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Premium, Select, and Institutional Plus Member Book (Jul 2008)

Mobilizing the Community to Help Students Succeed

by Hugh B. Price

Table of Contents

Chapter 5. Mobilizing the Village

How does the process of mobilizing the community get started? I believe the best way to begin is with a low-key meeting, hosted by the local school superintendent (preferably in conjunction with the head of the school board) with invitations extended to a small cross section of business and community leaders as well as representatives of the public library system. If the size of the school system makes a single districtwide strategy impractical, the superintendent might focus on reaching out to leaders in those neighborhoods where low achievement is most pervasive and persistent and the need to motivate students is most acute.

The kinds of groups to invite to an initial mobilization meeting like this are those with a reputation for genuinely caring about children's education and with a track record of playing constructive roles toward that end. This is a conversation and an enterprise for serious organizations only. Although the roster of potential players will clearly vary by community, the cast might include respected social services, civil rights and youth services organizations, civic-minded business groups, social and fraternal organizations that sponsor youth-related projects, and religious leaders who have demonstrated that they're already solidly on the achievement page and doing something concrete about it.

I generally believe in taking the path of least resistance, so I would counsel against inviting organizations that aren't already involved in education and youth development for the simple reason that it might take too much explaining and persuading to get them up to speed. At the outset it is wiser to forge coalitions composed of a cadre of highly respected groups that really get the point of the enterprise. Once the coalition and its agenda solidify, other groups can be incorporated, provided they are willing to embrace the fundamental game plan and carry their weight.

At the initial gathering, school officials could explain that the meeting has two purposes. The first is to brief those in attendance on the school district's near-term and long-term plans for boosting student achievement across the board and especially where the need for progress is most pressing. The superintendent might then go on to say, with disarming candor, that the second purpose is to signal that the schools and educators in the system cannot possibly succeed on their own. If children who aren't faring well in school develop a stronger desire to do well, then it will be easier for educators to reach them, teach them, and thus enable them to learn and achieve. The schools need help from parents and community groups in persuading youngsters to want to learn and do well in school.

Toward that end, the superintendent's message might continue, the school district is eager to enter into a strategic partnership with the leading community groups that genuinely care about children to jointly plan and implement a series of year-round activities designed to motivate children to achieve. After some discussion of these opening topics, the superintendent or a member of her or his team could briefly describe the kinds of activities (such as those covered in this book) that have been mounted successfully in other school districts. The point of these examples is to further community leaders' investment in the initiative and thus inspire them to begin envisioning what could be done in their town, rather than have school officials "decree" what is going to be done.

This initial meeting should conclude with the superintendent explaining the next steps—the formation of a steering committee with the straightforward mission to design and orchestrate the multifaceted, community-based effort to motivate youngsters to achieve—and eliciting commitments to serve on this committee from as many of the attending groups as are willing to join in. School officials should be mindful that some representatives of these groups, especially volunteer organizations, may need to secure authorization from their membership before the group can commit to be involved.

The superintendent should serve ex officio on the committee, along with a senior staffer who reports directly to the superintendent and an active member of the committee. Absent school district engagement from the very top, the steering committee will lack the entrée and clout to secure the cooperation from every level of the school district that is needed to ensure the successful operation and hoped-for impact of the motivational activities.

Ideally, this steering committee composed of educators and community and business leaders would coalesce around a series of strategically timed and sequenced events (such as those described in this book or variations thereof) that keep children's attention riveted on achievement year-round. In formulating its action plan, the committee will undoubtedly bat around the kinds of ideas described in this book and others that occur to them. They should also discuss the need to transmit this message via a series of events and activities, instead of trying it once and hoping the message sticks.

Lastly, they should devise a preliminary game plan that includes the kinds of activities to be mounted; the specific cooperation needed from the superintendent and school board, the central administration, and participating schools in the district; the potential contributions that various kinds of groups can make; the organizations that should be enlisted for their ideas and involvement; and the financial and human resources that will be needed to pull this off. Another important decision is how many activities, and specifically which ones, should be launched in the first year and which ones should be brought onboard going forward (and at what pace). This steering committee should also determine how the initiative will be orchestrated, including the designation of one organization to function as the secretariat and fiscal agent. Once the initial steering committee gets its sea legs, so to speak, the members should determine whether its composition is well suited for the long haul. As the group morphs into a permanent steering committee, it may be wise for it to recruit additional members who possess the stature, connections, constituent base, and clout to command respect and help carry out this initiative.

Once a preliminary list and sequence of activities are identified, then the steering committee might want to create planning subcommittees for each of the initiatives. These subcommittees could take the ball and run with it, provided they agree to coordinate with the others in terms of theme and timing.

In addition to having the superintendent's designee as an active member, the steering committee should periodically brief the school superintendent and school board on its evolving agenda and upcoming activities. They obviously should also seek the advice and ideas, as well as the cautions, of these school district leaders in order to ensure that the expectations of the school district and the community remain synchronized every step of the way and that the district continues to back the mobilization effort with genuine enthusiasm. For if the school district and steering committee drift apart and start to work at cross purposes, the initiative will sputter, everyone will become frustrated, and the innocent bystanders—namely, the schoolchildren—will be shortchanged.

In addition to planning and implementing the events, the steering committee could try to enlist leaders with platforms and megaphones, if you will, who are willing to tout the importance of literacy and achievement. Leaders of this ilk include pastors, radio talk show hosts, local newspaper columnists, elected officials, local entertainers, heads of activist groups, and so forth. They should be asked to join in pushing the achievement message and promoting the motivational events.

In conjunction with this initiative, a concerted effort should be made to engage community organizations and faith-based institutions with sizable constituencies, deep roots, and routine weekly or monthly connections with their members. In particular, there should be an emphasis on PTAs, block clubs, and women's service clubs and sororities like Eastern Star, the Links, and Deltas. Men's organizations like the Elks, Masons, fraternities, and service clubs should be sought out as well. Efforts could be made to blanket residences, community groups, beauty parlors, barbershops, and neighborhood stores with flyers that promote the achievement events and lay out what parents and caregivers need to know and can do.

