“Engagement recognizes the wisdom of the community. The whole premise of engagement is based on the idea that you’re entering into a relationship with this person and community. The most important thing you can do is to be humble, enter into a conversation, and learn from them.”
WHEN CLARA STURGESS JOHNSON OPENED FRANCIS PARKER SCHOOL IN 1912, SHE PLANTED THE SEEDS OF PROGRESSIVE EDUCATION PROMOTED BY COL. FRANCIS W. PARKER.
THE SCHOOL’S ROOTS GREW IN THE RICH SOIL OF WHOLE-CHILD DEVELOPMENT AND HANDS-ON LEARNING, EMPHASIZING THE IMPORTANCE OF NOT ONLY TRADITIONAL ACADEMICS BUT ALSO GOOD CITIZENSHIP.
The School has remained constant to those original core values and continues to sow the seeds of good citizenship by focusing on community engagement as a means to improve one’s community and one’s self. Powered by its Strategic Plan, Parker expanded the role of its Director of Community Engagement, Kevin Dunn,in the 2018-19 school year to support this work, JK to Grade 12. As directorof community engagement, Kevin’s mission is to raise awareness of societal needs, emphasize off-Campus community engagement, and promote social justice and advocacy.
The whole-School approach to community engagement brings focus and alignment to this work at all three divisions and furthers the School’s mission of character development and value-based learning. It also pushes students out of their comfort zones by taking them out of the classroom and educates them about relevant,
real issues facing their communities. It’s one thing for students to learn about homelessness in San Diego in social studies class, it’s another to prepare and serve meals and engage in conversation with the human beings standing in front of them.
SOWING THE SEEDS
“Working in community with other people helps students build onnecessary, 21st-century skills—interpersonal skills, leadership skills, problem-solving skills. You can practice those in a classroom, sure, but engagement reinforces the knowledge and brings it to life. This is not just a feel-good exercise, it’s supposed to be thoughtful. It’s supposed to push students into communities and experiences that they’re typically not involved in,” says Director of Community Engagement Kevin Dunn.
Kevin uses the “Think, Act, Reflect” model to walk students through the components of meaningful community engagement. “Think” refers to the education and preparation students undergo before they go out into their community. “Act” refers to the direct involvement students have with community members. “Reflect” refers to the crucial time following their involvement when students take a step back and think about their time spent, what it means, and what they learned. Kevin says that’s when the real transformation happens.
Community engagement cannot reach the point of true meaning until all of the components are present. Engagement without proper education can sour relationships and reinforce negative stereotypes and engagement without
reflection can be just as detrimental as students lose the opportunity to see the bigger picture, ask bigger questions, and begin to understand the purpose of this work.
“Engagement recognizes the wisdom of the community. The whole premise of engagement is based on the idea that you’re entering into a relationship with this person and community. The most important thing you can do is to be humble, enter into a conversation, and learn from them,” says Kevin.
For example, junior Avalon Smith volunteered at a therapeutic rehabilitation service for her engagement hours. She walked in with assumptions that people with other abilities were somehow defined by those differences, but through her interactions and conversations at the center, she realized they were neither defined nor limited by the different abilities they possess. Avalon, an avidlacrosse player, took on 10 teenageboys in a wheelchair lacrosse matchand lost—unable to maneuver bothstick and wheelchair at the same time.
Kevin is now bringing the “Think, Act, Reflect” model to this work at Parker’s Lower School. The goal is to build on the existing community engagement work, much of which is focused on charitable giving, by educating students more in-depth about the issues they’re raising money for and offering more opportunities for students to interact with the communities they’re engaging with in person.
“Unless we get to the underlying causes of problems—and we do that through educating students and helping them understand the root causes of issues—there’s no way they can advocate for change,” says Kevin.
He is already making strides. Recently, the Lower School partnered with Youth Assistance Coalition, an all-volunteer nonprofit dedicated to breaking the pattern of youth homelessness.Students raised nearly $2,000 throughbake sales, purchased supplies with the proceeds, and assembled care packages for San Diego youths experiencing homelessness.
As part of the engagement work, students learned about the issue of homelessness in San Diego, recognizing not only that it exists but also touching on the problems that contribute to it, problems like access to affordable housing and access to healthcare and mental health services.
“Community engagement is the embodiment of character education and S.T.R.I.V.E. at the Lower School,” says Assistant Head of Lower School Heather Gray. “It’s an opportunity to understand and enrich the world for all. These concepts are abstract and hard to understand if students don’t see and connect with the communities they’re engaging with. They need to see how their efforts are impacting their peers and their community. It helps to develop empathy and understanding for other people.”
“It’s an opportunity to understand and enrich the world for all. These concepts are abstract and hard to understand if students don’t see and connect with the communities they’re engaging with. They need to see how their efforts are impacting their peers and their community. It helps to develop empathy and understanding for other people.”
COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT EFFECTS ONE’S COMMUNITY AND ONE’S SELF.
Parker Upper School students, who are required to complete a certain number of hours each year in order to graduate, can speak to that experience.
Pallavi Murthy, Class of 2020, was interning with U.S. Rep. Scott Peter’s re-election campaign when she realized the power of local elections and the importance of voter registration even within her own School community.
During her hours of knocking on doors and talking with community members, Pallavi realized the power of local elections and the importance of voter registration.
“As part of the campaign, we knocked on
doors around San Diego and held booths around community centers to register people to vote. I decided to hold a booth at Parker. Many students were unaware that they couldpreregister if they were 16 or older, so we wereable to preregister a bunch of students,” says Pallavi. “I think voter registration helps make people more aware of their power as a citizen in America. People are often under the impression their vote doesn’t matter, but it does. While you may feel you have no voice on the federal level, lots of legislation that matters gets done on the local level.”
Avalon Smith, Class of 2020, spent time with children and adults with other abilities as part of her engagement work and found unexpected friendships during the experience.
“When I discovered Therapeutic Recreation Services, I found myself completing more hours with less of a feeling of obligation and more passion for what I was doing,” says Avalon. “It is an amazing feeling to find an alternative method of allowing someone who may typically be unable to participate in an activity and seeing them experience the same joy. Hearing the personal stories of the people I worked with was the most impactful part of the experience.”
Scott Drouin, Class of 2022, began his community engagement work through an outside organization that offered a variety of activities to choose from. The work he is most proud of are the activities that benefit military veterans and their families.
“Our veterans have done so much to protect our basic freedoms and I felt no way of giving back.
I wanted to do something for them. It is often overlooked how much military families struggle, so it is important to me that they get help too,” says Scott.
Scott experienced first-hand the personally fulfilling experience of connecting with and helping members of his community and found that it made him want to help out even more. He came away knowing that no matter how small his work may seem, the impact that it left on those he helped was much larger than originally thought possible.