Education Partnerships

The Importance of Community Education

Community partnerships add another layer to education that is critical to helping students thrive and develop life skills.

While community education programs are not new, there is a way in which communities can pull together to better prepare children and youth for life success. Understanding where you are in terms of your daily life and how to relate to those around you is vital in terms of social life, and overall learning success. While academic subjects still have to be addressed in any school setting, community education focuses on success in overall life, how to view oneself, and the impact one's own skills and abilities can have on others and on the future development and success of a community.

SOS Children's Villages, a foster care organization that supports community development, suggests:

Strong communities are the bedrock of society. Community provides stability, a critical factor that contributes to an individual's ability to thrive. Community is so essential that the well-being of children and families is directly impacted when they live in strong, stable, inclusive, and supportive communities.

These kinds of communities are developed as each member finds relevance and purpose. Various organizations within a community — including schools, nonprofits, and other organizations — should partner together to strengthen their communities, but it must be an intentional process and it involves continuous and relevant learning. Often, specifically in lower income areas, individuals can feel excluded, not important, and certainly not empowered to be a part of the community. In a community education program, even young children can learn how to work within a community and feel empowered to make a difference regardless of levels of affluence or location.

Cultural Differences

Often the concept of culture is specifically used to address language, gender, or race issues. While these should be included in any kind of group planning in communities, location and socio-economic cultures should also be integrated into any learning environment. People groups are varied and dynamically evolving from various socio-economic realities. Standardized education — often characterized by a high number of students per one teacher — cannot meet the level of individualized learning necessary to meet the needs of all students. What's more, lower income areas do not often have the same available resources as higher income areas, even for public education. When additional educational opportunities can be provided in partnership with available community groups and organizations, more students can feel individually motivated to learn and become more familiar with how they learn and what they need to know to succeed.

Sarah Johnson in a 2023 article on standardized testing explained:

Yet, for the last 10 years, we have relied on these test scores to rate schools, and now some states are using the data to evaluate and pay teachers for achieving "results" as opposed to paying them for effort or a job well done. This concept is so very flawed because teachers do not hold all the responsibility for how a child scores on the state test. In fact, a child's home life has the most influence on student achievement.

While there has been an increasing focus over the years on equalizing the field for all students, the reality remains that lower income families struggle with various challenges and lower income students grow up realizing that something must change if they are to move ahead. That "thing" begins with effective education. That is education that provides helpful life and coping skills as well as increased knowledge and skill preparation for employment.

A 2018 Newsroom article for "Operation warms" suggested:

Students living above the poverty line are entering kindergarten more prepared than those below it. High income families are able to put more money towards their children's cognitive development than those living in poverty. Parents with low incomes, on average, have less time to read to their children, no-funds for pre-school, and less stable home environments. The difference in preparation tends to persist through elementary and high school.

These socio-economic and life differences create cultures that differ from others of more affluent resources and lives. Any teacher will agree. When interacting with students, it is obvious which have been talked with more, encouraged to respond more, and supported and included more, compared to those who have not had that encouragement in their lives.

The challenge then is not to try to change the culture, but rather to develop students individually, so that they can change their own culture and ultimately have a successful future.

About five years ago, I founded a nonprofit in Northwest Ohio to focus on the kind of education that supports and promotes development for individuals and communities. The organization is called "Community Education for Development" (CED) and as you browse through the website you will see the varied programs and broad scope of CED.

I have been involved in higher education for over 25 years here in the USA and in Canada, and over the years I have seen many changes in scope and direction in the world of education. Founding CED was in response to moving to a lower income area and realizing that the community needed to pull together to address some of the learning challenges facing children and youth. In small communities, often local churches, schools and libraries provide much-needed community connection and support. If all these entities pull together, the programs provided can be more widely scoped and applied directly to the lives of children and youth.

Partnering Together

CED's challenge quickly became how to include as many partners as possible to increase the learning opportunities for individual students in a lower income area. This requires much cooperation and flexibility and willingness to share resources and negotiate schedules so that parents are able to support their children's participation in the program. CED developed an after-school program called Learning Friends* that operates throughout the school year as well as in the summer for a longer daily program. The program partners CED with local church facilities, the local school, and the local library. Transportation during the school year is provided by the school and a local church, and the activities are provided by CED and the local library. Food is provided by the local food bank and community donations so that children can receive a full meal and healthy snacks during the program. A local church provides a location for the program to run; the school provides some teachers; and volunteer helpers come from CED, the local library, and three local churches. In addition, schoolteachers provide information about academic areas that some students struggle with and are able to further tutor the children in those areas.

This level of partnership not only helps to share resources, but also creates an energy and atmosphere of collective interest, involvement, and support that is apparent to participating children and their parents. 

