Gang activity was just one of the concerns that prompted Richland County School District 2 in Columbia, S.C., to launch Reconnecting Communities and Schools, a program designed to rebuild and strengthen relationships between schools and their neighbors.
In 1996, the school district, S.C. School Boards Association, S.C. Department of Education and the State Newspaper in Columbia collaborated with the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, a nonprofit, Washington, D.C.-based organization, in designing and implementing the program, making South Carolina the initial pilot site.
Since the efforts began, Reconnecting has positively impacted public participation in numerous community issues and events.
In 1996 phases one and two of the initiative involved forming a steering committee and beginning a series of 10 community conversations. Each was attended by 200 or more people. Fifty volunteers then helped develop an outline of the current situation, ways to address it and an action plan. Concerns included a rapid increase in the student population, the need to add classroom space and reduce class size, a lack of community involvement among students and an increase in disciplinary problems.
The items and plans in the outline were prioritized in phases three and four of the program, and a civic brigade was established. The brigade was made up of a diverse group of people from the community. Members attended monthly meetings and worked tirelessly organizing events and seeking ways to improve the school-community alliance.
When gang activity went largely ignored, Reconnecting sponsored five community meetings to educate the public on how to recognize gang signs and what to do. At a subsequent meeting attended by more than 300 people, the county sheriff reported a decline in gang activity and attributed it to greater parent/teacher involvement spurred by the program.
Other activities of the program, whose success led to the school district being named the state’s winner in the 2006 National Civic Star Award competition, have included:
- Career Prep in which dropout rates have been addressed by providing a career-oriented curriculum for at-risk students. In 2001-2002, 172 students failed to graduate, 40 fewer than the previous year.
- Hands Together: Serving Our Community–Midlands Football Jamboree, which was attended by more than 4,430 people and paid tribute to and celebrated partnerships formed by the school district, local law enforcement and military leaders.
- Summer youth activities, including sports, arts and crafts and academic pursuits.
- Bond referenda campaigns in which Reconnecting supporters worked to get out the vote in 1999 and 2000. One referendum was defeated; the other passed and provided money for new schools and facility upgrades.
- Sparkleberry Fair and Decker International Bazaar. The fair is a festival of fun, and the bazaar highlights business diversity in the area. Reconnecting’s outreach has been instrumental in attracting more people to these events.
Richland 2 was one of four school districts to take part in the initial Reconnecting movement in 1996. To get started, the district obtained $15,000 from its board of trustees. The program operated on funds from the district’s community relations services department, donations and volunteerism.
Reconnecting, according to the Harwood Institute, is already being replicated by the National School Boards Association, Public Education Network and school districts in several states, including Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, Alabama, Texas and Maryland.