Creative Education
2011. Vol.2, No.4, 375-380
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/ce.2011.24053
Raising Engagement and Enhancing Learning: School Community
Partnerships That Work for Students at Promise*
David Zyngier
Faculty of Education, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia.
Received August 22nd, 2011; revised September 27th, 2011; accepted October 9th, 2011.
This paper reports on a pilot study that investigates the widely reported issue of underachievement of students
from Culturally Linguistically and Economically Diverse (CLED) backgrounds. It involves 15 university educa-
tion faculty student volunteers and over 40 students and their families in primary (elementary) schools situated
in disadvantaged communities of Victoria whose students come from 40 different nationalities, speaking 36
languages and with 75 per cent of its student cohort coming from Non English Speaking Backgrounds. A part-
nership was formed to focus on the problem of CLED children’s disengagement from their academic learning.
We focus on how a productive partnership between schools and a university impact on inclusive teaching and
learning practices both at the school and the university level. We investigate whether such an intervention can
have an impact on engagement levels and the learning and social outcomes of students from refugee, migrant
and working class families. Privileging participant voice we analyze data from interviews, surveys and focus
groups with students, teachers and parents to argue that such a program has the capacity to re-engage under-
achieving students at a minimal cost to the community as an alternative model to other expensive and unsuc-
cessful intervention programs. We conclude that at the core of this successful program is the need for both par-
ticipants to feel they are empowered in the process. We know that student outcomes can be enhanced when the
students feel connected to and involved in their community. Through this project, the students have the opportu-
nity to experience greater community engagement leading to improved school attendance and retention, as well
as better academic outcomes.
Keywords: Community P artnerships, Culturally Linguistically and Economically Diverse Students, Student
We live in a society where despite widespread concerns
about children and teenagers, the vast majority of adults are not
actively involved in the lives of young people outside of their
own families. This reality has a profound impact on community
life and on young people’s development. Without the attention
of many adults in all parts of their lives and community, young
people are deprived of important sources of guidance, nurture,
care, and socialization. (Scales, Benson, & Mannes, 2002)
This paper analyzes a specific community engagement pro-
gram, the Enhanced Learning Improvement in Networked
Communities (E-LINCs), an innovative project that partners
university and community volunteers with schools where stu-
dent learning difficulties and disengagement are significant issues.
The focus of this research is school-community engagement, as
productive and authentic work with cultural, linguistic and eco-
nomically diverse (CLED) communities in order to redress social
disadvantage. Theories of community strengths underpin sup-
port to teachers “meeting and partnering with community
members and agencies, to learn about the important community
strengths that can be utilized in a more culturally relevant edu-
cation” (Noel, 2010: p. 10).
We ask whether such an intervention can have an impact on
engagement levels and the learning and social outcomes of
students “at-promise” from refugee, migrant and working class
Privileging participant voice we analyze data from interviews,
surveys and focus groups with students, teachers and parents to
argue that such a program has the capacity to re-engage under-
achieving students at a minimal cost to the community as an
alternative model to other expensive and unsuccessful interven-
tion programs. This multi level approach required buy in from
teachers, researchers, the community and other young people to
make it a success.
We conclude that at the core of this successful program is the
need for all participants to feel they are empowered. We know
that student outcomes can be enhanced when the students feel
connected to and involved in their community. Through this
project, the students have the opportunity to experience greater
community engagement leading to improved school attendance
and retention, as well as better academic outcomes. The re-
search was awarded a competitive national award for its sig-
nificant contribution to Australian education.
Engaging Pedagogies and Achievement
The problem of Cultural, Linguistic and Economically Di-
verse (CLED) children’s disengagement from academic learn-
ing (Naidoo, 2008) is evident in the primary schools involved
in the project. In contrast with individualist models, a critical
transformative understanding (Zyngier, 2010) con siders “whether
engagement is a key centralising factor in the successful im-
plementation of empowering classroom pedagogies” (McFad-
den & Munns, 2002: p. 359). This approach delivers improved
outcomes for young people by challenging “the school context
in which the young people are located” (Stewart, 1998: p. 4). A
transformative approach involves pedagogical reciprocity where
*Swardener (1995) uses the positive term children “at-
romise” rather than
negative children “at-risk”.
teachers and students learn together and from each other (Zyngier,
School-Community Partnerships Enhance
Social Capital
Case & Hadfield (2006: p. 3) warn against a view of educa-
tion that considers the work of schools in isolation from their
communities and note a cultural shift away from “previously
isolated and entrenched modes of working” towards “more
inclusive and holistic” multi-agency partnerships in education.