Velma Cobb, who spearheaded the Achievement Campaign for the National Urban League, stresses the importance of partners. She told me that no single community group should try to dominate the mobilization agenda, lest the other groups begin to feel like appendages, not partners. If the partners genuinely share ownership, then they better understand what needs to be done and why.

Smaller partners may be easier to work with than bigger ones, because there are fewer conflicts over agendas, and they feel less need to claim credit or assert leadership. Cobb noted that Urban League affiliates forged strong relationships with small churches and small community groups that serve children. When invited to play a role and offered clear, practical information about how to proceed, small churches and groups are often pleased to collaborate.

Navigating Challenges

For educators, forging and sustaining partnerships with community groups presents some challenges. After all, educators already have their hands full trying to motivate and teach the children. Plus, collaborating with community groups usually isn't part of their job description, let alone the curricula at schools of education. There may have been tensions between the schools and the community in times past. But working with partners is essential if educators are to mobilize the community.

Recruiting Fellow Educators

One challenge for educators who want to lead the charge in working with community groups is to recruit their colleagues to the cause. After all, educators are very busy people. School officials sometimes were simply too busy to get involved in the Achievement Campaign. Local Urban Leagues also experienced some difficulty in persuading schools to identify eligible students and getting the students to complete the necessary paperwork for induction. Moreover, fewer school officials knew about the mission and purpose of the effort than would have been expected, given its focus and the potential benefit to the schools.

The superintendent can always decree that the schools will collaborate with the community mobilization effort. But I'm convinced that the key to recruiting school officials, particularly teachers and principals on the front lines, and securing their enthusiastic involvement is to help them understand why these community-based efforts to motivate children to achieve are in educators' professional self-interest. Their job is easier when youngsters want to do well in school. And student motivation, in turn, helps boost the performance of the schools.

Another concern for educators is turnover at the central office and building levels. Superintendents come and go these days with destabilizing frequency. Approaches that are embraced by one superintendent may need to be sold afresh to successors who are determined to implement their own ideas. School-based personnel may be in constant flux as well, so that contacts made one year may need to be cultivated anew the next year. One answer for educators who spearhead efforts to mobilize the community is to nurture at least two liaisons at all participating schools to ensure continuity of cooperation if one of them leaves.

Working with Volunteer Groups

Volunteer civic, social, and fraternal groups bring many assets to the enterprise, including membership, contacts, and cachet. But they can be tricky to collaborate with because of leadership rotations that mean their presidents typically serve for only two years. Although it is important to be mindful of the way these groups are structured, I hasten to add that many Urban Leagues across the country routinely collaborate with and rely on groups like these as partners because of the values and volunteer horsepower that they can bring to any undertaking that they embrace. Indeed, it is hard to imagine trying to undertake the kinds of mobilization efforts recommended in this book without relying on volunteer groups like these as enthusiastic and fully engaged partners.

Working with Churches

A particularly important dimension of any sustained campaign is to enlist churches to do their part for the children in their congregations. Ask pastors to promote literacy and achievement from the pulpit at designated intervals during the year. They might mobilize church members to monitor the literacy levels and academic performance of children in the church. In addition, they should ensure that youngsters enrolled in their own preschool and Sunday school programs are proficient readers and that the teachers in these programs tout achievement. Churches can stage literacy festivals and math or science fairs that are synchronized with other efforts in the community.

Despite these potential advantages, collaborating with churches and faith-based groups poses its own set of challenges. One experienced observer stated, "The churches have their own agendas, and the leaders are often reluctant to engage their members in external initiatives" (AED, 2005, p. 44). As AED notes in its report, the key to successful partnerships with religious groups appears to lie in convincing them that the partnerships are mutually beneficial to the church and to the campaign.

Those Urban League affiliates that enjoyed the greatest success in enlisting religious partners considered the needs of their respective religious organizations carefully before broaching the topic of a partnership. They then revisited these needs periodically once the partnership was launched. For instance, collaborations forged in conjunction with the Achievement Month/Doing the Right Thing activities that recognized youth members of the partnering congregations appeared to be an effective way to leverage church support (AED, 2005).

As a result of this kind of assiduous cultivation, the local clergy in Pittsburgh signed on to begin using their Sunday sermons to spread the gospel that achievement matters. In Colorado Springs, the religious partners supported the annual education summit. The CEO of the Louisville Urban League sold the school superintendent on the idea of having a dozen or so churches sponsor reading programs. The superintendent invited the Urban League to submit a proposal. That resulted in a $50,000 grant for the Shining Stars reading enrichment program. Operating in collaboration with the churches, this program enabled reading resource teachers to train tutors, who in turn worked with 50 students over the summer (AED, 2005). In other words, the basic challenge is to convince religious leaders that the vision and mission of mobilizing communities to motivate kids to achieve mesh with the vision and mission of the church or faith-based organization.

Working with Corporations

Corporate partnerships hold the promise of bringing valued financial and in-kind resources to any mobilization effort. State Farm was a highly visible and engaged partner to the National Urban League and many of its affiliates in their local Achievement Campaigns. Local offices of State Farm made financial and in-kind contributions and supplied staff as volunteers at events. The company also paid for advertising for the Doing the Right Thing festivals. It provided backpacks and supplies to participants who attended the annual back-to-school rally and education summits in Kansas City. What's more, State Farm representatives sat on the campaign steering committee. Indeed, the company played a major role in the sustainability plans of many affiliates.

But cultivating these relationships takes vision, clarity, diligence—and determination to deliver results. Remember that corporate partners want to see tangible results from their support. (In fact, they often serve as volunteers and provide additional in-kind support so that they can be close to the action.) This concern is understandable. After all, many corporate partners have to file reports to their supervisors, even to their boards of directors, on the outcomes of their corporate giving. The more involved partner staff members are in the collaboration, the easier it is for them to identify real outcomes and report on the tangible results of the partnership (AED, 2005).

