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Community cafés will increase community involvement, strengthen schools

Alison Arians,Alyse Galvin,Val Buckendorf,Pat Galvin,Aaron Poe,Sarah Sledge,Jessie Menkens,Joann Mitchell,Gretchen Stoddard,Andrea Cordano,Donna Lee Jardin,Terry Snyder,Michelle Church,Deena Mitchell,Kelly McBride,Debby Retherford,Carole Shay
OPINION: Conversations over shared meals will be an effective way forward to solve problems and address challenges facing all of us on behalf of our children and their education system. Pictured: Alison Arians of Great Alaska Schools, in a blue kuspuk, at a rally at the Alaska State Capitol in April in support of increased funding for public education April 4, 2014. Richard Mauer photo

We might not be ready for school to start, or for this gorgeous summer to end, but Great Alaska Schools has been growing ideas this summer and has sprouted a new branch, dedicated to increasing parent and community engagement within public schools. We instinctively know what research has proven: If ties between parents, community members and educators are strong, education quality improves through greater opportunities for students, and that leads to increased student success.

But first, what exactly does “parent and community engagement” mean? It’s really about effective two-way communication. For example, it means schools are welcoming to families from all cultures and economic backgrounds; parents and teachers help each other to better support students by sharing information back and forth; parents are part of a school’s decision-making process and power is shared; students see their parents and teachers working together and understand that their education is a priority; and community and business members are able to articulate what they want from their future employees, sharing their expectations in powerful ways that inspire students. When parents are involved in schools, it’s not just about helping our own individual child, but for being an advocate for all children.

When we do parent and community engagement right, there are improvements in student attendance, academic performance, school staff morale, and the community is invested in and supports school outcomes.

Great Alaska Schools is a non-partisan citizen coalition made up of parents and community members, so we think we’re the perfect group to encourage and increase this kind of engagement in our public schools. To this end, we have adopted a model called the Community Café, which warmly welcomes students, parents, educators, and community members to come together in conversation, so every voice is heard. The café model brings us together over a meal to solve problems and address challenges. Through shared stories and ideas, each participant contributes what they have experienced that has worked well, and how we will act differently in our roles in order to reach our common goal.

Great Alaska Schools wants every school in the Anchorage and Matanuska-Susitna Borough school districts (and eventually, beyond) to have an opportunity to host a Community Café. Hosting a Community Café isn’t difficult, but there are some steps to learn to make the process flow smoothly and be effective. Great Alaska Schools will train any interested community members to learn how to host a café, so that we can offer help and support to any school community who would like to hold one.

Great Alaska Schools hosted three kickoff community cafés and workshops in Anchorage and Mat-Su at the end of July. First, the attendees experienced a café, focusing on how each of us, in our own roles, can help students achieve their hopes and dreams. Then, after the café portion was completed, we held a workshop for people to learn how to host a café.

The Kickoff Community Cafés & Workshops were well attended and enthusiastically received. We had meaningful conversations about what we can do, as parents, community members, public servants, teachers, and administrators, to help every child receive a top quality education. Many participants stayed to learn how to host a Community Café. We now have a whole new group of people trained and inspired to host cafés in their schools and within the community.

Stay posted on how Community Cafés are spreading their roots across the school districts through the school year by going to the Great Alaska Schools website: greatalaskaschools.org. If you are interested in hosting a Community Café for your school and would like free assistance, please contact us at greatakschoolsmatsu@gmail.com for Mat-Su, and at greatakschoolsanc@gmail.com for Anchorage and other areas of the state. We are excited to help create conversations and possibilities for positive change in every school. We know that dedicated parents and community members have the potential to accomplish so much to improve schools, and ultimately, to increase student success.

Alison Arians, Alyse Galvin, Val Buckendorf, Aaron Poe, Pat Galvin, Sarah Sledge, Jessie Menkens, Joann Mitchell, Gretchen Stoddard, Andrea Cordano, Donna Lee Jardin, Terry Snyder, Michelle Church, Deena Mitchell, Kelly McBride, Debby Retherford and Carole Shay are members of Great Alaska Schools and believe in the power of community cafes to strengthen public education.

The views expressed here are the writers' own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.