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Schools as Communities

Increasingly, educators are paying serious attention to the quality of the relationships that exist among staff members and students in schools. The National Association of Secondary School Principals' recent publication !rea"ing #an"s, for instance, highlights personali$ation of the high school as a "ey challenge for school reform. Similarly, %rnest !oyer argued in The !asic School that fostering community in elementary schools is essential for effecti&e schooling in the early grades. Indeed, a good deal of e&idence no' exists suggesting that a strong sense of community in schools has benefits for both staff members and students and pro&ides a necessary foundation for school impro&ement. WHAT ARE THE ELEMENTS OF COMMUNITY IN SCHOOLS? Although &ague generali$ations plague many discussions of community, a number of researchers ha&e attempted to identify the fundamental attributes of healthy and &ital school communities. (or Anthony !ry" and )ary *riscoll +,-../, the communally organi$ed school is characteri$ed by a system of shared &alues related to the school and to education in general0 common acti&ities that lin" school members to each other and to the school's traditions0 and an ethos of caring in interpersonal relations, e&idenced by collegial interactions among staff members and an extended role for teachers that encompasses more than classroom instruction. #eflecting on successful alternati&e1school communities she has studied, )ary Anne #ay'id +,--2/, by contrast, highlights six common attributes of these schools3 respect, caring, inclusi&eness, trust, empo'erment, and commitment. 4ur o'n frame'or" for thin"ing about community in schools11de&eloped in collaboration 'ith 5ohn 6ardner of Stanford 7ni&ersity and refined through focus1 group discussions 'ith administrators, teachers, and students from local high schools11has much in common 'ith both of these conceptuali$ations. In our &ie', in a school community, communication is open, participation is 'idespread, team'or" is pre&alent, and di&ersity is incorporated. Staff members and students share a &ision for the future of the school, a common sense of purpose, and a common set of &alues. They care about, trust, and respect each other, and they recogni$e each other's efforts and accomplishments. HOW DOES SCHOOL COMMUNITY AFFECT STAFF MEM ERS? #esearch suggests that a strong sense of community can facilitate staff members' instructional efforts and enhance their personal 'ell1being. !ry" and *riscoll, for instance, ha&e found that in communally organi$ed schools staff morale is higher, teacher absenteeism is lo'er, and teachers are more satisfied 'ith their 'or". In addition, 'e ha&e pro&ided e&idence that staff members experiencing a strong sense of community tend to be clearer about the expectations others at school ha&e for them and tend to report feeling burned out, o&er'helmed, or confronted 'ith conflicting demands less often at school +#oyal and #ossi ,--8/. A sense of

community among staff members may also be an important precursor to the de&elopment of a sense of community among students. As community is fostered among staff members, appropriate beha&iors and attitudes are modeled for students, helping them to mature in their o'n interpersonal relationships. Similar obser&ations ha&e been made 'ith respect to the de&elopment of a collaborati&e school climate. Stuart Smith and 5ames Scott +,--9/ suggest, that schools 'hose teachers cooperate 'ith one another are characteri$ed by cooperation among students. HOW DOES SCHOOL COMMUNITY AFFECT STUDENTS? Sense of community in schools may promote a &ariety of positi&e outcomes for students. !ry" and *riscoll, for example, found that communally organi$ed schools ha&e fe'er problems 'ith student misbeha&ior +for example, class cutting, student absenteeism/ than do other schools. Students in these schools also sho'ed more interest in academics and greater achie&ement gains, and they dropped out at lo'er rates. 4ur o'n findings +#oyal and #ossi/ similarly suggest that students' sense of community is related to their engagement in school acti&ities, 'ith students higher in sense of community being less li"ely to report class cutting beha&ior or thoughts of dropping out of school and more li"ely to report feeling bad 'hen unprepared for classes. In addition, 'e ha&e found that students reporting a high sense of community less often feel burned out at school. :ommunity may impro&e schooling for all students, enhancing academic and social de&elopment and pro&iding them 'ith experiences necessary to prepare them for full participation in a democratic society. !ut a sense of community may be a particularly important component of educational programs targeted at students at ris" of academic failure. In their study of exemplary dropout1pre&ention programs, ;ehlage and colleagues +,-.-/ obser&ed that each de&oted considerable attention to o&ercoming the many barriers that may pre&ent these students from connecting 'ith the school and de&eloping a sense of belonging, membership, and engagement. Indeed, they note, the "ey finding from our research is that effecti&e schools pro&ide at1ris" students 'ith a community of support. WHAT ARE SOME FACTORS THAT AFFECT COMMUNITY IN SCHOOLS? !ry" and *riscoll, along 'ith (red Ne'mann and his colleagues +,-.-/, ha&e identified a &ariety of structural and organi$ational factors that may affect the de&elopment of community in schools. !oth studies suggest that smaller schools hold more promise for community de&elopment than large schools. Indeed, to create more personal and supporti&e en&ironments, many reformers ha&e ad&ocated di&iding large schools into smaller, semiautonomous subunits. 4ur o'n research suggests that this type of school organi$ation may enhance sense of community for both staff and students +#oyal and #ossi/. Ne'mann and colleagues also indicate that teachers' sense of community is greater in schools 'here student beha&ior is orderly, 'here administrators are responsi&e to teacher concerns and sho' support for inno&ation, 'here teachers are "no'ledgeable of their colleagues' courses and 'illing to help each other, and 'here inser&ice programs are tailored to staff needs.

5oel ;estheimer and 5oseph <ahne +,--2/ caution, ho'e&er, that a fa&orable school structure should not be relied upon to produce a strong sense of community in schools by itself. !ecause indi&idualism and autonomy are prominent features of the staff cultures in many schools, staff members may not be moti&ated to ta"e ad&antage of the opportunities for community de&elopment such a structure pro&ides. )oreo&er, it should not be assumed that teachers and administrators currently possess the s"ills required to build and maintain a sense of community in their schools. ;estheimer and <ahne argue that training programs should be pro&ided to help staff members understand the benefits of community and to supply them 'ith pedagogical tools and other capabilities needed to foster it. HOW DOES COMMUNITY RELATE TO OTHER IM!RO"EMENT ACTI"ITIES? *e&elopment of a healthy sense of community may be necessary for the long1term success of school1impro&ement acti&ities. These acti&ities can be quite disrupti&e in a school, often leading to changes in established roles and relationships and challenging fundamental assumptions about teaching and learning. 7nless a sound fabric of interpersonal relationships can be 'o&en as impro&ement acti&ities are planned and launched, potential benefits of these acti&ities may be lost to tension and dissension. 4ur recent national e&aluations of dropout1pre&ention programs and programs for students at ris" +#ossi and Stringfield ,--=/, for instance, suggest that a strong sense of community is required to enable staff members to respond effecti&ely to the challenges associated 'ith implementing these reforms and maintaining them o&er time. Similarly, >iana 6ra&es +,--?/ argues that creation of a community context may be essential for the success of specific reforms such as cooperati&e1learning programs. #esearch 'e ha&e conducted in schools in&ol&ed in 'hole1school restructuring also indicates that staff members 'ho experience a strong sense of community at school tend to be more positi&e about the o&erall &alue of the restructuring acti&ities and the progress of restructuring at their schools +#oyal and #ossi/.
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