10 Ways to Engage Rural Communities, Families and Schools in Education

Rural schools, particularly those on and near reservations, face unique challenges in building bridges to schools that serve tribal and border communities.

Schools thrive when everybody is working together and involved in the education process. Rural schools, particularly those on and near reservations, face unique challenges in building bridges to schools that serve tribal and border communities. In some of those schools, staff members are not aware or interested in understanding Native culture or the boarding school history that impacts the students they are teaching.

In a 2014 webinar, “Community Engagement in Turnaround Schools,” Mandy Smoker Broaddus, director of Indian education, Montana Office of Public Instruction, and Don Wetzel Jr, American Indian youth development coordinator, Montana Office of Public Instruction, joined Principal Adrian Watkins from the Marvell-Elaine High School in Arkansas, to talk about ways to break down barriers.

There are challenges in bringing school staff, community members and students together, but there can be successes, too, making schools a better place to educate future tribal leaders, family, and community members.


Here are 10 of the best suggestions from the Montana OPI to make rural schools a more welcome place for Native children.

Focus On the Whole Child: Children perform and behave better in school when their social, emotional, and physical needs are met.

Break Down the Walls Between Staff and Community: According to Don Wetzel, “Community engagement is new to some schools. Sometimes teachers resist going out into the community and prefer to stay within the school walls. We really focus on breaking those walls down. We had a lot of professional development and open discussions between teachers and parents. Some community members and staff still resisted the change process, and we continue to work with them.”

Rural Schools

Don Wetzel Jr., American Indian youth development coordinator, Montana Office of Public Instruction, participated in a webinar to bring rural, tribal communities and schools together.

Make Community Engagement a Priority: Establish an infrastructure dedicated to reaching the tribal communities. Send teachers to meet with family and tribal community members on a regular basis. Encourage the community to voice their opinion and respond to their concerns.

Familiarize School Staff with Local Culture: Staff understanding and appreciation of the cultural differences of their students can positively impact the way staff and families communicate, connect, and build bridges.

Hire Community Liaisons: Montana’s Office of Public Instruction said hiring community liaisons brought cultural knowledge and perspective to the table. Tribal liaisons received training in community organizing and home visits, and brought their perspectives to meetings, collaborations and the school improvement team. The liaisons coordinated school events with tribal events, giving the school and community the opportunity to meet and greet.

Create a Community Readiness Survey: Schools often expect parents to be prepared for their children to move through their education. Sometimes steps need to be taken to assist parents to “be ready for big ideas,” Broaddus said.

Educate, pow wows, rural schools, understanding

Educators should familiarize themselves with local culture, like pow wows. This image is from a pow wow in Salamanca, New York.

Don’t Blame the Victim: In rural communities, a variety of social ills can affect school attendance. Poverty, culture, and historic experience with boarding schools can make tribal members uncomfortable interacting with teachers and administration. Blaming family members when a child is not thriving in school can make family members feel unwelcome. In the Marvell-Elaine School, staff members visit the student’s home if they have been absent for a few days, and then offer to help without blame.

Put Students in Leadership Positions: Montana’s Native students were taught Robert’s Rules of Order, and then encouraged to develop youth conferences. One of the conferences linked the students to businesses and community leaders throughout the state. The students were also trained to develop their resumes and to use the media to express themselves, including how to make videos.

Focus on Student Strengths Not Weaknesses: Drive policy based on student needs, not services or agencies.

Reach Out: Some rural communities have little more than a post office and a tribal building. In such cases, reach out to outside communities, faith based organizations, tribal, county, or state resources to participate with students and attend events.

The Marvell-Elaine High School staff included activity and program ideas to bring communities and school staff together—here are some of their ideas:

  • Host banquets, breakfasts, pep rallies and open houses and invite school board members, local business leaders, faculty and community members;
  • Give incentives such as field trips, extracurricular activities and extended day activities for attendance, performance and good behavior;
  • Involve students in parent meetings;
  • Parent Appreciation Day, involve everyone, from cafeteria staff to teachers, administration, and give everyone a certificate;
  • Home Visits make parents feel welcome. Send paraprofessionals and the home coordinator out to the community often;
  • Send home flyers, advertise on the radio and television to offer frequent reminders;
  • Start a Mentoring Program, assign every student a mentor from tribal colleges, like retired teachers, staff members, local business leaders, volunteers, etc. The mentors should meet at least one Saturday a month to mentor students;
  • Solicit input from parents and community members;
  • Teachers are encouraged to have a relationship with parents and have all of their necessary contact information.

To learn more and listen to the archived programs on School Turnarounds, visit: “Community Engagement in School Turnaround: Reaching and Engaging Rural Stakeholders.”

This story was originally published August 20, 2014.