Taking Action

The experiences of Urban League affiliates involved in the Achievement Campaign generated many lessons for educators who may want to mobilize their own communities to motivate students to achieve. Here is some advice derived from learning by doing.

Be Adaptable

There is no cookie-cutter approach to community mobilization and engagement. The circumstances of people, organizations, and communities vary considerably from one place to the next, even within the same neighborhood. For educators, the keys are patience and the capacity to listen and learn so that the strategies they craft are derived from reality and attuned to the community's dreams. Because the cast of key players occasionally shifts midstream, the strategies must be flexible enough and the roles must be fungible enough to accommodate these changes.

Give Volunteers a Clear Objective

Many community-based programs lack an organizational centerpiece to ground them. Volunteer groups that collaborate with schools often are not very structured. It is essential to harness and channel this volunteer energy. People and groups need to be galvanized around something concrete, and they require a strategy, tools, and resources to drive toward the desired outcome. Clarity of objective and outcomes sought is crucial because nonprofit groups often struggle to establish and strive for desired results. At the end of the day, these collaborative efforts must be able to demonstrate value added and show that the effort and resources they marshaled produced results—for example, by shifting the attitudes of parents and children toward literacy and achievement.

Think Long-Term

Avoid one-shot activities. Whatever is undertaken should be an integral part of an overarching strategy designed to improve children's literacy and scholastic performance.

Act Locally

One indispensable lesson that recurred throughout the Achievement Campaign was that it is difficult to drive this agenda on a "wholesale" basis—that is, through national membership organizations that have their own institutional imperatives and priorities. What's more, many national volunteer outfits rotate their leaders every few years, which makes it tough to sustain their commitment to agendas that aren't already deeply rooted in the organization. Instead, it appears to be more effective to "go retail," so to speak, by enlisting collaborators locally, community by community, church by church.

Enlist the Media

The varied events that I have described in this book are naturals for the news media, from conventional outlets to local cable newscasts and school district channels, shoppers' newspapers, church bulletins, the Web, and other nontraditional outlets that reach people. Call upon the media to underscore your message that student achievement matters to the community.

Cultivate Relationships

Relationships and personal contacts with the schools were very important to the success of the National Achievers Society. In Broward County, Florida, it helped greatly that the Urban League's part-time education director—the person principally responsible for the achievers' program—was a longtime, full-time teacher in the local school system. As a native of Broward County, she knew key people in the school system and how to get them to cooperate and support NAS. In particular, she knew the guidance counselors, who had to nominate kids for induction, and understood how to get them to pay attention to notices and respond to requests for nominees. When this director assumed other assignments at the affiliate, her replacements were not as effective because they lacked roots in the schools and the community.

As with many community efforts, all may not be smooth sailing in every neighborhood and during every phase of planning and implementation. AED's (2005) assessment notes that sites with National Achievers Societies had varying levels of difficulty in getting schools to identify eligible students and getting the students to complete the necessary paperwork for induction. Strategies that proved effective in overcoming these challenges were (1) establishing and maintaining a close working relationship with school superintendents so that they advocate for and publicize the programs among the schools; (2) establishing and maintaining a close working relationship with school counselors, who have access to grade reports and can therefore determine which students are eligible; and (3) advertising the program directly to youth so that they can pressure their schools to release the necessary information.

Use Committees and Teams to Divide Labor

To help solicit names of eligible students, orchestrate NAS, and organize the induction ceremonies, the San Diego Urban League created a United Front and Family Resource Support Network. Composed of about 15 community groups, this steering committee would send letters soliciting nominations to a wide array of organizations, among them the Baptist Ministries, NAACP, and black sororities and fraternities.

The steering committee divvied up the tasks among different clusters of member groups. It established as many as 15 teams. The NAS induction ceremony itself was organized by representatives of the Urban League's youth leadership teams, the NAACP, and other groups. Other committee members dealt with logistics, promotion, and program setup. Parents pitched in as well. The steering committee's philosophy was that it had roles for anyone who wanted to help, and it welcomed people to contribute however they were able to.

Encourage Student Participation

Jimma McWilson, the former director of the Achievement Campaign at the San Diego Urban League, made certain that youngsters played a major role in the National Achievers Society. Instead of dominating the action, staff and parents became coaches who stayed out of sight. The students were the key players in holding the induction ceremonies. They planned the event, conducted their own research on the speakers, and wrote their own remarks. At every ceremony, a female and male student teamed up as co-emcees.

Keep the Focus on Children

McWilson cites several challenges in running NAS and mounting the induction ceremonies. One of the biggest problems he faced was keeping organizations composed of adults focused on the children instead of on adult needs and issues. Adult issues kept cropping up, such as how the grown-ups intended to promote themselves and their groups. Keeping adults on task was one of the hardest tasks.

In fact, the challenges of keeping adults in community groups on task has led McWilson in his most recent work to concentrate first on families, which in turn are focused on their children. It is his experience that poor people bring amazing resources to the table. In working with community parents, he cautions, it is important to speak in positive tones. Badgering them simply turns them off to the message. What's more, he works with organizations through the parents who belong to them, not via their leaders. He gets relatives of the children to reach out to the people they know in organizations and churches. That is the way, he maintains, to get the people who are involved and invested in the church to take lead responsibility.

Don't Rely Too Heavily on Financial Resources

Interestingly enough, a couple of college professors took issue with the "50 books and a bike" effort. They argued that children should not be bribed with bicycles to read. Their skepticism echoes a practical concern about the sustainability of efforts that rely on rather expensive incentives. In fact, the following year Superintendent Ross hoped to award free laptops to the winners. But he could not generate enough donations to proceed with the idea.

