On Point in Education: Addressing the opportunity gap

One of the most promising aspects of Vermont’s political and educational landscape is the belief in community and civic engagement. For those coming to this state from elsewhere, it is a powerful realization to see such ardent participation in the health of our communities. It’s refreshing to see the public go beyond recrimination to take action and be part of finding solutions.
The research on parent and community involvement in schools reveals a causal relationship with student academic performance. Engaging the entire community, from parents to businesses to partner organizations, is critical to the success of our students. However, it’s rare to find educational systems that leverage all available resources. Instead, we find in K-12 systems across the country in a continual struggle to engage parents. We didn’t design our educational institutions for this dynamic interaction between parent and school, yet we know that it is the key to bridging the opportunity gap that plays out in student achievement scores across the country and continues the effect of poverty on opportunities for our students.
As an educator, I have worked with innumerable families in supporting student success. At the outset of my career, as I reached out to parents to engage them in their child’s education, I soon realized that the institutions I was working in didn’t have strong vehicles to do this work. It forced me to create my own system to establish strong communication and a structure to help families understand the best way to support their student. In subsequent research on parent engagement, I’ve found that the most vital and innovative school systems develop clear communication and provide a positive structure for parent engagement.
However, clear communication is not enough. A more comprehensive approach is required, especially if our goal is the success of all students. The structure to engage community must be flexible, and take into account the increasingly challenging economic and psychological realities that many of our families face. Recent research has pointed to a number of promising approaches to wrapping school and home together, by partnering with local social service agencies to establish strong, unified approaches to student support. These partnerships are challenging to construct and maintain, but they are essential to leveraging all of our resources for students.
The opportunity gap is at the top of the national educational agenda, but we won’t bridge that gap until we grapple with the reality that schools now have very different objectives from what they were designed to do. It’s no longer acceptable to let some fail and some succeed. By engaging all of our community, we can better identify what students really need, whether it’s within our school walls or beyond them.
Editor’s note: Peter Burrows, D.Ed., is superintendent of the Addison Central Supervisory Union and has more than two decades of experience in education.

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