Community Engagement: Proactively Involving Families and Cities in Education

Effective community engagement is integral to helping charter schools thrive where they are planted. A school’s impact on both its internal community of families and educators, as well as its impact on the local external community can create a vibrant and supportive culture. To highlight how important charter schools are to their communities, Building Hope created the Community Engagement grant award category to honor schools who are excelling at it.

Community Engagement looks like a charter school that is an integral part of their community. It forges partnerships with businesses, municipalities, and other local agencies that benefit their students and their neighborhood. Schools are often neighborhood hubs of connection. Schools also excel at bringing their internal community of parents, teachers, students and administration together around the mission of the school. This internal community demonstrates support and cohesion.

Effective community engagement, Selection Committee member Lis Anders says, encourages students to discover how their academic learning is linked to bringing smart solutions to social issues, hunger, security, and so on.

By stressing effective community engagement, charter schools “add to the development of the student,” Anders says, “and that should translate to how they respond to bring solutions as they move into being a productive member of society.”

Community engagement is important to every school and district in the country, and charter schools serve both neighborhood children and children whose parents from the surrounding county who choose a public charter education.

“It’s important for [charter schools] to not only create community within their school, but wherever their school is located,” Anders said.

As vice president of business development for MCN Build, Anders has a keen interest in understanding — and promoting — the synergy sparked by effective and meaningful community engagement. As builders of schools all over the country, the impact of a great school on a local community is part of her daily life.

The challenges for schools to develop their connections during the pandemic were significant. Not only were candidate schools pursuing their full educational programs in the midst of

COVID-19, they simultaneously had to be mindful of the pandemic’s limitations on their outreach efforts. Most of the schools also led the charge in providing centers for vaccination clinics, free food programs, and technology support.

The most critical characteristic of a school committed to community engagement is how well they work with their internal and external stakeholders to provide a true benefit. Children learn best when there is a holistic approach, and learning always happens in context. When there is a need for food, or a challenge with safety, or a family who is hurting, schools are often the first responders of care and compassion. When the community is connected, each member of that community is boosted.

Three schools led the impressive pack of charter schools in the Community Engagement category and are models of inspiration:

The students at Legends Academy in Orlando, FL are about to see something they’ve never seen – their very own classrooms!

Legends Academy has operated out of portables since it opened in August of 2001, but that is going to change this school year. Students will have a certified brick-and-mortar schoolhouse with 28 fresh classrooms, plus enrichment rooms for music, art, and STEM opportunities that were never possible … until now!

“We’ve finally got a place that we actually own, a place we can call home,” Executive Director Jennifer Porter-Smith said. “Now we can plant our roots, feel safe in a building we actually own and know that nobody is going to kick us out. It is such a good feeling of assurance for everyone in our community.”

The evolution from cramped quarters to first-class education facility is the result of a community effort that secured the school $15 million in tax-exempt bonding. It also secured Legends Academy one of the three finalist nominations for Building Hope’s Community Engagement Award to be presented at the First Annual Impact Awards and Summit.

“You can’t believe how excited our community is,” Porter-Smith said. “It’s one thing to be recognized locally for what you’re doing, but this is national recognition and that really makes it exciting for our students, staff, and everyone in our community.”

Legends Academy started out as the Nap Ford Community School, named after the first elected Black city council member for Orlando. Ford was a teacher at two Orlando high schools and at the University of Central Florida. He worked tirelessly on improving education opportunities in the low-income area of downtown Orlando that he represented on the City Council.

Porter-Smith said the goal for students at Legends Academy is to be as engaged outside the classroom as they are in it. Some of the community projects include taking care of gardens and picking up garbage in the neighborhood around the school; sending thank-you notes to teachers, staff and local businesses for their contributions; and older students tutoring young students.

The ground-breaking ceremonies for the new school included the Mayor of Orlando, City Council Members, state representatives, school board members and neighbors just happy to have a new school in the community.

“Our school doesn’t operate in isolation from the things around us,” Porter-Smith said. “We’re involved with other youth nonprofits, we’re involved with the city, we’re involved with businesses in our community … if something worthwhile is going on in our community, we want to be part of it.”