Schools are increasingly looking to communities to help build
capacity and improve educational outcomes (Berg, Melaville,
& Blank, 2006). Holloway (2004) argues that “efforts to im-
prove student performance must focus on the community as a
whole including the university as a community organisation,
not just on the school” (p. 89). Howard (2006) similarly sug-
gests that while there is no single strategy powerful enough to
close academic achievement gaps, social capital (or networks)
“should be an element of a more inclusive and comprehensive
effort” to narrow and eliminate these gaps (p. 12).
Melaville, Berg & Blank (2006) note the importance of young
people having access to social capital and network of social
supports connecting them to shared values, information, guid-
ance, and contacts. “Each individual needs to belong to a
‘community of practice’ where beliefs are shared, skills are le-
arned, and collective resources and interactions hold them to-
gether” (Melaville, Berg, & Blank, 2006: p. 20).
Strong school-community partnership is associated with bet-
ter school attendance, quality school programs, improved stu-
dent behavior, and discipline (Michael, Dittus, & Epstein, 2007)
while partnerships between schools and other organizations
play an important role in addressing some of the non-academic
barriers to learning, such as poor peer relations, family conflict
and instability, negative community norms and disorganization
(Anderson-Butcher, Stetler, & Midle, 2006).
What makes this project so effective is that it bonds, bridges
and links schools with their communities of practice which
includes the university (Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992).
Social capital “has a major impact on student achievement and
health” (Howard, 2006: p. 9), results in better school perform-
ance (Leana & Pil, 2006; Plagens, 2003; Putnam, 1999), and en-
hances the productive capacity of both individuals and groups
(Croninger & Lee, 2001). Social capital can promote educa-
tional achievement because community social capita l influences
students’ educational performance through the variety of pro-
grams, organizations and activities available in the community.
“Whenever there is a collective c ommitment by families, schools
and communities to work in partnership… young people stay
and succeed in school” (Israel & Beaulieu, 2004a: p. 50).
The Enhanced Learning Program
CLED students’ literacy development is often lower than the
expected age level, which means that functioning successfully
in the classroom and obtaining skills and knowledge may be
difficult. The major goal of the program was to establish an
effective, ongoing and well-attended after-school program for
any students who were underachieving and/or disengaged, and
who volunteered to attend in order to improve their learning.
Our focus was o n the problem of children’s disengagement from
their academic learning. The pri ncip al was clea r about who was
to be involved and why:
The idea is for those students who are perhaps not doing as
well as they could, it could be bright kids who are in the pro-
gram as well … It’s not for under performance or the kids who
are low achievers, it’s for kids who perhaps could have the bar
raised for them. It’s an opportunity to do that. I call it vicarious
learning basically, because school for a lot of these kids is a bit
of a pain [but] we don’t want to replicate school again, so
they’re doing more school stuff.
The programs ran for 8 weeks with sessions from 3:30 pm to
5:30 pm twice weekly. The afternoon started with volunteers
playing some vigorous out side games with the children to ‘shake
out the sillies’ before sitting down to a communal afternoon tea
to ‘re-charge their batteries’. Children then had the option to
either complete set homework or work towards their chosen
learning goals. The majority, in choosing the latter, were ex-
cused from homework completion, opting for learning goals as
diverse as story writing, project work, spelling, handwriting,
numeracy activities like times-tables or computer skills. The
volunteers assisted with these choices, which the children’s
parents would not have been able to help with at their homes.
After one hour of games, food and individual work on learn-
ing goals or homework, the groups participated in enhanced
learning that included student choice opportunities in educa-
tionally rich activities. The volunteers developed the following
twice-weekly Enhanced Learning Workshops:
Animation & movie-making
Music, Dance & Drama
Everyday Science
Everyday Cooking
Digital Photography
Art & Mural Development
We documented through photography, video and audio re-
cording the diverse projects developed by volunteers at two sc-
hools. We also conducted four focus groups with school pupils
and surveyed and interviewed volunteers.
E-LINCs built meaningful relatio nships for young people with
their peers and other community members and provided a space
where young people learned new skills from community mem-
bers sharing their expertise. The program was not designed for
any particular student type—a principal adds that:
Our aim is I think to have as many children who want to be
involved, as well as those who need to be involved because
theres no reason why children who arent already doing well,
cant even do better.
Enhanced Engagement
As many of the volunteer s were from white, mi ddle class ba ck-
grounds they commented positively about working with CLED
children for the first time:
Getting to know and understand students from different back-
grounds to myself. Its been fantastic being involved with a sch-
ool where there is so much diversity; its been a great experi-
ence in that respect.
