Career education is an integral aspect of the school counseling program, but educating students on community helpers and their own career interests is just the beginning. Students have the capacity to be contributing community members right now, no matter their grade level. School counselors can walk alongside them as they discover ways they can engage in and contribute to the community. Building school-community engagement not only gives students a window to career options available to them but also leads to positive school outcomes. Schools that link classroom activities to community projects also see dividends in improved school behaviors, reduced suspension rates, improved academic achievement, higher graduation rates, and improved ability to work effectively in a team.
Community engagement can be a school-wide or grade level initiative integrated into the classroom guidance program or tackled on a smaller scale through a service club. This type of project affords counselors the opportunity to create an environment where students have a sense of belonging in the school environment, help students understand the importance of short- and long-term goal setting, take ownership of the project through self-motivation and self-direction, practice working cooperatively in a group, form relationships with adults who support success, and explore character traits such as conservationism, loyalty, leadership, and more.
In this post, I will outline 8 steps to create a student-led school-community engagement initiative. I provide an example of a larger scale project, but these steps can, of course, be applied to smaller projects as well.
Identify a need.
This process is 100% student-driven! What is their vision for the community? What would make the community a better place for them to live? Have students think broadly about ideas that will likely turn into long-term projects. Remind students that when it comes to community change, there are no “overnight fixes.” Creating an engaged community takes effort from everyone involved.
Example: Perhaps your students would like for the local park to be a nicer place for families to spend time together.
Identify action steps.
Students determine how they can give life to their vision for the community. Brainstorm at least 3 ways they can take action. Answer the question, “What can we do about this right now?” Let students take the lead on this aspect of the project, and allow student leaders to emerge to lead the discussion. Make sure everyone is given an opportunity to share ideas in order to demonstrate that all members of the community are valued.
Example: Three actionable ways students could make this vision as reality are (1) Clean up the local park, (2) Host a yard sale to raise money to install a playground at the park, and (3) Host a family day or “Grand Re-Opening” of the park.
If your students’ vision involves any sort of fundraising, calculate expenses from the outset. These ideas can change as the project takes life, but this step is vital before students move on to step 4.
Example: (1) How much do trash bags and clean up kits cost? (2) How much does a playground cost? (3) What items would you like to have at a Family Day and how much will they cost?
Connect with community leaders.
Once the students have identified ways they can turn their vision into reality, contact local community leaders who can help. As the counselor, reach out by phone and email to let leaders know what the students have in mind. Have students write letters to the community leaders explaining their vision for the community, detailing the action steps they wish to take, and ask for specific support from the leaders. Host a student-led community involvement night, inviting community members to come hear about the students’ plan.
Example: Write letters to (1) the director of your local parks and recreation board about a willingness to partner with them, (2) a local store owner who might be willing to donate trash bags or other clean-up items, (3) parents who might be willing to donate items to a yard sale, (4) the mayor, and any other community leaders who will be interested in the project or will be willing to assist. If your students want to host a community involvement night, have students prepare a presentation, timeline, and speeches, and identify specific ways they can ask the attendees to help (donate money, items, time, etc.).
Note: This process of connecting with community leaders affords many opportunities to integrate your project into the academic curriculum. Involve willing teachers in the process so that students can see how their academic studies directly relate to their roles as community members. Writing letters and preparing speeches for a community involvement night are perfect opportunities for English/Language Arts curriculum integration, and calculating costs for the project can be integrated into the mathematics curriculum.
Gather needed materials.
This, of course, varies depending on the project your students have identified.
Example: (1) Gather trash bags, protective gloves, and trash poles. (2) Collect donation items for a yard sale.
Begin action steps.
This, again, will look different for each group depending on what the school-community engagement project is. Some action steps can occur during classroom guidance or small group time and others will require after school or weekend time. Encourage students to look for ways for they can each use their strengths and talents. This is also a great time to show students that community involvement does not simply mean going to work during your designated hours; being an engaged community member means contributing your own time as well.
Example: (1) Designate a Saturday when students and parents will meet at the park for a clean up day. (2) Spend time organizing and pricing donated items for yard sale. Advertise the yard sale, and eventually, host it!
Measure progress and refocus energy when needed.
If your students are conducting a project that requires collecting money, creating a visual graph of funds earned is a great way to measure progress. If they are contributing volunteer hours to a local organization, a highly visible school-wide log could represent their progress. When progress monitoring shows that students might not meet their original goal, brainstorm ways to refocus and get back on track or make changes to the goal.
Example: What progress is being made toward purchasing playground equipment? Should students choose a less expensive model? Can they purchase additional equipment?
Keep open communication.
Communicate with with involved community members and advertise your efforts. Consider hosting additional information nights in which students can present their progress to the community and re-energize the community for engagement. Students can share their progress and also outline more specific ways the community members can help or be involved. Utilize the school social media pages to keep community members informed of progress and meeting times.
Example: (1) Perhaps a storm occurred and the park needs additional attention. Is there someone available to provide landscaping help? Can more community members meet to plant a small garden in the park? (2) Will a local construction business help with the playground installation? (3) Is a local restaurant willing to contribute food or bring a food truck to an grand opening event?
Celebrate and reflect.
Celebrate your community contribution! Perhaps your project has come to completion or maybe it will span into the next school year. Either way, allow students to reflect on what they have achieved so far and celebrate where they are going. Give students space to reflect on their experiences as community members and their ideas for future community involvement as they emerge as community leaders.
Example: Discuss what went well and what didn’t. Ask students what they would do differently if they did the project again. Discuss what students learned about potential career paths and how this relates to their goals for future community involvement.
Student-led school-community engagement can take flight in many directions and is appropriate at all grade levels. Start with a small group of students who can benefit from increased community engagement to test the waters if you’re not ready for a school-wide or grade level project, and allow students to take ownership of the process. This type of project can help students identify their own strengths and spark interest in community employment as well as bring about positive school outcomes. What community engagement projects have your students done? What does this process look like for you? Let us know in the comments!