When Launch Expeditionary Learning Charter School opened in 2012, the vision was to bring equity to educational opportunities to its students Now, because of their willingness to engage the community in meaningful ways, that vision has landed on solid ground – 1,000 acres of it.

The New York Board of Regents in February approved the Brooklyn-based school serving grades 6-8 for renewal and introduced the opportunity to build a transformative learning center that would include a high school at historic Floyd Bennett Field along the shores of Jamaica Bay.

The business, civic and community partnerships that sustained Launch over its first decade are an essential piece of the Floyd Bennett Field plans and how the school gained approval to expand.

“It means so much,” Alexis Rubin, Senior Director of External Affairs, said. “It gives us a tremendous amount of visibility. We’re honored to have the opportunity to share our passion and vision.”

With Launch in the beginning stages of the project, Rubin believes the recognition can help raise awareness about a plan that won’t just expand opportunities for students but also for the community.

“We hope it helps people we’re talking to about the project see that what we’re doing is unique and life-changing,” she said.

Launch has secured the continued partnership of long-time community organizations dedicated to participating in a transformational learning ecosystem on virtually unused National Park land in the middle of New York City.

Watch the drone video of Floyd Bennett Field and it’s easy to see that a school with a goal to “reimagine what school looks like with equity at heart” has no shortage of forward thinking.

Its Floyd Bennett plans include a three-acre farm run by partner, The Campaign Against Hunger. Through a partnership with SolarOne, students will learn STEM skills essential for green jobs. New chapters of partnerships with The Billion Oyster Project and Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Bay Park Conservancy are planned.

With institutional partner NYC Outward Bound Schools, Launch foresees 6,000 network students participating in hands-on science projects. The school estimates 30,000 students and 100,000 people will be served over the next decade.

For now, the short-term plan is to expand support of its students, 92% of which come from underserved communities.

“It’s critical,” said Rubin. “Right now, we only have them for three years. There’s so much more potential in expanding to high school.”

Common Ground in New Haven, CT is a model of Community Engagement, and its impact is still growing in its 25th anniversary year.

It is a charter school in an urban area that graduates 97%-100% of its students and has an equally successful college acceptance rate. It is an environmental education center that offers guided hiking opportunities, seasonal festivals and spending time outside. It is also an urban farm that welcomes visitors every Saturday to see what it’s like to grow your own food and learn about animals in an urban setting.

“We work hard to partner with like-minded schools and organizations like Building Hope,” said executive director Monica Maccera-Filppu, who calls Common Ground “a school on a farm in a park in the city.”

“This is an opportunity to share our experience with our community engagement work and inspire more schools to really engage with the places their students call home.”

Common Ground satisfies Building Hope’s Community Engagement criteria requiring charter schools to be integral in their community and foster partnerships with businesses, municipalities, and local agencies that benefit students and neighborhoods alike.

Common Ground environmental educators work in 12 New Haven elementary schools through its Schoolyards Program, allowing nearly 7,000 students to experience nature in a learning environment.

Community engagement touches every grade level at Common Ground; 9th graders start on the urban farm; 10th graders learn from more than two dozen community leaders; 96% of juniors and 98% of seniors take on paid green jobs, early college classes and internships.

Common Ground’s urban farm grew more than 7,000 pounds of fresh food this past year, providing free school lunches, while sharing with the community through local farmers’ markets.

Maccera-Filppu’s advice for schools hoping to inspire students and communities:

“Look no further than your own community to make meaningful, real-world learning possible,” she said. “Our respective communities are full of leaders with talents and passions to share. They’re also full of complex problems and big messy questions – questions that require the voices of our young people to answer.”

William Fay

William Fay

Bill Fay is a freelance writer supplying content for the communication outlets Building Hope uses to promote and expand charter school programs in the U.S. Bill started his career as a sports writer for the Tampa Tribune and Associated Press. He has written about Super Bowls, NBA Finals and college football, basketball and baseball championships. He has turned his attention to more serious subjects like public transportation, personal finance and now, education. He welcomes opportunities to learn more from the charter school audience and become a voice for their community.