The integral role schools play in the livelihood of kids and families is undeniable. Still, a new book from UNM Associate Professor Emerita Sheri Williams highlights why the role the community plays in schools is just as important.
Beyond the Schoolhouse is a new book, years in the making, which illuminates solutions to the inequities in education that keep too many children on the margins of schooling.
“It's a book I always dreamed about writing,” Williams said. “When I retired in 2020, I found the time to pull together the stories, scenarios, and lessons learned from my life-time career in education.”
Whether it was in the role of teacher, PTA member, principal, superintendent, or UNM professor, Williams served as an educator for over 50 years. It’s no secret her decades of experience led her to see what does and does not work when it comes to supporting and sustaining meaningful partnerships in schools.
“It’s about working together to achieve a fundamental shift in the way we perceive and relate with one another,” Williams said.
Williams centers her work on eight shifts to change the paradigm from schools alone to engaged partnerships with families and communities. Her book provides plenty of advice and inspiration to make the shifts happen.
“The book includes tools and protocols for dialogue with families and community members on how to foster authentic, collaborative partnerships that can help make educational equity a priority for all schools,” she said.
Williams says it’s important to find out the problems students and teachers face beyond the confines of the school building. She learned that early on, when seeing how schools tended to buffer themselves from outside influences.
Her ideas become more specific as you progress through the book, but she says the first step comes from one of the simplest actions — starting a conversation.
“Just the opportunity to have a conversation is valuable, especially when people don't know where to start,” she said. “What happens in dialogue is people begin to share their own stories and create a curiosity about each another’s issues and concerns. Out of that vulnerability comes ideas for shared action, and that's where the ideas can be put into practice for equitable solutions.”
“The problem of unequal justice has a profound effect on children. A long history of inequitable policies and practices has kept marginalized children from realizing their full potential. Too many educators think the children are going to come with deficits and need to be separated from their peers. Deficit thinking has short changed our youth. They need to know that their histories, cultures, languages, and identities will be valued in their mainstream classrooms.” – UNM Associate Professor Emerita Sheri Williams
Righting the wrongs is something which may seem like common sense. Williams says many people assume someone will speak up when something is unfair and offensive, but that’s often not the case.
“Sometimes our policy makers will hear from no more than seven people, and those seven may be the ones who are saying: ‘let's ban the books’ or ‘let’s shame children with wrist bands when their lunch accounts are overdue.’ Actions like these happen when not all voices get heard,” Williams said.
That’s why it doesn’t just take parent advocates to call out the inequities, but for communities to bridge with schools and ensure all students have access to a broad range of learning materials and to be freed of humiliation and discrimination.
“It's a social justice issue. With the unrest in the world today, equity is even more important. There have always been times of strife and division, but we have equity challenges today that seem to have risen to a crisis point,” she said.
The book has already received praise from readers, as well as college teachers rolling it out as a tool for preparing future teachers and school leaders–some right here in the UNM Department of Teacher Education, Educational Leadership & Policy (TEELP.)
“Former educators told me they wish they had this book when they were in their preparation programs,” said Williams.
She said she was especially proud when UNM Professor Emeritus and former U.S. Senator from Oklahoma Fred Harris offered to pen the foreword for Beyond the Schoolhouse.
“Dr. Williams dares readers to risk growing new relationships, to take education partnerships to the next level, and, ultimately, to make engagement with families and communities a priority in the daily work of the schools,” he said.
Beyond the Schoolhouse is available now through Information Age Publishing. Whether or not you pick it up, Williams wants potential readers to never stop fighting for just and equitable schools.
“Educators must step out of the classroom and into the hopes and dreams of the whole school community. Families and community members can help solve the toughest problems facing our children’s experience in schools. We can’t lose the opportunity to bridge with partners in creating a more hopeful future for every child,” she said.