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How School Leaders Can Create a Welcoming and Inclusive Environment in Schools

If you needed to buy an essential item that could be found only at one store in town, but that store did not make you feel welcome or had inferior customer service, chances are you would make your purchase and leave. It would be evident the store management was not concerned about your negative experience and simply considered you as part of a captive customer base. To build a sustaining relationship with customers, store management must address the overall shopping experience and perceptions of patrons coming to their establishment. The importance of quality customer service and creating a welcoming, inclusive environment are important concepts not only in the retail world, but they are applicable to any entity that provides goods and services to the public, including schools.

When it comes to schools, the customers are parents, families, and students, and the goods and services are a quality and beneficial education. A school with an inclusive and welcoming environment is one where students believe they can thrive and succeed academically, and one where parents and families feel that school leaders are truly listening to their concerns and where they are given an opportunity to collaborate with school leadership in making decisions on matters relating to their child’s education as respected partners. Anthony Terrell, Assistant Professor in the Education Leadership program within the School of Education at George Mason University, recently shared his thoughts on how school leaders can create a climate and culture within their schools that promotes inclusivity.

Hiring and training the right staff is crucial.

First impressions count. You can tell a lot about the culture and climate of a school just by interacting with the front office personnel. These employees are the first group of school representatives you will contact. Are the employees friendly? Are they helpful? If the person in the front office cannot solve a problem, do they connect you with a staff member who can? Is language a barrier for family members who may not speak English when communicating with the front office staff? These are just some of the questions that can guide school leaders in hiring and training the right people who are equipped with the skills necessary to effectively interact with parents, families, and other members of the public.

Two-way communication facilitates meaningful feedback.

School principals are busy with any number of administrative and managerial responsibilities. If they oversee schools with a large student population and a hierarchical staffing structure that encompasses many layers of personnel, it can be difficult to contact the principal directly. But to be effective in responding to issues that affect students, principals need to find a way to meaningfully engage with parents and families.

Parents, families, and students are the stakeholders most affected by decisions on school policy, curriculum, and related matters. An open, two-way line of communication between principals and parents is needed so that families can share their perspective on changes at school that have an impact on students. For example, in newsletters and other materials sent to parents about school policies, curriculum requirements, school events, or other news, principals can include their direct email address with a brief message encouraging parents and families to provide feedback on any school issue they believe is important or for which they have concerns. Because many schools distribute newsletters and other communications from the principal weekly, this is an excellent way for school leaders to build and maintain an ongoing exchange with parents and families of students throughout the school year.

Creative strategies can facilitate parental and family engagement with the school.

School leaders continually think of innovative ways that enable parents to be involved in school events that otherwise would be inaccessible because of circumstances out of their control. Many school events specifically designed for parents, such as Back to School Night, are held in the evening. But parents who work multiple jobs out of financial necessity or who cannot find affordable and reliable childcare are not able to attend these events, even though they would like to. Such constraints limit the ability of these parents and families to engage with the school in matters related to their child’s education. However, one strategy by which parental involvement can be achieved is through school partnerships with organizations that provide social services to families in need. To illustrate, a school principal in a Northern Virginia school district recently partnered with an area food bank to have pallets of food delivered to the school for distribution on a Saturday. As families arrived at the school for the food distribution event, the principal held an impromptu PTA meeting and engaged with parents in conversations about their students. By thinking of a non-traditional way to bring parents to the school during off-hours so that it would be conducive to their schedules, the principal was able to establish a productive relationship with the families, one that was based on trust and one that left families with a positive view of the school and its connection with the community. This is but one example of how schools can carry out a dual function—not only as a provider of education to children in the community but also serving as a bridge by which parents, families, and students can access needed support services.

Community Schools

The growing number of community schools now found throughout the U.S. represents a nationwide initiative focused on providing equitable learning opportunities for students and families from marginalized or economically disadvantaged populations. The Partnership for the Future of Learning, a national network of individuals and organizations formed to advance a shared vision for an equitable and racially just public education system, has developed a “Community Schools Playbook.” This document explains how community schools partner with community organizations to provide: 1) integrated student supports, 2) expanded and enriched learning time and opportunities; 3) active family and community engagement; and 4) collaborative leadership and practices. Because community schools respond to the specific needs of the community in which they are located, no two community schools are the same.

Through innovative strategies such as those discussed in this article, school leaders can create an inclusive and caring school culture that serves parents, families, and students regardless of race, ethnicity, or economic status.

To learn more about degree offerings in the Education Leadership program within George Mason University’s School of Education, please visit the program website.