The volunteers were also clear about th e i r involvement:
I thought that this project truly benefited disengaged chil-
dren and I wanted to be a part of that … I would like to try to
help the students that have difficulty in engaging with their
classroom school work. … I wanted to work more with students
who find it difficult to engage in school work, by working with
them to make the learning fun and enjoyable, that is of interest
to them.
The volunteers understood that student disengagement was a
real issue for them to tackle and commented about their ex-
periences with the children as they observed the changes in en-
The students loved the program; they all had a favorite part
they liked to talk about. I liked that we built a good strong re-
port with them so that they felt they could tell us if they thought
the program needed changing or how to improve it. … For the
majority of the students by midway they were really engaged
and were loving the activities and even doing the homework
(and they liked getting help).
Seeing the students grow to trust us and enjoy the program,
in particular seeing them apply themselves was really reward-
ing. One student who had been quite difficult previously, really
applied herself over the last few sessions and even opened up to
me a little.
The students commented about the program that:
Its really fun. Yeah we had a photo hunt. And we made post
cards. We made our own videos. Its funny, its fun, yeah.
Im happy because I get lots of fun work. I dont like boring
I learnt my division.
Now I know how to make harder experiments and theyre
actually easy
It helped me for class and for life as well.
It is was really fun and it makes me get more active instead
of sitting at home and watching TV … or turn the computer.
Many of the students involved spend the time between school
and when their parents arrive home with no purposeful play or
directed activity. Many students were now attending school re-
The volunteer reflected that:
According to the teachers she was known as the sick bay
girl’, she would basically live in the sick bay and would not
want to participate in class what so ever. I noticed that after a
few sessions with Enhanced learning, she was becoming more
involved in the Science activities and always had a smile on her
face. One day, the girls teacher approached me and said that
she taught her whole class one of the Science sessions I had
taught her and she has become more involved in class.
Enhanced Learning Outcomes
Students were able to distinguish clearly between the kinds
of class work they usually experience in class and the Enhanced
Learning program:
The science we do isnt really work, its just experimenting,
like we make slime, we make tornadoes in bottles and stuff like
that. Thats why I love Enhanced Learning. Enhanced Learning
is fun.
Volunteers reflected on the program and its positive effect on
the students:
Seeing them work hard on their learning goals because they
want to understand what is in front of them and asking you if
they have the right answer after youve just helped them and
when you say yes watching them smile and keep going with
their work.
This is confirmed by one student who was confident that she
could now even:
Tell my teacher how to make like tornadoes in bottles and,
slime, and how to make the lava lamp.
A number of the volunteers reported on positive change in
the students:
Seeing themselves improve in their performance skills and
actually being given time and help with doing their homework
which they told us they do not get at home.
The students are glad to have us there to help them with their
homework and ask lots of questions and I believe have become
more confident in completing their work.
We had no trouble getting them to do their work as we pro-
vided a place for them to have fun and be themselves, they
werent in any competition with each other, as they were all
The students had changed from shy underachievers able to
identify what they had gained from Enhanced Learning as one
It helps me, like it helps me to learn science and stuff like
that, like they help us with our homework. It’s really exciting
because I’m really excited, like if I grow up I’ll be a scientist or
The enhanced student outcomes were underscored by the
It was also great seeing how the students have relaxed and
gained some confidence over the course of the program … I
believe have become more confident in completing their home-
work. We have had other lessons come to the surface like a
dance that the boys wanted to show us and a standup comedy
sketch performed by a boy that wasnt very confident at the
start. Their confidence has grown with their fellow peers and
homework. Theyve said that they come to school on a Tuesday
and Thursday because they dont want to miss out on our pro-
These students, based on previous school data were hard to
keep engaged in their school environment but their teachers, the
principal and volunteers agreed they had all been fully engaged
in this program. Specifically a Principal was able to identify
individuals who made enormous strides:
[He was a] very, very shy kid, but during that program, you
could see his engagement level was really, really high, and he
was actually experiencing success, where hes normally one of
those kids who would be sitting in the background and making
himself as inconspicuous as possible.
Enhanced Social Capital—Transforming and
The purpose was to use Learning Enhancement as a part of a
strategy to build social capital, enhance learning, and develop
powerful learning relationships. Yosso (2005) developed the
concept of community cultural wealth which “focuses on and
learns from the array of cultural knowledge, skills and abilities,
and contacts possessed by socially marginalized groups that often
go unrecognized, and unacknowledged” (Yosso, 2005: p. 69).
As the principal noted effective school-community partnerships
give schools a much broader range of resources and support
networks on which to draw:
One of the fundamentals of the program is that at the end of
the program theres a public celebration, its very, very impor-
tant, so that the children can show their parents and other sib-
lings and their peers, as well as their other teachers, what we
have achieved. So theres a public acknowledgement of it.