Involve the Local Churches

The San Diego Urban League enjoyed considerable success in getting local black churches engaged with NAS. As Jimma McWilson recounts it, that is because he viewed them as a mini-village. For instance, he typically asked the churches which youngsters they thought were doing the right thing. In response, the pastor would identify the children and their parents who fit the criteria. The church supplied the names of the schoolchildren in its congregation who were on the honor roll. The Urban League verified this information by requiring parents to go to school and get written validation. This approach in turn connected the parents with the schools.

In other words, McWilson always started with the church, which he calls the inner community. The so-called outer community needs to see that the inner community is committed. Next, the Urban League broadened the concentric circle of involved groups by sending letters to black sororities and fraternities, many of which had heard about the Achievement Campaign through their churches.

Take Chances

A gifted community organizer when it comes to promoting achievement, Jimma McWilson also urges educators, especially principals, not to be afraid of the unknown or to be wary of bad experiences. As the CEO of the school building, principals have power that they can use to encourage parents to become the best resource network for their children and the schools.

Partnering for Success

Beyond the particular challenges posed by involving various types of partners, generic issues arise across the board that need to be addressed along the way. To begin with, partnerships tend to falter when there isn't a clearly articulated vision of how the proposed collaboration will support the campaign's mission, with a spelled-out sense of the respective roles of the partners. Problems can arise in working with local branches of national partners when the various parties are unclear as to the role of the local branches.

As collaborations move into the operational phase, insufficient consultation among partners can cause some organizations to lose interest. When partners are kept out of the loop, the partnership may suffer. According to AED (2005), reconciling the differing mandates of partnering groups represents yet another challenge for campaign partnerships.

Educators who endeavor to partner with nonprofit community groups, corporations, and religious institutions must face the fact that each has distinct mandates and operating principles. Corporations typically want to see quantitative outcomes. Religious organizations may be more concerned with the overall impact of a partnership on the spirituality and well-being of their congregations. The challenge for educators is to provide partners with the mutual understanding and support needed to stay active in the partnership. The lead community-based partner needs to be proactive and flexible in diagnosing and responding to partner needs.

To prevent confusion, disappointment, and wasted effort, partners also need to be explicit and consistent about what is expected of each party. If a group of educators takes the lead, it should not be shy about expressing its needs to prospective partners. By the same token, if the enterprise is truly a collaborative effort, then the mutual expectations and division of labor should be articulated so that roles and responsibilities are clear. In addition, the partners should meet periodically during the year to review expectations and ensure that all parties are still on the same page.

Mobilization efforts should concentrate on communicating clearly, consistently, and repeatedly to partners about the goals, objectives, and expected outcomes. As AED (2005) finds, when well-intentioned stakeholders who were critically important were only vaguely familiar with the specific aspects of a campaign and unclear about their roles, they did not perform as expected. Or they lost interest over time, some to the point of withdrawing completely. To facilitate communication, some Urban League affiliates actually prepared memoranda of understanding with partners. These formal agreements fostered an increased sense of ownership among partners.

A really effective—indeed, indispensable—way of keeping partners enthusiastically engaged is by establishing and maintaining contact between their representatives and the young people who benefit. AED (2005) observes that the experience of collaborating is more meaningful and gratifying to partners when they actually have regular contact with the ultimate beneficiaries of partnerships. Corporate partners—in fact, most partners—want a larger role than merely signing checks and attending a few planning meetings each year. They want to be actively involved and witness firsthand the difference they are making in the attitudes, academic performance, and lives of young people. Educators have the power to make this contact between community partners and students happen.

Recognizing Those Who Serve

Over the years, I have attended gala dinners aplenty that pay tribute to civic leaders, companies, and community groups that have improved the lives of young people, fostered equal opportunity, spurred the revitalization of struggling neighborhoods, or made other uplifting contributions to their communities. Yes, these events often double as fund-raisers for the sponsoring organization. But the recognition bestowed on those who serve affirms their value and spurs them on.

To stoke and sustain the energy that community group members, many of them volunteers, must muster to rise to this challenge and stay the course, it makes common sense to shower them with recognition and appreciation, just as we should the children who do the right thing. When you think about it, those shops that sell customized trophies and plaques would quickly go out of business if we were to suddenly stop celebrating the volunteers who log countless hours for noble causes. Hotels and banquet halls would suffer mightily if groups were to stop recognizing volunteers who purchase tables at gala dinners for family members, friends, and coworkers. Manufacturers of display cases and bookshelves would hurt financially if winners didn't need a prominent place to show off their prizes.

To galvanize community energy on behalf of achievement, I could imagine high-profile gala ceremonies staged annually at the local and state levels where groups that have successfully turned kids on to literacy and achievement receive coveted awards for their efforts. Modest cash grants or symbolic prizes might be given for the "best in class" in various categories. Examples might include churches and other faith-based programs; sororities and other women's organizations; fraternities, fraternal orders, and other men's groups; civic groups; youth services agencies; community-based organizations (CBOs) like local Urban Leagues and NAACP chapters; grassroots outfits like tenant associations; and business groups like the Lions and Rotary Clubs. The more the merrier.

These awards should be synchronized with the kinds of activities suggested earlier. For instance, there could be a category of awards for community groups involved in staging Literacy Olympiads and other activities aimed at encouraging reading. Another category might cover churches and faith-based groups that do a terrific job of promoting reading by young people in the church. Other awards could go to groups that collaborate in staging achievement fairs and Achievement Day parades, create "achievement gangs," and so forth. There could be recognition as well for organizations that come up with innovative new ways of motivating youngsters to achieve, whether it's an SAT rally one year or a mass readathon the next.

These ceremonies could be held at city hall, the state capitol, or a convention center. Come to think of it, why stop there? The recognized groups might go on to compete for highly coveted national awards that are presented at a gala national ceremony akin to the Academy Awards or the Kennedy Center Honors. Perhaps the ceremony could be telecast, carried on cable, or Webcast. Celebrities could present the awards accompanied by heartwarming video vignettes prior to each award. Admittedly, this last idea could be costly, but some education-minded advertisers might embrace it.

