Book Review: Just Schools: Building Equitable Collaborations with Families and Communities

I came across an endorsement of the book Just Schools: Building Equitable Collaborations with Families and Communities by Ann Ishimaru through a recommendation from another author. Professional Muhammad Khalifa’s book Culturally Responsive School Leadership provided a mention of the book and I was interested in learning more about how to create a more equitable school for the students and families I serve.

Dr. Ishimaru is a professor at the University of Washington, educational leader, researcher, and advocate for genuine collaboration with families. Her work centers on how to broaden the perception of leadership in schools to include families, parents, and communities that are traditionally underserved and marginalized. In her book, Just Schools, Dr. Ishimaru explores the challenges and opportunities for building collaborative relationships in a brand new way. As she outlines in the book, many of the practices schools currently engage in, and view as moving towards greater equity for their students can actually do the opposite, reinforce traditional models of school that are oppressive to students of color and members of communities that are marginalized.

Just Schools begins with an examination of parent involvement and family engagement. As Ishimaru points out, many of the ways members of the dominant culture engage with parents and families reinforces the same policies and models parents of children on the dominant culture hope to end. After framing the challenge in an eloquent way, Ishimaru explains the new rules of engagement. The next chapter of the book focuses on redefining the relationship between families and schools. Instead of telling parents how they can support the school, and how they can fit the school’s mode, Ishimaru defines the elements of a new type of relationship with families. Using case studies and real world examples, Ishimaru shines a light on how traditional approaches come from a set of deficit conceptions by those in power. Ishimarus goes on to share stories from parents and organizations that took action to have a voice in their child’s education.

Dr. Ishimaru continues the journey by focusing on the experiences of nondominant families. She shares experience of families from various minoritized groups, and draws connections among the overlap and commonalities in their experiences. After setting the foundation of nondominant families current experiences that Ishimaru calls “lived theories of educational injustice,” chapter 4 examines collaborations that are common in schools, however do not represent actual collaboration. She states that “Research…suggests that efforts to bring families and communities into the conversation as equal stakeholders can often fall short of the rhetoric and aspirations.” The author defines cross sector collaborations and identifies a number of lessons practitioners can learn from these failed collaborations. Ishimaru suggests the two significant lessons are available:

  • Begin any effort to improve schools by enlisting the knowledge and practices that nondominant families and communities bring with them
  • Temper enthusiasm and excitement for the latest fad in education tieh the recognition that even our best designs and intentions can-and often do-default to structural arrangements that reassert conventional power asymmetries

Dr. Ishimaru continues the chapter by detailing the current power structures at work in our educational system. This includes some important realizations that can be summarized with the phrase “money talks” as we see the most powerful entities are foundations and white-led policy organizations. Those with the least power and agency according to the book are working class students, families, and communities of color. The author quotes fellow scholar Mark Warren, “The failures of public education reflect the lack of power held by low-income communities of color, in resources, accountability, and performance.” She ends this chapter with a look at culture brokering to build bridges with underserved communities and descriptions of emerging approaches to equitable cultural brokering.

Chapter 5 of the book brings to light some very interesting and important potential changes to the use of data in decision making at the school, district, state and federal level. Dr. Ihimaru presents a diagram showing different relationships between families and data in educational changemaking in the form of a pyramid, that increases from the bottom up in the level of agency and voice families possess. This was an enlightening chapter in that it explores ideas that are still being researched, at their infancy in educational scholarship.

Chapter 6 examines families as co-designers with schools and educational systems. Dr. Ishimaru presents past and current racialized institutional scripts, and imagines what those dynamics can look like if change occurred. The author lays out specific steps one can take to bring their school and institutions into closer alignment with equity for families and how to put principles into practice.

Dr. Isimaru concludes the book with chapter 7, “Co-Designing Justice and Well-Being with/in Systems and Conclusions.” In the final chapter the author sounds a call to reimagine family and community engagement in more authentic ways that honor the students and families being served. The author poses questions to allow for exploration of different sides of topics.

I strongly recommend Just Schools: Building Equitable Collaborations with Families and Communities. This is an important book for educators, families, and community members that challenges current thinking in schools and traditional practices that reinforce systems of oppression. Implementing ideas and systems like those that Dr. Ishimaru writes about will help students to better access educational opportunities and serve families in a more authentic and meaningful way.

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