“But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community.”
-Martin Luther King, Jr.
When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. conceptualized the thought of a beloved community in his 1956 speech, Facing the Challenge of a New Age, he envisioned a society where all people regardless of race, background, or position, were united in a common purpose to establish justice for all and ensure a better society for generations to come. Almost sixty years later, such a vision and approach is still necessary as we recognize the varied injustices and inequities that exist within some of our lowest performing schools. When we often think about improvement in these schools and the opportunities of creating a culture of education excellence and high achievement, we may not readily view families and community based organizations (CBO’s) as equal partners in this process. However, such engagement by the aforementioned groups is essential to ensuring educational success for all youth. Their roles in the educational sphere are just as important as those of school teachers, principals, and officials.
For many school districts, the creation of such a vibrant, educational community – where students’ grades improve consistently and the educational environment is healthy and safe – may seem to be a daunting task as strong ties between school, family, and community stakeholders seldom exist. Yet, on a recent visit to Harrisburg, PA, the U.S. Department of Education Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships (CFBNP) observed how Downey Elementary, under the guidance of the Harrisburg School District and in partnership with families, CBO’s, and institutions such as Messiah College, defies these odds. Through Together for Tomorrow, an initiative that spotlights and fosters partnerships among schools, families, national service programs, CFBNP staff observed how the collective care and capacity of these stakeholders breathes life into the cultural fabric of Downey and inspires students to step into their roles as academic leaders.
When I grow up, I want to be a scientist. I want to cure all types of sickness and cancers. I am learning about some of this in my science class, and when I finish the fourth grade next year, I am going to the Math Science Academy where I can learn much more!
These words, spoken by a third grade student at Downey Elementary, echoed the similar sentiments of many Downey students who proudly communicated to CFBNP staff that they 1) were leaders, 2) planned to go to college, and 3) planned to make their neighborhoods a better place. It was evident and also communicated by Downey Elementary Principal Travis Peck that the school and community encourage students to recognize their leadership capabilities and take responsibility in assuring their own present and future successes.
In addition to positive encounters with youth, CFBNP staff also met with parents who spoke highly of how the school included them in the education process and sought the welfare of their children. One parent stated,
A few months ago, my child was a victim of bullying at his former school. After talking with school leadership, the problem still continued until I had to remove him from the school. I then transferred him here to Downey. Just a few months later, my child is not only safe, but he is successful, is a leader, and is respected by students and teachers. I think it is important for someone to ask “What it is about Downey that makes it such a positive and safe learning environment in the same neighborhood as my son’s former school, which is only right down the street?”
What is helping Downey Elementary to become a vibrant and cohesive school community is its intentionality in making sure that all stakeholders have an equal share in providing for the life and educational needs of the students. For example, organizations such as the Harrisburg Symphony, Salvation Army, and United Way have engaged in unique and innovative methods to serve the school. Messiah College continues to make its contributions to Downey by engaging its students in various service learning projects that enhance both the appearance of the school and the learning opportunities for its students. The school houses a Parents’ Academy that encourages parents’ participation in school and allows them to receive up to 15 credits towards a college degree. Teachers receive training on engaging students and parents. Downey also contains on onsite health clinic to address the health needs of students. Additionally, the elementary school has a Vista member employed through the partnership between Messiah College and the Corporation for National and Community Service who helps to build the capacity of the school. The Harrisburg School District also has a Parent Engagement Specialist who oversees Parent Liaisons and implements programs to help parents become better advocates for their children.
Most importantly, all of the previously mentioned partners, in addition to the Principal, Superintendent, and other officials overseeing the school, seem to care deeply about the students and have established good report with one another as they have embarked upon a common goal to promote the holistic welfare of their students. For Downey, engaging families and communities in the life of the school extends beyond addressing a simple requirement or “checking the box” of community inclusion. They recognize the power and benefits of working with families and CBO’s to raise student achievement.
During lunch with CFBNP Staff, the Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent of the Harrisburg School District expressed that they were pleased with the progress that Downey Elementary has made under the scope of Together for Tomorrow. Alongside the Principal, they expressed that the school still has room for improvement but are excited about the direction it is heading with the support of their partners within the school and the greater community. Collectively, these stakeholders reveal that anything can be accomplished by working together to achieve a cause that improves the life outcomes of our youth. Educational inequities can be addressed, injustices can be corrected, and students can ultimately thrive.