Thus, although it might seem corny, a proven way to galvanize and sustain community energy is to bathe the volunteers and staffers who rise to the occasion in recognition. Celebrating them will pay surefire dividends for the children they inspire to achieve.

Getting the Word Out

Another critically important segment of the community that should be mobilized is the media in its many forms. The cause of motivating youngsters to achieve can be aided enormously by a concerted media campaign to "sell" achievement to students and families. Another important audience is the collection of community groups that need to be mobilized.

In fact, an integral component of the Urban League's Achievement Campaign was its determined effort to market the message that "Achievement Matters" every way we could think of. Some messages and methods were geared explicitly to black parents, caregivers, and children. Other, more generic tactics targeted whomever we could reach.

State Farm partnered in this effort by purchasing advertisements in black newspapers that promoted our message. In addition to securing media coverage of their achievement-oriented events, many Urban League affiliates got really creative about communicating the achievement message. Some of them placed public service spots on radio and cable television. The Cincinnati Urban League persuaded local cinemas to carry "screen savers" with our message just before the previews of coming attractions. In Seattle, the municipal buses carried placards bearing the message that achievement matters.

The Urban League in Columbus, Ohio, enjoyed some success in attracting media interest. Instead of relying on the mainstream media to respond favorably to press releases, the affiliates started cultivating the media early in the year and began lining up media partners no later than four weeks prior to its events. A specific staff member was charged with this responsibility. As a result, their local campaign consistently garnered coverage (AED, 2005).

The Urban League in Houston understood the power of celebrity to convey its message. It recruited the four major sports teams in town—the Astros, Comets, Rockets, and Texans—to lend their support, thereby ensuring that the affiliate succeeded in penetrating an already oversaturated media market. By contrast, the Miami Urban League found that grassroots approaches—word of mouth and peer networks—were effective and kept media and marketing costs to a minimum. It produced its own flyers, brochures, and marketing materials and solicited donations from partners for printing and other services that could not be managed in-house (AED, 2005).

At the other end of the continuum, the Urban League in Gary, Indiana, used billboards to promote its Read and Rise initiative. The CEO of the affiliate approached LaMar Advertising, which owns billboards all around Gary and its environs. She told them that the Urban League wanted to make a really big deal of Read and Rise by plastering its message on billboards around town. LaMar responded favorably and donated space on 10 billboards, including a couple of large ones adjacent to the freeway. The billboards stayed up for two years.

Thus, Urban League affiliates involved in the Achievement Campaign used many different techniques to engage the media and spread the message that achievement matters. They became increasingly sophisticated about marketing achievement as their local Achievement Campaigns matured. As AED (2005) notes in its assessment, fiscal considerations drove most affiliates to use their contacts and leverage along with low-cost approaches like flyers and door-to-door solicitations to spread the word.

Despite these efforts, some affiliates complained of the lack of interest shown by major television and print media outlets in the Achievement Campaign. As one frustrated campaign partner said, "They [the media] seem very interested when there's something bad to report in our community—a shooting, a murder. But not when we are celebrating the achievements of our young people" (AED, 2005, pp. 24–25).

To understand the view from the other side, AED interviewed media organizations that actually did partner in the Achievement Campaign in 15 communities. Their responses were illuminating and instructive. They cited those circumstances under which the Achievement Campaign would likely generate coverage:

  • Long-standing relationship with the local Urban League that predates the campaign. They added that if the affiliate waited until the campaign began to cultivate the media, this was certainly too late to be effective, at least in the first couple of years, if not over the entire course of the campaign.
  • Interest in education. Some media outfits had an interest in education and were more likely to cover the Achievement Campaign. If the issue of education reform was considered newsworthy to them, then the campaign would likely attract some coverage.
  • Desire to fulfill FCC public service obligations. All radio and TV stations are required to air a certain number of public service announcements. Savvy affiliates could exploit this requirement and work with media outfits to receive free or low-cost publicity.

Many educators are naturals when it comes to interacting with the news media: completely at ease and self-possessed in front of the camera or talking with reporters. They know how to prepare themselves for encounters with the press. They have a solid grasp of the story line they want to communicate, and they know instinctively how to avoid pitfalls and traps that interviewers may try to set. Even so, it never hurts to seek media training or a refresher course in press relations. Having worked as an editorial writer for the New York Times and an executive in public television, I was brimming with self-confidence when I took the helm of the National Urban League. Nevertheless, I underwent media training, and it paid off in dealing with an increasingly skeptical press and 24-hour cable TV and radio news outlets with plenty of airtime and a penchant for spotlighting the weaknesses of their guests.

Another lesson it took me a while to learn is that however important I may think our story is, the media marches to an entirely different drummer in terms of what they deem newsworthy. So it's important and pays off—at least some of the time—to try to figure out what kinds of stories will interest them, how to frame stories and events to attract the media's attention, what kinds of evidence and statistics are necessary to give an education story gravitas, and, from a defensive perspective, what kinds of foibles automatically attract their attention.

Assiduous cultivation of the media often pays dividends. When I wrote editorials for the New York Times in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Frank Macchiarola, the chancellor of the New York City schools, was masterful at cultivating the press. He and his press aide paid occasional visits just to keep us abreast of evolving developments in the school district, even when they weren't particularly seeking press coverage. Needless to say, they were all over us whenever they launched a new education initiative or had to cope with a high-profile crisis in the schools. If ever I needed to talk with Macchiarola, he quickly returned my calls or made himself available for a meeting. In other words, they built a relationship characterized by candor, access, and understanding that, I must confess in hindsight, probably took off a little bit of the edge if ever we needed to be strongly critical of the school system's actions or the chancellor's performance. Viewed from an educator's vantage point, that's effective media relations.

