Community engagement in turning around schools

Earlier this year, the Grattan Institute released a report “Turning around schools: it can be done” (Jensen & Sonnemann, 2014). It explored how schools can transform from being a “low-performing’ school into a “high-performing” school. I suspected that engaging parents and the local community would be an important component and sure enough it was one of the “five common steps” identified:

  1. Strong leadership that raises expectations. This is widely considered the vital ingredient. School principals lead behavioural and organisational change that breaks away from the status quo. Leaders set new expectations for teaching and learning, then model changes to bring everyone on board.
  2. Effective teaching with teachers learning from each other. Turnaround schools implement teaching practices that dramatically improve learning. Professional collaboration, such as teacher observation or team teaching, helps teachers to develop new or improved approaches and reinforces change through peer feedback. Working together gives in the school.
  3. Development and measurement of effective learning. Data-driven analysis and evaluation often underpin school turnaround, and are critical to monitoring the impact of policy. Data help to explain teaching challenges, and identify learning needs and areas of strength and weakness across the school. Data use often marks a vital change in these schools.
  4. Development of a positive school culture. Turnaround schools create an orderly and disciplined environment. Significant change usually comes early in the turnaround process and seeks to create new norms of behaviour in schools and classrooms. School culture usually needs to improve before other changes can occur.
  5. Engagement of parents and the community. Parents and communities reinforce changes in students’ behaviours and study habits. Schools can harness this impact by involving parents and community members in the change process. Positive role models from the community also help to lift. (p. 6)

The report documents how fours schools created change: Ellenbrook Primary School, Ravenswood Heights Primary School, Sunshine College, and Holroyd High School. Here’s how each of the schools engaged parents and the community.

Ellenbrook Primary School Every morning Dr MacNeill [the principal] and one of his deputy principals stand at the school gate to greet students and their parents, and to talk about their children’s progress. Ellenbrook is committed to engaging parents and the community in a professional relationship. For students with specific problems, staff may visit the home and provide help when the connection between school and home is weak. The school is also very strong in protecting staff from inappropriate parental behaviour. Over time, parental engagement has played a critical role in achieving change. Parents have reinforced the change process and highlighted the improvement the school is making. Parents regularly tell teachers that their children are advancing more quickly than children they know at other schools; through positive reinforcement, success breeds success. (p.10)

Ravenswood Heights Primary School By engaging parents, the school has become more embedded in the community. Engagement has increased through joint learning activities for both parents and students. Increased communication with parents and home visits have helped students with specific problems. Community services are integrated with the school and with the Child Family Centre, which is located on the premises. The Smith Family provides extra support in reading: each student in the Smith Family program is given a mobile phone and paired with a secondary school student who reads to them. Their students now have greater confidence in reading. As a result, parents feel more confident and welcome at the school. Volunteering has increased, along with parental expectations. Parents are now more engaged in what students are learning and how they are progressing, where it was once enough that their child simply went to school. (p. 12)

Sunshine College The school’s student well-being program gives at-risk students support to help them stay and thrive in school. In 2010 a Parliamentary report by the Victorian Auditor General’s Office formally recognised this exceptional program. Since the current principal arrived, new connections have been forged with various non-government organisations to support wider student needs. As part of the turnaround process, the school has also established a new technical college on campus. The Harvester Technical College works in partnership with TAFE providers to provide pathways to trade careers. Its highly practical offerings have attracted students from outside the local area. (p. 15)

Holroyd High School Parental engagement is difficult when so many families have recently arrived in the country. Many families that have fled wartorn countries and dictatorships are fearful of engaging with the school and figures of authority. The school is careful to gain the trust of families and to show that they will support and develop their children as much as it can. In addition, many of the asylum seeker students (there are currently 93 students in the school either in community detention or on bridging visas) are unaccompanied minors, without family support. (pp. 18-19)

Parents and the local community can have a huge impact on schools and so it is important to engage them in the change process. It can take time and effort, but in the long run, it is worth it. You can find the full report at

Reference Jensen, B., & Sonnemann, J. (2014). Turning around schools: it can be done. Carlton: Grattan Institute.

If you liked this post you might want to follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:

  1. Family and community engagement by schools
  2.  6 keys to community engagement in schools
  3.  Making parents feel welcome in schools
  4.  What is asset-based community-driven development (ABCD)?
  5.  A World Cafe in a school – a step-by-step description

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, environmentalist, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace, sustainability.
This entry was posted in Schools, Working with communities and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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