Listening to a talk by the psychologist and educational theorist Jerome Bruner, I was relieved to hear him call the early childhood schools of Reggio Emilia "a vision of the possible." My visit to Reggio's municipal schools in 1993 confirmed a vibrant connection between the philosophy and practice, evident in their programs and the city itself. Our hosts showed us the documentation panels of children's experiences that helped to "translate" each school's curriculum for parents, visiting community groups, and city officials. But when I returned home, I felt at a loss to implement this particular school-community connection in my own program. Bruner's words helped to soothe me. They suggested that I couldn't — and perhaps shouldn't — try to redesign our center as a replication of the Reggio model. But his words also implied that I should use my experiences there as an inspiration for growth.
Before embarking on a program to increase community involvement in your school, it's important to assess what is already in place, and to think about what you want to do next. Here's a way to begin:
1. Devote a staff meeting to explore the following:
- How can we describe and identify the extent of the community whose families we serve? Are we small-town, rural-based, city-based, or some combination of both?
- What relationship do we have with our community?
- What additional school-community relationships do we want to have?
- What do we know about community resources?
- Are there particular messages we wish to convey regarding our philosophy (for example, the power of play or our pride in our diverse population)?
- What might our community do for us?
2. Meet with the members of your Parent Association or board of directors to share staff insights, and ask for their input and suggestions.
3. Develop a community outreach plan that involves all members of your program: teachers and children, administration, and families.
Implementing Your Plan
Members of your own school community are the keys to accessing involvement of the greater community. Think of your goal as one of building relationships between all members of your program and the "outside world."
Teachers and Children
Encourage your faculty to take advantage of community services as avenues for curriculum development.
- Perhaps you have a parent who is a police officer, or works for the police department, who would be delighted to come to his or her child's classroom or to arrange a visit to the police station.
- At my center, we were amazed to find that the fire department was actually eager to come to us! The children were helped to climb into the truck, shown pieces of equipment up-close, and made comfortable in a question-and-answer session. This often led to visiting the local fire station, and playing "fire people" on the playground or in the classroom.
- Remember that mailing your own letter (or picture) to a loved one from the post office doesn't have to be confined to Valentine's Day.
All of the above community connections are strengthened by large experience chart "thank you" letters, inscribed with dictated messages and the children's names.
As director, you have access to a number of strategies for making connections between your program and community organizations. Consider the following:
- Visit the principal or assistant principal of your local public school to become familiar with their primary-grade philosophy, and to share a description of your own school or center. Explore the possibility of a "visiting program" between your teachers and the school's kindergarten teachers. Become familiar with the school's kindergarten screening program as a means of helping your families understand the process as one of transition rather than assessment.
- Contact your local National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) affiliate organization to inquire about ways of connecting with other early childhood programs. Consider becoming an affiliate board member. Become a member of your local early childhood director's support group or begin one yourself!
- Attend open village, town, or school board meetings. When you have a sense of the meeting process, ask to be put on the agenda so that you can describe your program-and perhaps voice a particular need (such as support for a scholarship fund or a piece of playground equipment) to which they might contribute. Do the same with your local United Way, Community Action Program, and service clubs, such as the Rotary and Kiwanis clubs.
Parents need to feel comfortable in their outreach role — but don't underestimate their enthusiasm as they embark on your joint community outreach plan.
- Hold a silent auction. Entering my office one afternoon, the Parent Association co-chairs excitedly reported that, armed with our brochures, they had canvassed every store and restaurant in our two neighboring towns for donations! Many had been unaware that our program existed. Because there was such a range of donations, parents of all economic backgrounds were able to bid on items at the auction. "Thank you" notes from the co-chairs to the owners of the donating businesses reinforced a positive image of our school.
- Locating worthy organizations that can benefit from food, clothing, or toy drives, is another way families can participate.
We are fortunate to work in the field of early childhood. Young children are fascinating, stimulating, thought-provoking, loving, and rewarding. As you foster connections, community members will learn more about child development and good early childhood education from you. At the same time, the life of your program will surely be enriched by community involvement.