Community Book Clubs: Breaking Down Barriers

Community Book Clubs: Breaking Down Barriers

by Nishant Mehta, head of school, The Children’s School (GA)

Families choose K-12 independent schools to give their children a competitive advantage in life. We teach the whole child because character and community are just as important for success in life as knowing algebra, Shakespeare, and the scientific method. Learning no longer stops at age 18 or 22 or 26. Even a graduate degree no longer signifies the completion of one’s education. Learning has become truly lifelong and today’s knowledge provides no certainty for what one will need tomorrow.

TCS book club

This need for lifelong learning is equally applicable to our teachers and true of our teachers and staff. Some schools, including my school, The Children’s School, are spending more on professional development each year to help teachers and staff keep up with changing technology and new concepts in teaching and learning, including design thinking, transdisciplinary learning, and unconscious/implicit bias. Simultaneously, however, the demographic composition of independent school leadership (and schools, in general) has not changed significantly in the last decade. Only 34% of our schools are led by women, an increase of 1% in ten years, according to the latest NAIS research. Approximately 7% of NAIS schools are led by people of color, which reflects another negligible difference in the same time period. We have, based on those numbers alone, failed to adequately expand leadership opportunities to minorities in our schools.

At The Children’s School (TCS), learning and leadership are non-negotiable. We have an expectation that every person, the youngest to the oldest, will invest in their own learning and leadership development.

Many schools offer educational opportunities to their families in the form of book clubs, reading groups, and coffees. These are good engagement events to bring families together and cultivate their loyalty to the school community, culture, and philosophy. Likewise, most schools offer their teacher and staff professional development in the form of sending individuals and teams to conferences, hosting speakers and trainers, and providing learning and leadership opportunities. These options are usually walled off, however; available only to those families already paying tuition and current faculty and staff. We are tearing down that barrier at The Children’s School.

At the start of the 2017-2018 school year, The Children’s School launched two citywide opportunities in Atlanta for any and all parents/families and educators at private, public, or charter schools to participate in community book clubs at no cost. TCS staff organizes each one and I, as head of school, choose and facilitate the readings. Without any sales pitch about TCS, we get in front of both parents and educators and focus on meaningful conversations.

Current TCS parents and parents whose children attend local public, charter, independent, or preschools come together over issues surrounding raising children and families. Our parents like it because it expands their networks. The most successful event we held was in partnership with a local preschool. The book club was hosted in the evening with a 30-minute social and one hour facilitation led by staff from the preschool and TCS. Over 50 families attended the book club. The topic we chose for that evening was raising women leaders.

The educator book club, named The Inclusive Leader, is meant for educators of color, women leaders, and their allies at local schools. The book club meets one Sunday a month on the TCS campus. We have developed a loyal and regular following and see anywhere from 10-12 people attend each month. At times, we’ve received requests from educators in other cities to Skype or Zoom in as they also want the opportunity to connect with other teachers and grow as leaders. In fact, families at TCS from other professions have asked us to either include them in this book club or consider a similar opportunity for non-educators! There’s clearly a strong need among adults for mentorship, coaching, and networking.

TCS 2These community book clubs have benefited the school in two ways: The Children’s School now has greater visibility in Atlanta as a thought leader in inclusive leadership and modern parenting. The book clubs have also created a recruiting pipeline for both employees and families who currently do not work or send their children here. It’s also, however, a model in servant leadership.

As an organization devoted to the cultivation and growth of lifelong learners and leaders, the time we spend on adults—parents and educators—is well worth the investment. It sends a clear message to those who know about these opportunities: The Children’s School cares for its community and its city. Better parents and better teachers in our city is a worthy goal for all of our schools. Rather than restricting such opportunities to only those privileged enough to attend our schools or work there, The Children’s School is tearing down those walls that separate us.

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