. The Core Team then collaborated with teachers to refine the statement. The final version follows:
ALL Garfield students will grow into caring and creative adults prepared to graduate from college and succeed in life.
Garfield School Values:
- Hard work, perseverance and education
- Teachers, Students, and Families as Partners
- Healthy Families, School, and Community
- Diversity as our strength
Grade Level Meetings
In March, the Core Team organized grade level meetings for parents to discuss Garfield’s achievement data, including the performance level of racial subgroups, and to get feedback on the proposed vision and values statement from families. A total of 180 parents participated in the grade level meetings in March. Families expressed overwhelming support for the values and the vision, and signed commitment cards to get involved to improve achievement at Garfield.
The Garfield Listening Campaign included the following steps:
Steps to Conducting a School Listening Campaign
- Identify the purpose of the campaign.
- Who do you want to listen to and why?
- Is the listening campaign about building relationships as well as gathering information?
- What happens to the information once you have listened?
- Is there an invitation or next step for the people you listen to?
- Identify who will do the listening.
- Will the team consist solely of staff, solely of parents or will it consist of various school community members group?
- Train your team.
- Develop a written outline for 1-1 to visits or small group meetings, with just a few questions—try to keep it simple. See below for a sample outline.
- Have all team members role play with each other in order to get comfortable.
- Encourage team members to jot down notes after conversations so they don’t forget.
- Set goals.
- How many people do you need to listen to in order to get the pulse of the school community?
- What sub-groups do you need to include whose experience may be different?
- Ask individuals to set their own personal goals, as well as establish an overall goal.
- Set a time frame.
- Usually one to two months.
- Time can be adjusted as necessary, depending on your progress toward the overall goal.
- Let the community know in advance about the listening campaign.
- Letter from the principal
- Announcements in meetings
- Posters in the hall
- Check-in with each other regularly to provide support and encouragement.
- Decide how frequently the team will meet to share what they are hearing (more frequent meetings are better to build momentum and keep people accountable to each other—once a week is best).
- Decide if you want to add members to the team and train new people as you go, or keep the group closed.
- Consider conducting a survey in addition to face-to-face conversations in order to reach more people.
- The survey should complement, but not replace face-to-face conversations.
- Report your findings back to the community in written format, and also in a community meeting.
- Be clear about how the information will guide decisions and actions moving forward.
- Recognize and celebrate the work of the team.
- Thank everyone who participated.
The National Center for Community Schools (NCCSS) also uses needs and assets assessments “to understand and create a profile of a community school’s needs [and assets].” When executed well, these needs and asset assessments can provide the opportunity for a diverse group of interest holders to engage in the data collection and analysis, and foster shared responsibility and accountability, as they develop a shared understanding of the needs and assets of the community, and how to best address and leverage them.
NCCSS has developed a Needs Assessment Toolkit that describes eight comprehensive steps of the assessment process. These include:
- Getting Started/Convening a Team
- Archival Data Review
- Initial Analysis
- Key Informant Interviews
- Focus Groups
- Final Analysis
Each school is different and the exact process for conducting a needs and assets assessment may look different and will be context specific. This is also true of the type of existing or new data that a school community collects and analyzes as part of its assessment process. Data sources can include surveys, resource mapping, focus groups, in-depth interviews, listening sessions, as well as academic, school climate, and economic data collection.
Based on interviews with community school experts, common best practices that thriving community schools have used as part of an effective needs and asset assessment process include:
- Building a diverse team to conduct the needs/asset assessment that includes students, families, educators, and community partners as co-owners of the process.
- Creating the appropriate environment for the needs/asset assessment to be successful, including understanding a school’s history and building trusting relationships among interest holders.
- Facilitating a culture of continuous improvement, supported by the investment of human and financial resources.
- Using ongoing data to support transformative vision and goal setting and to advance positive change in such areas as school culture and climate, student mental health and well-being, and academic opportunities and outcomes.
Establishing your Shared Decision-Making Teams
Multi-interest holder shared decision-making teams must reflect the diversity of the community and include directly impacted students and their families, especially those that are under-resourced and under-represented – along with educators, support staff, administrators, and community partners. Solutions that are collaboratively developed with families and broadly held are more successful and sustainable over time.