Communication and Interaction Skills in Context

The overall focus of the Learning Friends program is to provide learning projects that are hands-on, require teamwork as well as individual work, and that focus on literacy development, time management, social interaction, and responsibility. Students may choose a different project each day of the program, but once a project has been started, it must be completed.

The focus of the projects varies from creative art, video editing, and storytelling through words and images, to design and construction of small-town sets, towers, and various toy vehicles. Other activities include gardening, animal care, outdoor team games, and literacy development through reading and writing projects and computer coding. Math is applied throughout to estimate project scope and possible adaptations.

The older students help oversee the participation of younger students, help them get projects set up, and direct them if they are misunderstanding something. Students can work alone or in pairs, but each student can bring his or her own perspective and ideas to the project. No project is preset and even construction designs may be altered — and when ideas do not work out, students are asked to explain what they think went wrong. When projects do work out, students have their picture taken with their individually designed work. These have been shown to teachers who are amazed that various students worked on something with so much focus, as they do not demonstrate that level of focus in a classroom. We have also heard reports that the children come into school much happier than before they started in the program, and that they feel confident now in their own abilities.

One area in the workroom is designated as "The Chat Room." When many of the students begin in the program, they clearly do not know how to interact with adults or each other. So, when a situation develops into a negative dispute, students are encouraged to meet with an adult in the Chat Room area so that they can "talk things out" and problem solve away from the working space. The focus on healthy communication and interaction is reinforced in the context of project work or sharing ideas or eating a meal together. The result: Children subsequently participate in the program, engaging in friendly communication with the adults and each other.

An article by Stevenson University explained effective communication as follows:

When communication is effective, it leaves all parties involved satisfied and feeling accomplished. By delivering messages clearly, there is no room for misunderstanding or alteration of messages, which decreases the potential for conflict. In situations where conflict does arise, effective communication is a key factor to ensure that the situation is resolved in a respectful manner. How one communicates can be a make-or-break factor in securing a job, maintaining a healthy relationship, and healthy self-expression.

Learning Interests and Skills

Rather than having a set curriculum, students are encouraged to focus on individual interests, and CED surveys them for ideas on types of projects they would enjoy. When CED donated funding for activities, students were asked how they would like the money to be spent. They agreed that they wanted activities in the community that everyone could enjoy together. CED also works with the library to organize various community events, and students are encouraged to participate in those activities as well. Everything is community-focused and therefore is recognized by the students as relevant and familiar.

For example, a donation to CED for the program resulted in the construction of raised gardening beds in one of the community church gardens. Students worked with teachers at the school to start growing plants from seed in the school greenhouse, and then transplanted them to the raised beds outside. The Learning Friends students were responsible for weeding and watering, and then the produce was sold at the local Farmer's Market and some donated to the local food bank.

Additionally, at Christmas, CED worked with the Operation Christmas Child program so that even these low-income children had an opportunity to pack shoe boxes for children all around the US. Giving as well as receiving is a great life lesson.

Learning for Life

In a 2008 article I wrote for THE Journal I stated:

Students all move at an individual pace in learning, so asking students to explore and discover information for themselves is a great way to both develop thinking and study skills and use those skills to apply the information faster than if all of the information is expected to come via the teacher.

All students, even those with learning challenges, should be required to build knowledge, not just gather information. In fact, it is often an overload of information that stalls the learning process for students, not the process of learning itself.

CED serves some children with various learning challenges and physical challenges, and has a social worker from the school visit to review those challenged students in various project environments and interacting with the other students. All volunteers are encouraged to be with the students but not to state exactly how they must complete the project. They explain the various pieces of the project and how things work together but allow the students to manage the actual project for themselves. Even the coding projects and the storytelling and video editing projects are supported and demonstrated by the adults, but the students decide on their topic and graphics and project outcomes. The only "rule" is that every project started must be completed before another project is begun.

So, the skills and knowledge development are focused on managing life — interacting with others, working together with others, encouraging one another and taking responsibility for one's own work. Confidence rises as projects are designed, completed, and used. Understanding that everyone has different abilities and interests, the goal is to improve those and not try and do what some else is doing. The program includes various types of projects and encourages students to try new things. This increases individual awareness of their abilities and interests which helps individual students become more confident in who they are and what they enjoy working at.

Back to the Community

So why is community education important? Understanding one's own community and working within that community to develop life goals and interests increases the likelihood of success and lasting effectiveness. While there are always other ideas and knowledge and skills to learn that are more global and important to understand as life continues to unfold, learning how to work with those in your own community and with what is most familiar to you will enhance the likelihood of overall success and offer lasting life benefits. Developing within a learning community rather than alone is also a great life lesson. More can be accomplished if more individuals are empowered and developed into effective thinkers, learners, and doers. Learning together can help communities grow and expand, especially when participants of that community know how to work together.

*©Learning Friends is a CED title.