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The California Way & Community Engagement

For generations, students, families, and community partners have been organizing and advocating to achieve a more active role in local and state priorities for spending, goal-setting, and other crucial decision-making processes. In 2013, the combined efforts of these advocates helped launch the “California Way,” an era that replaces a “test and punish” philosophy with an “assess and improve” philosophy that emphasizes equity, capacity building, and continuous improvement (Furger, Hernández, & Darling-Hammond, 2019).

A New Era 

The passage of the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) marked significant changes in the way schools and districts across the state operate:

A new, equity-based funding formula

Multiple measures of student and school success

Local flexibility and public accountability, requiring LEAs engage school community members when determining local priorities

A Statewide System of Support with an emphasis on equity and continuous improvement (Furger, Hernández, Darling-Hammond, 2019)

The LCFF set the state’s journey in motion from a traditional culture of top-down decision-making and compliance to a culture of partnering with community members to set priorities and support continuous improvement. For a more in-depth exploration of the LCFF, explore Module 5, Enhancing Engagement for LCAP Design.

The Challenge

Though the funding formula has supported more equitable resource distribution, structures, policies, and practices across the state’s 10,000+ public schools, work remains to build statewide capacity for the new model of community engagement proposed by the LCFF. Here are some data points that demonstrate this need:

Based on results from the most recently available CalSCHLSCalifornia School Parent Survey of over 250,000 parents:

Strongly Agree

Only 39 percent of parents strongly agreed that schools encourage them to serve as active partners in their child’s education (California Parent Survey, 2019/21).

Strongly Agree

Only 38 percent of parents strongly agreed that they felt welcome to participate at their child’s school (California Parent Survey, 2019/21).

Parents - Strongly Agree
School Staff - Strongly Agree

Only 30 percent of parents strongly agreed that their child’s school sought their input before making important decisions (California Parent Survey, 2019/21). Among school staff, 34 percent of respondents strongly agreed with this statement (California Staff Survey, 2019/21).

These survey results indicate that parents and caregivers are largely left out of school decision-making. The following six root causes of ineffective community engagement were identified by a coalition of statewide community organizations:

  1. Lack of belief that the system’s success is critically dependent on its relationships with students & families
  2. Lack of belief in students & families as experts
  3. Lack of committed and consistent district & school leaders
  4. Lack of understanding what constitutes highly effective student & family engagement
  5. Lack of inclusivity based on race & culture
  6. Systems/tools are not made to be community-friendly

Source: Root Cause Analysis of Student & Family Engagement, Defend & Mend Coalition

Module 3, Engaging Your Community from the Roots Up, offers a deeper look into these root causes. Deficit thinking, which blames students, families, and groups (particularly those from low-income communities and communities of color) for academic challenges due to the belief that these communities have inherent deficits hindering their ability to succeed, is a component of all these root causes (Valencia, 1997).

The Path Forward

Authentic, meaningful community partnerships must start with a belief that community participation is fundamental to creating equitable education systems. One model that reframes deficit narratives about communities of color is community cultural wealth, which identifies the knowledge, skills, and abilities possessed by socially marginalized groups as assets that can be built upon in system improvement efforts (Yosso, 2005). In this new era of schooling in California, leaders that recognize community cultural wealth are more likely to build authentic, trusting partnerships with families in the process of working to transform systems.


Take some time to consider your experiences with community engagement by reflecting on the following questions:

What does meaningful community engagement mean to you?
What does community engagement look and feel like in your school or district?
What is one thing your school or district is really good at when it comes to community engagement?
What’s one area of growth for your school or district?
How does your school or district currently measure the strength of student, family, and community partnerships?
If your school or district participates in the California School Parent Survey, how do your metrics on student, family, and community partnerships compare to the averages listed above?
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Defend & Mend Coalition. Root cause analysis of student & family engagement.


Furger, R. C., Hernández, L. E., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2019). The California way: The golden state’s quest to build an equitable and excellent education system. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.


Statewide CSPS. California school parent survey, 2019-2021: Main report. San Francisco: WestEd for

the California Department of Education.


Statewide CSSS. California school staff survey, 2019-2021:  Main report. San Francisco: WestEd for

the California Department of Education.


Valencia, R. R. (Ed.). (1997). The evolution of deficit thinking: Educational thought and practice. Routledge.

Yosso, T. J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education, 8(1), 69–91. https://doi.org/10.1080/1361332052000341006

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