Leadership: “We Are in It Together”
To honor the legacy of Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez, and as part of the school’s commitment to the community school design, school leaders practice a model of shared power and distributed leadership. For students, this translates into opportunities to make real change on campus. Such was the case when students from InnerCity Struggle’s United Students club successfully campaigned to extend lunchtime to ensure fewer students go hungry and less food is wasted—a move that required changes to the master schedule. For staff, it means exploring, developing, and leading initiatives. The school’s signature equity initiatives and its restorative justice program, for example, were all proposed by staff during Local School Leadership Committee and department meetings. For families and community partners, it includes grassroots organizing training through InnerCity Struggle, the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, and Promesa Boyle Heights. Claudia Martinez-Fritzges, of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, noted, “At Mendez, there is this ‘We are in it together, we have to solve it together’ [attitude].”
Student leadership development is central to the school’s mission, and Mendez staff encourage students to flex their leadership muscles, even when they challenge existing practices. For example, staff proudly shared an example of the Gender Sexuality Alliance club members pushing for more diverse representation in the school’s curriculum during humanities department team meetings. Since Mendez’s founding, students have had access to InnerCity Struggle’s United Students club, which develops their leadership and organizing skills. Another local nonprofit organization, Las Fotos Project, teaches young women photography and leadership skills, as well as how the medium can be used for social change. Las Fotos Project also provides opportunities for Mendez students to showcase their work.
The leadership skills that students develop at Mendez can support continued advocacy work and engaged citizenship after high school. Romero is currently a sophomore at UC Irvine and is majoring in political science. She recalled that in her sophomore year at Mendez, she “really learned how to bring [her] activism work into school,” by writing on issues that she cared about for her English class, like gentrification and the Dakota Access Pipeline. Romero has already seen her many Mendez experiences—including her leadership work with United Students and Las Fotos Project—serve her in higher education. She said, “I don’t think I would be here without Mendez teaching me and showing me … what I can do. I don’t really know what I’m going to end up doing after graduation, but I know that I want to be an advocate for my community.”
Administrators also cultivate staff leadership and encourage new ideas. Grijalva began her career at Mendez teaching English but developed an interest in restorative justice and proposed a pilot project at Mendez. She recalled that Bautista said he was “still iffy about restorative justice,” but that he invited her “to challenge [him].” According to Grijalva, after she had worked for a couple of years on a restorative justice program that had started as a “side project,” Bautista recognized that the initiative bolstered a positive school climate. He created the restorative justice coordinator position so that staff could continue growing this work at Mendez. The role contributes to both Grijalva’s professional growth and the strong, positive community among students and staff. Families also have opportunities to engage in leadership roles. Mendez has multiple governing bodies with opportunities for shared leadership. In addition to a school site council, which is standard at schools across the state, Mendez has a Local School Leadership Committee, a School Culture Committee, a Family Action Team, and a House of Student Representatives. Bautista participates in the various decisions that these governing bodies weigh in on, ensuring that they can collaboratively make decisions for the school on important issues like budgeting, scheduling, or professional development. By creating space for leadership at multiple levels of the school community, administrators strengthen decisions and ensure that they reflect the needs and interests of the broad school community
Building the leadership capacity of families and the community has also benefited Mendez. This has been especially visible with the 10-year campaign to bring a wellness center, funded by the district, to the Mendez campus. Promesa Boyle Heights staff, InnerCity Struggle organizers, and Mendez families led the campaign, which included surveying members of the community and identifying a high need for the neighborhood’s young men to be provided with health services. The school broke ground on the 6,500-square-foot building in December 2019
Expanding Capacity for School Transformation
This California Partnership for the Future of Learning backgrounder was informed by community schools research from the Learning Policy Institute, the National Center for Community Schools, the National Education Association, and the Coalition for Community Schools, the Community School Coordinators Network.
Each community school relies on both a network of partnerships and the blending and braiding of resources to ensure student success. The Community School Coordinator (also called the Community School Manager or Community School Director) manages these resources and partnerships and plays a vital role in supporting the systems, structures, and practices needed for students and adults to thrive. In one study, it was estimated that for every $1 invested in the Community School Coordinator, the school experienced $7.11 in benefit.
