Better neighborhoods, better schools

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It takes a village to fix a failing school. In his job at Perspectives Charter Schools, Ray Thompson draws on an approach that links neighborhoods and schools, called Asset-Based Community Development.

What is it? The strategy turns the traditional approach to creating change in poor neighborhoods on its head: Instead of focusing on what poor communities need and what the problems are, this approach focuses on using the existing strengths of a community as the basis for revitalization.

Who developed it?  John P. Kretzmann and John L. McKnight, co-directors of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University. In 1993, the two co-authored “Building Communities from the Inside Out,” summarizing the lessons learned from their research across the country. To promote the concept nationally, Kretzmann has been working as an advisory board member for the Coalition for Community Schools, a group that advocates for more neighborhood involvement in schools.

How can it help schools? Many schools and communities have little or no interaction with each other, but ending that isolation so that schools and neighborhoods can take advantage of each other’s strengths is essential. “When you see the walls come tumbling down and the interactions multiplying, everyone turns out to be a winner,” says Kretzmann. The Institute is studying how community-oriented schools like Al Raby and Perspectives work, and plans to compile training materials for other schools interested in the concept.

How can it help students? Bringing community into the classroom can begin with simple strategies such as analyzing local stream water in a chemistry class or having English students write articles in conjunction with neighborhood newspapers. “The more students are connected to the community around them,” Kretzmann says, “the more sense they get that their education exists in a real-life context, and that it’s connected to the well-being of the community.”