It seems the one thing we can be certain of is uncertainty; COVID-19 has been a stark reminder that change is part of our lives. It’s difficult to predict what our formal education system will look like post-pandemic. Nevertheless, we can say that in this new normal there will certainly be a need for open exchange of views among all stakeholders in education. This article describes a model of school and community engagement, the Gathering Model, that may prove useful. In presenting this model, we share a set of equitable best practices that teachers, schools, and school boards can use as a template for parent and community outreach initiatives and to offer a resource for addressing the new normal.
Toronto’s York Region is one of Canada’s most diverse school districts. While 90 percent of its residents are Canadian citizens, one in two were born outside Canada. The languages spoken at home include Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin), Russian, Farsi, Italian, Tamil, Korean, Urdu, Spanish, Punjabi, and Gujarati. When we consider these changes, it becomes clear that we need to think differently when talking about community building. Community building based on goals and principles of sameness does not achieve inclusion. Community building has to be fostered through inclusive practices and processes. This applies in all our school communities, as populations across Canada are increasingly more diverse.
The Gathering Model
The Gathering Model is based on an ongoing, 15-year collaboration between the York Region District School Board (YRDSB) and the Faculty of Education at York University. In 2005, they partnered to pilot a new model of community engagement. Scott Milne, Manager of School and Community Projects at YRDSB, and Dr. John Ippolito, Associate Professor at York, were invited to serve as leads. Armadale Public School was selected as the pilot site because it was the largest and most linguistically diverse school in the YRDSB, in a neighbourhood experiencing pronounced demographic shifts. The thinking was that the initiative could both capitalize on emerging assets within the changing population and respond to new challenges. Since this time, multiple versions of the model have been implemented in over a dozen YRDSB schools.
This model goes beyond community engagement to explore the potential for family voices – including the voices of marginalized parents – to support school and community improvement. The model responds both to recent patterns of migration and to extensive research on the positive impacts of parents taking an active role in their children’s education.1
A cycle of community dialogue
The Gathering Model supports a cycle of community dialogue. This dialogue centres on after-school/evening events involving parents, administrators, teachers, students, researchers, and community service agencies. In most of our sites, the role of community agencies has been limited, but in some schools their role has been more significant, even if only to highlight the services they offer. These events (anywhere from one to four per year at participating schools) address issues parents think are important to their families’ experience of public schooling. At some schools, the event now includes a separate student dialogue.
Clearly, the pandemic has put these in-person events on hold. As with education more generally, our participating schools have experienced a fracturing of community, leaving students and families feeling disconnected from their schools. However, this forced time-out is being put to good use in revisiting initiatives the model has piloted over the years, such as parent-driven research, parent and teacher research groups, and online discussion forums (Ippolito, 2012, 2018), and in exploring more recent online conversation platforms such as ThoughtExchange. We look forward to making innovative links between these online platforms and in-person events, which will, at some future point, become possible. This interplay of in-person and online resources will remain defined by the cycle of community dialogue outlined below (see Figure 1).
A fundamental component of the Gathering Model is a formalized planning team consisting of staff, families, and community partners. While everyone is invited to the planning team, a deliberate effort is made to engage individuals, community members, and organizations that represent marginalized voices. The aim is to have at least three community members present for each meeting, though the community members do not have to be the same at each meeting. In these instances, new members are welcomed into the planning discussion with a brief synopsis of previous work. Rotating membership for community members and flexibility in the timing of meetings encourages community engagement. This planning team is involved in every stage of the cycle, from pre-event planning, to event design, to post-event data analysis, to data mobilization in school, and system planning. Through this process, the model becomes a regular and ongoing formalized process.
Unlike traditional parent involvement approaches, where families are encouraged to participate in their children’s schools but where the agenda and decisions lie in the hands of the school, this is a model of community engagement where schools evolve in relation to family needs and where the community shares responsibility and power in determining agendas (Ippolito, 2010). In developing an agenda and topics for the discussion forums, the goal is to have at least half of each event’s agenda determined by students, families, and community partners on the planning team. The questions used to collect data for school and system improvement must be generated with community input, as with the following:
- What is bullying, and how do we make sure it doesn’t happen in our school?
- What strategies and approaches can we use to communicate with children about their learning?
- What kind of peer relationships and friends help support our children’s healthy development into young adults?
The structure and frequency of planning meetings are flexible and depend on the context and availability at each school. However, planning teams meet twice per month in the three months preceding an event. Some timelines to consider include when to send out invitations to the community to provide sufficient time to RSVP and when to contact local food vendors.
Community dialogue events begin with a shared meal. Schools have held this event in school gymnasiums and libraries/learning commons. Some schools have organized the event in local community spaces, such as a neighbourhood mosque. When planning the menu and selecting vendors for a shared meal, it is important to be culturally responsive and to consider dietary needs of the community. Since childminding is also provided, schools consider opportunities to partner with community organizations to provide students and families greater awareness of local resources. In addition, planning the physical space requires consideration of religious accommodations, including prayer spaces. The shared meal, childminding, and any other expenses are funded through the school, removing barriers for families wanting to take part in the community dialogue.
Tables are set up and all stakeholders are invited to sit with each other, regardless of their roles. This encourages community building by removing the barriers of formal titles like administrator, school staff member, community organization leader, parent, or student. The purpose of the shared meal is to provide time and space for people to get to know each other through conversation. At the end of the meal, children are directed to various childminding spaces and activities. Some schools have encouraged student performances of dance, poetry, and music to open and close the shared meal and bring families together in celebration of students. Student performances are welcomed, but care is taken so they don’t take up too much time. The goal is to ensure that table-based discussions of the agenda items constitute roughly three-quarters of the time of each event.