A student in the program agreed:
We can show our parents how to do what we do at school
and how we do it and the purpose is that we can take it home
and do it.
What makes this program different from the multitude of af-
ter-school programs is that the E-LINCs project engaged dis-
advantaged “at-promise” youth in authentic learning. Coming
from the belief that it ‘takes a village to raise a child’ the pro-
ject provided a space where young people can learn new skills
and grow their own self worth and community members can
share expertise building on the collective community know-
ledge of the young people by improving their experiential base.
By tapping into and cultivating the rich knowledge and concern
of a range of community members it supports the learning of
young people; and builds meaningful relationships for young
people with their peers and other community members.
From the volunteers perspective they identified the strength-
ening of social capital in this way:
When you see their faces light up and they call your name
from across the asphalt when you arrive, then they come inside
and they cant wait to tell you about something that is impor-
tant to them. Seeing their personalities come out and listening
to them talk at the end of the session about what we achieved
and what they liked about the session.
Building relationships with the boys has been rewarding and
watching them participate and be enthusiastic about their
learning has made the hard work worthwhile.
The principal concluded that:
The children who participated in the program were so ex-
cited to share a skill that they had …. Short term—not big
gain—but if youve got a program like this running and chil-
dren know that they can get into it and be involved in it, there
will be growth, and importantly, theyre learning a skill, and
not just a skill, but theyre potentially learning an interest. Be-
cause if kids learn something like that, they say, Im quite
good at this.
By changing the social and cultural capital there was poten-
tial for the children to change their lives. The Principal clearly
understands this effect:
We cant set kids on that path of thinking about what they do
in a normal primary school, but you can start to develop inter-
ests that are not necessarily going to be developed in the run of
the mill school day, and particularly with the backgrounds they
come from in our area, that theyre not that aspirational.
The schools also provided opportunities for members of the
community to work in after school support and enhancement
activities together with student-teacher volunteers or as leaders
in their own right.
The tension between providing activities that were shaped by
the children’s interests and the skills of the volunteers allowed
the program to be both child and adult-directed where the adult
agenda was relatively modest permitting it to be responsive to
the “changing needs and circumstances in the lives of low in-
come children” (Halpern, 2002: p. 179).
Instead of just doing more of the same that has already led to
the disengagement of the children, this particular outside of
school program offers an excellent opportunity to provide the
necessary experiences and environments to re-engage CLED
children and prepare them for learning. As one of the volun-
teers commented,
Its not just that the children are failing to learn. They have
failed to become learners.
Community-based after school youth development programs
are well established in the USA but are new to Australia. Re-
search in the USA indicates that these programs:
Foster the development of youth [and have] the capacity for
being a force of transformation. Through developmental ex-
periences young people learn that transformation is possible—
that they can create their own lives—and also that they can, and
need to, develop their own communities. (Onore & Gilden, 2010:
p. 31)
The programs offered as part of the Enhanced Learning of-
fered “a context for socialization, acculturation, training and
problem remediation” (Onore & Gilden, 2010: p. 31), but also
the young people were afforded protection, care, opportunity
for enrichment and also play. By changing the social and cul-
tural capital there was potential for the children to change their
Teacher education programs must not only transform their
focus and strategy but as Noel concludes must also “work more
intimately with their urban communities and community-based
organisations” (Noel, 2010: p. 11). Volunteers realized this pos-
I found it exiting to be involved in such a revolutionary idea.
I liked the fact that this was something different and I wanted to
be involved in that.
By doing so we move towards a more democratic and par-
ticipatory form of education significantly with input from all
involved. It was through “listening to and learning from com-
munity members” (Noel, 2010: p. 15) that the volunteers began
to understand how they saw and understood the school and its
children and their families. E-LINCs was an “extensive com-
munity-based immersion experience” (Sleeter, p. 102) and as
such developed the volunteers’ perspectives on CLED children
as assets rather than deficits.
This research has shown that productive partnerships be-
tween schools and a university can affect inclusive teaching and
learning practices, both at the school and the university level. In
distinction from “homework clubs”; after-care activities; and
other such activities, this intervention can have an impact on
engagement levels and the learning and social outcomes of
students from refugee, migrant and working class families.
From a research perspective what makes this program success-
ful was that all the participants were empowered to enhance
learning outcomes as the students felt connected to and in-
volved in their community (Zyngier, 2003). By not asking the
children to do “more of the same”, the students had the oppor-
tunity to experience greater community engagement leading to
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