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July 1, 2019
Vol. 76
No. 9

Turn & Talk / Charles Anderson Jr. on Inviting the Community into Your Teamwork

School Culture
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Since 2016, Charles Anderson Jr. has been principal of Michele Clark Academic Prep Magnet High School in Chicago. As well as bringing the International Baccalaureate program to Michele Clark, he has energized the school by forming and supporting school teams that include not only teachers and students, but also family members, community members, and representatives from neighborhood groups. Anderson is a native of Chicago's West side. His career in Chicago Public Schools (as a teacher, counselor, and principal) spans 20 years.

Tell me about how, as principal, you created teams that brought in people from outside your school—and how you used their talents.
When I arrived at Michele Clark, the school had two teams that included non-school people: our Local School Council and Parent Advisory Committee. As the new principal, I saw opportunities for more parental involvement and more active community involvement. I wanted everyone to feel like they were part of the vision. So I conducted surveys of the school community—teachers, staff, parents, and students—asking general questions like how welcoming the school was or what activities parents wanted to be a part of in the building. The responses showed that many parents and students felt left out.
We also held a series of town halls for the broader school community. These gatherings revealed a strong desire for more community and student voice in the school.
Many people said they didn't feel "heard" or didn't feel a connection with the school. A common phrase from parents was, "I drop my child off at school and pick them up." Parents stayed after these meetings to talk about opportunities they wanted, such as having their student in after-school activities and sports. They wanted to be invited to more events at the building and build pride in the school. So I re-evaluated my vision and plan for the school and created leadership teams for students, parents, teachers, and community members. I helped these parents get involved with groups we formed, like our Parent University, which offers family members information, resources, and classes (in parenting but also in job skills and so on) to help them help their families.
What other teams have you developed that are led by a "non-school" person? How do they improve students' experiences?
One example is Bigs in Blue, which is a mentorship program at the school that's a pilot of the Big Brothers and Big Sisters program. It provides mentorship opportunities for current and retired police officers, who meet with their student mentees every week. The focus is on building relationships with the local police department. Mentors discuss with their student everything from grades and assignments to behavior and student goals. Students are challenged each meeting with things to work on, such as bringing up failing grades, boosting self-esteem, and building their leadership qualities.
We also have a partnership with BUILD Chicago (a group for at-risk youth). BUILD's work with us focuses on providing social-emotional support for students. They lead several teams in the building, providing counseling, intervening when gang activity becomes a problem, and offering other outreach. Introspect is another community partner that leads several teams of students, staff, and parents on bridging students to post-secondary opportunities. The team organizes college visits for students and parents and does things to help make college affordable for our students.
Is it ever tricky to let community-led teams pursue their own vision for helping students while making sure their work matches the school's mission and values?
We give community-connected teams the school's vision statement, and the majority of conversations refer to that vision. During monthly Local School Council meetings, community teams share their progress, struggles, and next steps; this allows us to see what teams are up to and provide support.
A great example of providing support was when Introspect was trying to involve parents in their college tours. They couldn't understand why parents weren't attending and were very frustrated. So our Local School Council provided them with multiple ideas for getting parents involved.
What pro and cons have you found to including family members and community people in school teams?
One "con": Teams sometimes need help with leadership. Certain teams develop a lot of ideas, but something may be lacking in their ability to implement the ideas.
One "pro" is that having such teams lets voices be heard and people feel empowered. This has created a strong sense of ownership and school community. Often team members are from very different backgrounds and have varying demands—yet they find a way to stay on course and keep the work first.
Here's a great example: During the uproar accompanying the trial of the Chicago police officer who fatally shot Laquan McDonald, huge unrest developed between the students and the local police. Some staff members, parents, police officers, and students met to discuss ways to bridge the divide and rebuild some trust. The end result was a back-to-school bash, held in the parking lot of the police department, with the community, schools, and police invited to celebrate students returning to school. We now do this every year.
Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Naomi Thiers is the managing editor of Educational Leadership.

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