The community dialogue engages stakeholders in open-ended conversations while removing potential barriers for participation. One such barrier for many families is language. Intentional steps are made to lessen this by providing translation technology and on-site translators reflecting the home languages of families. In addition, designated tables are assigned for conversations in preferred languages, with additional support of translators as needed. Another barrier is posed by power differentials between various stakeholders within education. These differentials can influence what gets shared and what is kept silent. To disrupt this, the event is set up to encourage discussion of agenda items between stakeholders in the same role, rather than across stakeholder groups. This provides each group an opportunity to speak openly about their thoughts and experiences.
Community voice as data
A defining feature of the Gathering Model is a commitment to collect and mobilize data generated through various forms of community engagement. This research work is done by the formalized planning team consisting of staff, families, and community partners. Planning teams also have access to research expertise from the Faculty of Education at York University.
At the community dialogue events, data is recorded at each discussion table with Chromebooks equipped with multilingual software. Having the data digitized enables translation into English for the purposes of data analysis. The digitized data is prepared for analysis following qualitative methods for text-based responses (e.g. Glesne, 2015; Lichtman, 2013). Focusing on the core questions that shape the agenda for a community dialogue event, data is coded to summarize and condense key themes or issues. This search for patterns in the data moves from the level of codes to categories to themes and, potentially, to theory generation. The overarching aim of data analysis is to measure the impact of community engagement, which can include student engagement through participation in co-curricular activities, and to generate recommendations for school planning and further mobilization of findings.
School planning/data mobilization
The school must update the community in a timely fashion on how data have been used to improve school and/or system operations. Community members must see and hear evidence that their efforts are moving the school’s culture and practices forward. These updates often take place at subsequent community dialogue events and serve to link a previous event to a current one. The school, school board departments, and senior management may present information of benefit to the community, or data may generate key questions for gathering further data to help the school and system serve students and families better. This is also an opportunity for the community to ask follow-up questions about school and system priorities and how to better support student learning and community development.
A core challenge in mobilizing this process is sustaining the involvement of community throughout various stages of the process. Currently, families and community partners are mostly engaged as participants in the community dialogue. Community participation is substantially reduced or absent during data analysis, mobilization of data, and decision making. This highlights a mindset prevalent among system staff that community is not an integral partner. While schools welcome community voice, they continue to hold decision-making power in how narratives are shaped and what is prioritized and acted upon.
This lack of full involvement by community members means that realizing the model’s potential for change lies disproportionately in the hands of staff. In many cases, staff have neither the skills nor knowledge to seize upon this opportunity, so schools often choose to take action on items that are easiest to address rather than on what is identified by the community as most urgent and needed.
Additionally, school responses can sometimes be surface-level actions (such as inviting a one-time guest speaker, without further follow through or commitment to looking at implications of their own school policies and programs) that lack depth or sustainability. In this way, a checklist mentality becomes a barrier to the model’s potential for change. This way of thinking is reinforced by the system’s emphasis on timing and accountability that pressures schools to sacrifice the quality of the process in exchange for completion.
Community voice and agency
Addressing this core challenge requires full focus on the key determinant of success within the Gathering Model, namely, inclusion of community voice and agency. This input must occur in a formal way through participation on the planning and research team, and not through ad-hoc, informal conversations with school and/or system staff. Having said this, participating schools are encouraged to seek out partnerships with internal system departments such as Research Services, Planning, or Special Education, and with external community-based agencies.
Schools wanting to implement the Gathering Model effectively must ensure this level of community input. Community is more than just a physical and geographic similarity. It is also a feeling of safety and belonging. Identity and community cannot be separate and belonging must be defined through a lens of equity and justice. These priorities are well-served by the open exchange enabled by the Gathering Model and will prove useful to us in the new normal.
First published in Education Canada, June 2021
A Parent Reflects
By Hirosh Abeywardane
The Gathering Model has made an impact on our community in ways beyond what I can explain in words. It has given a voice to marginalized parents and caregivers and helped bridge a communication gap between school and home. It eliminated the language barriers for many parents and caregivers and allowed them to express their concerns freely. It has helped build relationships, not just between school and the community, but also among parents and caregivers. The gathering has made it possible to transform ideas and suggestions into implementable solutions because the end result is a collective perspective of students, staff, and the community.
The gathering has become a tool to help parents and caregivers understand the importance of engagement and the impact it will have on their child’s well-being and education. Most importantly, it taught the school community to think beyond just their own child’s experience in the school and aim to improve every child’s experience in the school.
The gathering event has allowed the school community to trust that the school staff and administration will listen to their concerns, ideas, and suggestions because they know that, unlike a typical survey where you will never see a visible result, those concerns, ideas, and suggestions will be converted into solutions, and those solutions will be implemented as visible actions.
My various involvement with the school and the school board has given me a unique perspective of the event. As a parent, a school council co-chair, and as a PEAC (PIC) Co-chair, I am truly humbled to be part of the planning process of the gathering event at my school. It was amazing to see the students, parents, caregivers, school council, and staff building partnerships and working together for a common goal. It would be almost impossible to organize a successful event like the gathering without those partnerships. During the data mining process, it was unbelievable to see the same reaction and expressions from different groups of individuals who are reading the same feedback forms. It is truly remarkable to see an event like this connecting students, teachers, and the community.
1 Included here is stronger academic achievement, more consistent attendance at school, higher rates of graduation, a strengthened sense of self-worth, and a more positive outlook on education (Henderson & Mapp, 2002). More recently, these positive indicators are reiterated at primary levels (Wong et al., 2018); secondary levels (Gordon & Cui, 2012); and post-secondary levels (Palbusa & Gauvain, 2017).
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