Title

The Supper Effect: Community Engagement as a Path to School and Community Change in a Small Rural Town

Date of Award

Spring 2017

Project Type

Dissertation

Program or Major

Education

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Bruce Mallory

Second Advisor

Winston C Thompson

Third Advisor

Suzanne Graham

Abstract

Though American public education has promise for leveling inequality and empowering youth, ineffective schools create opposite results. Multiple partners have entered the realm of school reform, including private funders, corporations, foundations, nonprofits, and universities. These reform efforts often overlook the local wisdom and unique needs present in the community each school serves. The United States Department of Education has endorsed school reform methods that engage schools and community in simultaneous school-community change processes, framing communities and schools as partners in educational change. To inform such school change processes, this dissertation is a constructivist grounded theory case study that examines the efforts of a high poverty, small, rural New England school district to collaborate with a community organization and the community at large to enact a process of school improvement. External partners such as universities and nonprofits worked with the community organization to build its capacity to conduct community engagement and model “thick” participation in decision-making. The “supper effect” is an example from a participant experience that symbolizes some of the key questions in this study. It raises the question of how people in this community perceived school and community efforts to engage the community about education change, including what factors related to the quality of engagement and the way engagement is conducted. Findings from this study suggest that to facilitate school-community engagement, both the school district and community partners made philosophical changes and developed new structures, processes, and opportunities for engagement. Such efforts resulted in increased school-community engagement, however, there was still a divide in engagement, which indicates that structures, processes, and opportunities were a necessary but not sufficient condition for effective school-community engagement. Various other factors affected engagement, including income and social status, relationships with school and community leadership, the small rural town context, and differences in definitions of and expectations for engagement. Deliberative civic engagement strategies of school-community engagement were found to be particularly effective in engaging the community and building local democracy. Such findings contributed to the generation of an emergent theory which suggests that changes in schools and community are interrelated with changes in local democracy, which may inform future simultaneous school-community change models.

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