Why schools should reach out into the community

Outreach activities at international schools help to forge valuable links with the community, says head Tom Wingate

Tom Wingate

School outreach: Why international schools should reach out to the local community

In our British-international school on the western edge of Mexico City, we live close to small communities that can need a hand.

As such, we aim to always put into practice the third part of our school motto that reads “Strive, Learn and Serve”.

Thus, we have focused on making links with the local older people's centre, as well as the equally close primary school.

The way that initial contact is made is, of course, of the greatest importance. We are not knights in shining armour, on a rescue mission. We are members of the community, reaching out and offering assistance.

International schools supporting their local community

And, in trying to help, our goal is not about making a very public impact – it is, in fact, quite a personal endeavour. Any impact can look after itself.

The proximity of the centre and school – just 10 minutes away on foot – makes things practical: there are none of the notorious metropolitan traffic jams for us to beat, and we have more time to spend with those that we are meeting.

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Furthermore, while teachers (and, preferably, some pupils’ parents) are involved in the arrangements, overall it is not a top-down arrangement. Teachers are very much in a listening mode while, slowly but surely, the pupils, emergent leaders, discuss and adopt necessary roles.

How do we help then? Lending a hand can take many forms. Yes, in a preparatory phase, our pupils organise obvious things like food, toys or clothing drives.

And while material assistance is a welcome thing, in time it is the act of interaction, sharing time together with older people or other children and learning from each other, that becomes just as important.

Over time, events with song and dance at the centre with the elderly have been established. Wearing traditional costumes, the older people have returned to our campus to be part of days like our international day. Over in the centre, the children serve meals to their hosts.

Nurturing social responsibility

Their hosts teach them arts and crafts. Best of all, they converse. Everyone has a story. It’s just their life anecdotes tend to be longer! As a follow-up, the children also have corresponded through letter writing.

In the contact made with the primary school, the most memorable interactive occasion – one that really buzzes – is the annual "World Cup" football tournament. A mixture of players from both schools (with everyone suitable kitted out with their bright T-shirts) form the teams of dozen or so countries on the roster.

Thus, neither school plays against the other and it is not a competitive us versus them attitude, but a jovial coming together of mixed teams all learning and playing together. The parents mix on the stands, too.

The very first competition, played at the local primary, really did end in an excellent Mexico vs England final. And, yes, England lost on penalties.

And through all this, a new social tapestry is woven.

Lifelong impact

Fomenting social responsibility in the school can provide a most helpful nexus of staff, children and parents. It opens our eyes, along with those of the many other people that members of our school community meet and greet and, we trust, help.

Our Latin American society happens to be one in which the disparity in wealth, education, class and job opportunities is notable. The school’s social responsibility programme very obviously helps to breaks down those barriers.

Even if one just chips away at the wall, the chisel still leaves its mark as a  permanent memory and message.

For the reality is that, without this consciously made person-to-person contact, there would be many pupils in our school who would grow up and scarcely ever speak with people who live in other parts of what one author famously has called “many Mexicos”.

Whenever I think about the importance of all this, I often recall one particular pupil who came to us from overseas a few years ago.

Her track record in a prior school had been shaky, to say the least, owing to emotional issues.

Happily, offered the opportunity to be involved in our social outreach programmes, she now participates quite regularly in our outreach in the local pueblo, at that wonderful older people's day centre.

On entering their gate, and seeing the familiar faces waiting there, her face lights up. She is, in that very moment, transformed.

Tom Wingate is the head teacher of The Wingate School in Mexico City. With input from Elena Espinosa de los Reyes, Director of the School of Character at The Wingate School.

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