Probably the most enduring lesson from my many years of dealing with the media is that in the era of modern communications technology, there are multiple ways for educators to get the word out about what they and their students are doing. The more exasperated I got over the years trying to secure coverage for the National Urban League in the conventional media, the more determined I became to use the myriad forms of media out there and the new technologies like the Internet that were rapidly becoming available.

These technologies liberated us from the traditional gatekeepers who determined whether they would allow our story to reach interested audiences using their mode of transmission. Using the Internet, we could transmit right away, and we were left with the marketing challenge of letting potentially interested audiences know where to find our information. For example, we would Webcast plenary sessions, workshops, and press conferences from the Urban League's annual convention. Some events were carried live and repeated later; others that weren't time-sensitive were videotaped and transmitted later at considerably less expense. In other words, we created our own Internet-based network and also used the Web to spread the word to audiences, from laymen to policymakers and their staffs, who tended to be interested in our work and in what we had to say about the issues of the day.

Public access channels and local cable newscasts are another mechanism for reaching audiences. The Urban League also sought coverage in unconventional print vehicles, such as newsletters and magazines geared to members of volunteer organizations and church denominations. None of these alternatives can substitute for obtaining coverage in the highly watched mainstream news outlets, but they at least provide an alternative to getting frozen out entirely. As citizens gravitate increasingly to Internet sources of information, and as the Web becomes even more robustly interactive, 21st century technology will afford creative educators more and more ways to exploit so-called narrowcasting to reach their desired audiences.

To help spread the word about local mobilization activities, particular attention should be paid to recruiting prominent local radio talk show hosts who have a social conscience coupled with hours of airtime to fill daily. They can turn a cause into a personal crusade and champion the issue. Mainstream, minority, and community newspapers, even shoppers' papers, are other important vehicles for reaching people.

Modern telecommunications tools like cell phones and the Internet can be used to drum up interest and audiences for the events that are implemented in conjunction with the mobilization effort. These instant and ubiquitous means of communication have been marshaled in recent years to organize massive rallies on behalf of all manner of causes the world over. These methods can be deployed on behalf of achievement.

In addition to cause-related commercials and advertisements, educators and their partners can try some other wrinkles that reach families right where they live. I have in mind blanketing entire neighborhoods—beauty parlors and barbershops, clinics and doctors' offices, Head Start and child care centers—with leaflets and pamphlets that promote achievement and contain practical tips about what adults can do. What about placing stories in church bulletins and other in-house communication vehicles?

In conjunction with the marketing campaign, talking points could be prepared and offered to ministers for possible use in sermons and Sunday school. The same could be done for the heads of membership organizations whose meetings lean heavily on ritual.

The foregoing ideas are drawn from my Urban League experience and probably qualify as more opportunistic than strategic. Ideally, local groups should enlist expert marketers to craft a multifaceted campaign that saturates the airwaves, newspapers, and streets with captivating messages that move beyond touting a cause to closing the sale in the minds of youngsters and their parents. The key to any strategy is to conduct a reconnaissance of all the ways that community leaders, ordinary folks, and young people transmit and receive messages about what matters to them and moves them to act. Those "transmission belts," if you will, should be used to convey this message that is so vital to the viability of these communities.

In essence, the idea is to devise a multifaceted media strategy to sell achievement, not just to try for a one-shot splash. Now, I'm no advertising executive. Yet it strikes me that the following steps are key:

  • Enlist a first-rate advertising firm to devise a multifaceted strategy to market achievement and close the sale in the minds of students and parents.
  • Enlist local corporate and media partners (radio, cable, television, and the Internet) that will support and sustain the campaign with financial and in-kind contributions.
  • Enlist major community institutions, including churches and PTAs, as well as local women's and men's groups that have sizable memberships and in-house communications vehicles, like bulletins and newsletters in print or via the Web.
  • Determine the target audiences, such as schoolchildren of varying ages; leaders of CBOs, businesses, civic and social groups, churches, youth-serving agencies, and PTAs; constituent members of these organizations; station managers and on-air talent at local radio, TV, and cable stations; and local bloggers.
  • Decide which messages are likely to be most effective, which ones should be prepared for which audience, what are the most effective means of reaching them and with what frequency, and so on.
  • Estimate the cost of producing the messages and implementing the campaign to sell achievement; develop and pursue a fundraising drive to amass cash and in-kind contributions needed to implement the marketing effort.
  • Devise an implementation plan, including production timetable, rollout, and follow-through.
  • Make provisions to monitor whether and how well the messages are received, whether they change the attitudes and behavior of schoolchildren vis-à-vis reading and achievement, and whether and to what extent students' academic performance is affected.
  • Modify the sales campaign as needed or indicated based on how well it rolls out and how target audiences respond.

These ideas are merely suggestive. Experts in marketing, advertising, sales, and media are vastly smarter than I in devising a sales pitch of this kind and determining how it should roll out to maximum effect. The bottom line is that we need to convince young people and their parents to "buy" achievement, using the same kind of creativity and persistence that marketers use to sell consumer goods.

Finding Funding

Those Urban League affiliates that carried out successful events generally had energetic young education coordinators who knew how to organize events and groups and how to get things done. Not surprisingly, an overarching issue from the very beginning was money. Some affiliates viewed the Achievement Campaign as an unfunded mandate imposed by the national office. They didn't have the capacity or inclination to proceed in the absence of new funding up front to support the effort.

The National Urban League did manage to attract national funders, such as State Farm and the Lilly Endowment, which in turn allowed us to allocate funds to many affiliates. This funding enabled us to provide modest grants to some affiliates, which in turn leveraged these resources quite creatively. An enthusiastic national partner in the Achievement Campaign, State Farm supported many of the events, providing modest grants and welcome cachet. It awarded scholarships and other perks to the young people, gave them gift bags and school supplies, and provided local volunteers to help organize and staff the ceremonies.