Typical responsibilities of the Community School Coordinator include:
- Leading and supporting efforts to create a safe, inclusive, supportive, and welcoming school community, which includes listening to and communicating regularly with key interest holders (especially students, families, and community partners);
- Setting a vision and direction for the school in partnership with the principal, other school staff, and the school community by participating in and coordinating shared leadership opportunities;
- Nurturing and maintaining productive, reciprocal relationships with school staff, students, families, local businesses, community organizations, and government agencies;
- Managing the schools' assets/needs assessments, including collecting and analyzing data from a broad range of school and community voices; and
- Adapting the school’s programming, partnerships, and resources to meet emerging needs.
Community School Coordinators are typically employed by the school district or by a partner organization, such as a local community-based organization. Employees may be certificated or non-certificated staff. In some districts, Community School Coordinators are administrative staff.
The Many Responsibilities of a Community School Coordinator
Needs/Asset Assessments and Goal Setting
The Community School Coordinator works with school staff and leadership to strategically cultivate partnerships and leverage relationships, services, opportunities, and funding sources (local, state, federal, and private dollars) to meet the needs and interests of students and families. A critical first step in understanding needs and opportunities is the implementation of a thoughtful and inclusive needs and assets assessment. Through this process, school communities are able to identify key priorities (such as students experiencing psychological and physical safety on campus or increasing community voice in decision-making) and develop an action plan for achieving desired results, including how to best use available resources and personnel and identifying new partnerships needed to meet goals.
An important part of the Community School Coordinator’s role is to work with other school leaders to engage students, families, and staff in co-creating a vision for the school. They also provide critical leadership in supporting a culture of continuous improvement. This Includes understanding families’ and students’ emerging and evolving needs and interests and supporting both through relationships, resources, and programming, such as additional services or learning opportunities for students and families.
Managing Relationships with Staff, Students, Families, and External Partners
The Community School Coordinator plays an important role in managing all aspects of partnerships at the school site, including maintaining relationships, developing contracts, and helping to manage the physical use of space. Community School Coordinators can also be key liaisons between partners, staff, students, and families. Community School Coordinators must consistently communicate with and bring together collaborative teams to support students (such as a Coordination of Services Team). To be effective, they should also develop a structure and process for connecting regularly with school staff to discuss partnerships and the changing needs of students and their families; and to match resources to need. Effective Community School Coordinators are also supported by their districts, such as through participation in learning communities in which they share knowledge, grow best practices, and engage in a community of support.
The Community School Coordinator plays an integral role in supporting authentic engagement and partnerships with families. Successful community schools model family engagement that goes far beyond typical outreach practices, such as parent conferences and meetings. For example, Community School Coordinators often support the implementation of Parent Teacher Home Visits. They can bring relevant family learning opportunities to campus and create opportunities for family members to share their skills and expertise with others in the school community. Some schools have a staff person who serves as the parent or family liaison and works closely with the Community School Coordinator to engage students and families. Community School Coordinators can also support youth leadership, including by providing opportunities for engagement in local community issues..
Setting Community School Coordinators Up for Success
There is no single profile of an effective Community School Coordinator. They possess a variety of work and life experiences and backgrounds. The following represent some key considerations when staffing for this position.
Factors to Consider
Parents, teachers, after school program coordinators, family engagement specialists, and staff from partner organizations all serve as Community School Coordinators in schools across the country. What is most important is that the Community School Coordinator is connected to or a member of the school community. Community School Coordinators who are employed by a partner organization (rather than the district) will need to establish effective data-sharing agreements, which can be vital to developing and monitoring systems to support students effectively. At the same time, coordinators who are employees of partner organizations may be able to leverage funding and other resources more effectively by virtue of their independence and community connections. While there is no single path to becoming a Community School Coordinator, key traits include being able to: manage trusting and authentic relationships with students, families, partners, and staff; analyze the assets and needs of the community; coordinate schedules and services; and balance short-term improvements with transformational change.
Providing a Foundation of Authentic, Shared Leadership
Community schools rest on a foundation of shared power and collaborative leadership. Because of the many relationships they manage, and their extensive knowledge of the needs, goals, and assets of their school community, Community School Coordinators play an essential role in cultivating a culture and practice of shared leadership. Effective Community School Coordinators understand that distributed leadership is more sustainable and productive than top-down leadership. They therefore build structures to support broad participation, develop leadership capacity among all members of the community, and shift power to actively invite students, families, and staff into decision-making.