Securing local sponsorship support posed a different challenge. Typically, the budgets of some of the affiliates and community partners were so tight, and their agendas were so overloaded, that generating the resources needed to implement the events received less attention from them than was necessary. Yet once some of the Urban League affiliates saw that they could attract financial support from local companies—and then convert these new backers into ongoing supporters of their organization—they appreciated the appeal and potential of the Achievement Campaign.

In most communities, national funding sources will not be in the picture. Therefore, school districts, community groups, and business groups that want to collaborate in staging mobilization events like Achievement Month, the achievement fair, and Achievement Day parades will need to prospect for local sources of funding. As challenging as fund-raising can be, I would venture to speculate that a tight-knit partnership between an enthusiastic school district and committed community groups that are hell-bent on motivating children to learn could prove to be a compelling proposition for local funders. The keys to success in raising funds will be the seriousness of the enterprise, the thoughtfulness of the action plan, the potential impact of the events, the capacity of the steering committee to execute the game plan, its clearheaded grasp of the implementation challenges ahead, and the plans to assess the impact of the effort on the attitudes and academic performance of the children.

As for the actual funding prospects, I would suggest approaching the following:

  • Local community foundations, which in some regions of the country have ample resources. They generally have two sources for their grants. The first are grants given from unrestricted income derived from their unrestricted endowment. The second category is grants given for activities that must be aligned with the purposes stipulated by the donors of restricted funds to the foundation. Although the latter may sound constrained, oftentimes donors want their funds earmarked to serve educational purposes or to help disadvantaged children. Therefore, grants for a mobilization campaign to motivate youngsters to achieve might qualify even for these more restricted grants.
  • The local chapter of the United Way, an organization that has become rather proactive and strategic in its grant making in furtherance of community priorities. Education probably ranks high on the totem pole of priorities in the eyes of many United Ways. What's more, a number of the potential community partners in a mobilization effort, such as social service and youth services agencies, probably already receive support from the United Way. An initiative such as this, in conjunction with the school system, might well strike the United Way as innovative and promising.
  • Local family foundations, many of which have amassed significant wealth and support favored priorities and projects of the donors that routinely include education. These foundations often operate well below the radar and might not even have professional staffs. An outfit called the Foundation Center maintains a comprehensive computerized database of probably all foundations in the United States, including those that are virtually unknown. The steering committee could mine this database to identify local family foundations that can be approached on behalf of the mobilization effort. With these families, it will be important to demonstrate that the effort is aimed at producing a demonstrable and measurable difference in the attitudes and academic performance of youngsters.
  • Local businesses, many of which have a professed stake in education because the quality of their workforces hinges on the quality of graduates coming out of local schools. These companies and entrepreneurs often belong to civic-minded groups like the Chamber of Commerce, Kiwanis, and Rotary that support education and youth-development initiatives. They are a natural to approach for support, particularly sponsorship of the high-profile events. Also, they often strongly encourage their employees to volunteer in conjunction with causes supported by the business. This can be a valued source of volunteers to help plan and run the various mobilization events.
  • Local branches of national corporations, which often embrace causes like these mobilization activities. The local branches, which often delight in sponsoring high-profile activities that benefit children, could be asked to provide grants out of their coffers that are matched by the corporation's foundation at headquarters. As was the case with State Farm and other national corporations that supported the Urban League's Achievement Campaign, employees in the local branches can join the army of volunteers who help plan and pull off the individual mobilization events.
  • Public education funds, which typically support tutorial programs, extracurricular clubs, and other supplemental educational programs aimed at improving the learning experience and boosting the achievement levels of schoolchildren. These groups usually raise their money from local businesses, foundations, and individuals and via fund-raising events. They are a natural partner for the community mobilization initiative.
  • The school system itself, especially because many districts have received additional funding for boosting student achievement from the federal No Child Left Behind law and from their states by virtue of the school finance equalization lawsuits. If and when school districts become convinced that these community mobilization campaigns actually help bolster student achievement along with the academic performance of individual schools, it would behoove them to "put some skin in the game" because doing so serves their institutional self-interest.
  • State departments of education, which also invest in improving schools, could be approached for grants to support these efforts, provided, again, that they are thoughtfully conceived and focused on producing measurable improvements in the academic performance of traditionally low-performing students and schools.
  • Designated tax levy support, as was enacted in Florida to support innovative approaches to improving student outcomes. This rather unusual funding source may be a model worth encouraging, provided the governor, state legislature, or other taxing authority can be persuaded that the investment will pay off in boosting the lowly achievement levels of underperforming students.

The bottom line is that many of these prospective funders care deeply about education. They might be attracted to initiatives like those suggested in this book because of the clear objective and the pro-achievement energy unleashed by these activities.

Sustaining Momentum

The mantra of contemporary school reform is "Close the achievement gap." In actuality, there are gaps aplenty that must be closed: the one between U.S. youngsters and those of other industrialized nations, not to mention surging global competitors like India and China; the gulf that separates low-income and minority students from their economically advantaged peers; and the gap between pupils in inner-city versus suburban schools.

If these academic chasms are to be closed and, more important, if the United States is to be a civil, prosperous, and globally competitive society in the 21st century, then we urgently need all hands on deck. That means educators and policymakers rising for real to the challenge of leaving no child behind. It means parents, as their children's first teachers, shouldering their fair share of responsibility for rearing youngsters who are well adjusted and who come to school in a frame of mind to learn. And it means communities relentlessly setting the value that achievement matters so that children embrace the message in earnest.

To succeed in selling the message that achievement matters, children must be enveloped in a climate of achievement from which there is no escape. As James P. Comer (2004) recalls so poignantly, when he was growing up, all of the adults in his life were locked in a conspiracy to make certain he and his siblings were successful. This culture of achievement worked its wonders organically as well as consciously.

Because the communities where so many chronic underachievers are reared today do not function in remotely the same way as they used to, the existence of these support mechanisms and messages cannot be left to chance. The ideas presented in this book may strike readers as isolated initiatives. But that surely isn't the way I envision them.

The agenda of activities could be drawn from those suggested in this book and from other creative ideas that local groups devise. In addition to coming up with good ideas, it is critically important for educators and community groups to commit to stay the course month in and month out, year in and year out. They should conduct periodic and forthright assessments of how the campaign is faring, make midcourse corrections as needed, and, above all, gauge whether youngsters actually are getting the message that achievement matters. After all, the bottom-line goal is to demonstrate that communities actually can be mobilized to motivate children to achieve.

There could and should be a continuum of activities that encourage, recognize, and reward achievement throughout the school year. This approach creates a drumbeat that resonates from one season to the next and that reaches every school, every classroom, and every community. Imagine a calendar of events roughly along the following lines:

  • September—Achievement Month rallies and festivals to herald the resumption of school, the dawn of a new opportunity to achieve.
  • October—Doing the Right Thing assemblies and events in schools, community centers, and churches, all staged on the same day across the community. These events would recognize youngsters who have engaged in a wide array of activities that the community values, from getting better grades the previous year, to successfully completing summer school, to partaking in a community service project.
  • November—Awards ceremonies for the community groups that did a wonderful job of promoting literacy and achievement during the previous school year.
  • December—Literacy, math, and/or science fairs and contests that provide incentives for youngsters to display their academic prowess and opportunities to display what they have learned.
  • January—Induction ceremonies for local community-based honor societies, based on students' academic performance during the first semester.
  • March—Achievement fairs patterned after county fairs that enable youngsters to explore and demonstrate academically relevant projects of their choosing. There could be a community-wide fair or smaller ones staged on the same day in venues across the community.
  • May—Achievement Day parades for all 4th and 8th graders who pass the state-mandated examinations in reading and/or math.
  • June—Second yearly induction ceremony for community-based achiever societies and recognition luncheons for graduating seniors who earned B averages or better throughout their high school careers.

A Note of Caution

I would be less than forthright if I did not share the thoughtful perspective of T. Willard Fair, the longtime CEO of the Urban League of Greater Miami who chairs the Florida State Board of Education. A veteran community organizer who cares passionately about improving children's achievement levels and life prospects, he feels it is important to take community mobilization around education beyond celebrations and into the realms of parent responsibility and education policy. He stressed to me that we must create incentives—and disincentives—to spur parents to do what they should do. We must get more mayors involved by using the challenge of closing the achievement gap to get parents and corporations engaged. Policymakers must connect the need to improve schools and student achievement to the economic prosperity of their communities.

In order for community groups to play a prominent leadership and catalytic role, in Fair's view, they must have credibility and authority in the field of education or else they will not be accepted by the community. Having established that reputation in Liberty City, the Miami Urban League created independent parent councils for each school in partnership with a group called Concerned African-American Women. The Urban League also created the Liberty City Service Partnership, a coalition of 20 community-based and faith-based organizations. The consensus among these groups is that low achievement lies at the core of much antisocial behavior in Liberty City.

What's also critically important, Fair cautions, is that this mobilization initiative not be viewed as adversarial vis-à-vis the schools. In Miami, the school district is an active participant in the partnership. The deputy superintendent sits on the overall planning committee, and principals serve on the individual school councils.

For all the benefits, mobilizing communities poses organizational challenges for those groups that assume lead administrative responsibility for the effort. For instance, some Urban League affiliates experienced turnover among staff who, feeling they were paid too little for too much work, left for better-paying, less-demanding jobs. This turnover phenomenon demonstrates the downside of relying on paid staff at community agencies to do the mobilization work. Although depending on volunteers carries risks as well, it's important to minimize the chances of destabilization due to staff defections. In other cases, the absence of leadership at the top made the job of coordinating a campaign particularly burdensome. Understaffing, unstable staffing, and ambivalent leadership can have a negative impact wherever they occur (AED, 2005).

Velma Cobb, who directs the Achievement Campaign for the National Urban League, adds yet another dose of reality by admitting that it can be a struggle for community-based organizations involved in advocacy and direct services to stay the course because they are constantly pulled in so many different directions depending on the needs of those they serve. Convincing leaders and designated staff of groups like these to stay on track is critically important.

She noted to me that one useful way to do this is by giving them how-to materials—handbooks, prototypes of letters, suggested procedures and timetables, and so forth—that spell out what, how, and when they should implement the activities. Resourceful community-based organizations and their partners can then take it from there. In conjunction with the National Achievers Society, for instance, Cobb produced guidebooks, prototype letters, templates, and standardized procedures, which helped local sponsors who were strapped for time and resources to implement the routine aspects of NAS without hampering their creativity.

If the metaphor of the village is to resonate vibrantly in contemporary society, its principal and most urgent manifestation rests in rallying around the education and healthy development of the children who are, after all, America's destiny. The education challenges facing our country in the 21st century exceed the capacity of schools and educators to solve on their own. Communities can be mobilized to motivate children to achieve. They have successfully been mobilized to motivate youngsters to achieve. If the persistent achievement gaps holding back American children, and thus the United States, are to be closed, then communities must be mobilized to motivate their youngsters to achieve. Inertia is not an option.

Real-world experience with the Urban League's Achievement Campaign vividly illustrates the impressive rewards and readily manageable risks of mobilizing communities to motivate children to achieve. To repeat the main point of this book, it can be done because it has been done. Youngsters will respond if only the adults in the village will bestir themselves to inspire them.

Ways to Get the Ball Rolling

  • Take the initiative and demonstrate your commitment to partner with community groups.
  • Select community partners that genuinely care about children and have a track record of delivering on their promises and staying the course.
  • Forge a consensus on the need for a school/community alliance to motivate youngsters to achieve.
  • Establish a joint steering committee to spearhead the mobilization, select the key activities, and determine the implementation timetable.
  • Seek and secure funding for core staffing and operating costs for the partnership and its activities.
  • Encourage community partners to devise their own motivational ideas and incorporate these into the agenda.
  • Launch a first initiative, take stock, and press forward with a year-round, multiyear strategy.


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