Harvard Educational Review
  1. Winter 1996 Issue »

    Building Community in Schools

    Thomas Sergiovanni
    San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994. 219 pp. $29.95.

    Recently, I was reading the morning newspaper while crossing San Francisco on a municipal transit bus. When I looked up to see if we had arrived at my stop, I noticed a sign with block letters posted above the four seats closest to the front of the bus:

    While I was pleased that there was a federal law to look out for the welfare of seniors and disabled persons, I was nonetheless disheartened that we needed such a law. It is true that without this sign, someone might not think to offer their seat to an elderly or disabled rider and that, with the sign, we can all agree on the clear and stated obligation to do so. When contractual and legal bonds replace social and communal ones, however, the connections among individuals in a society become threatened. We lose our "common sense."

    In communities, writes Thomas Sergiovanni in Building Community in Schools, "we become connected for reason of commitment rather than compliance" (p. 58). "People are bonded to each other as a result of their mutual bindings to shared values, traditions, ideas, and ideals" (p. 61). His thesis: that we might better understand, design, and run schools as social rather than formal organizations and, in particular, as communities. His reasoning: the universal need for a sense of belonging, of being connected to others and to ideas and values too often goes unfulfilled in schools as they are currently conceived. His prescription: reformers and theoreticians alike should recognize that schooling is first and foremost about relationships between and among students and teachers, and that community building must be the basis for school reform efforts that seek to improve teaching and learning; all else will come more naturally when authentic communities flourish.

    Although Sergiovanni does not adequately convey the practical and ideological complexities inherent in such a task, Building Community in Schools makes two important contributions: an unashamed defense of community as an important end in its own right, and a clear and easily accessible theoretical model that seeks to change the way educators, policymakers, parents, and students think about schools.

    First, as a text about practice, Sergiovanni lends a fresh boldness to the communitarian arguments. Notions of the mythical rugged individual reign supreme these days in politics and in social policy. Advocates of making schools more intelligent and caring places are forced to justify their priorities by claiming that stronger school communities will increase the nation's economic competitiveness. "Back-to-basics" curriculum threaten to undo decades of reforms aimed at making schools more inclusive and subject matter more representative and democratic. Meanwhile, children and teachers increasingly report feelings of isolation, alienation, and hopelessness (Conley, 1991; Noddings, 1992; Wehlage, Rutter, Smith, Lesko, & Fernandez, 1988).

    Against the backdrop of these popular arguments, Sergiovanni travels a great distance towards saying what needs to be said, and he does so unapologetically. This is the strength of the book. How should we justify efforts to build community in terms of academic gains? We shouldn't, he suggests. We serve school breakfasts because it is important to feed hungry children, not to raise test scores. Similarly, principals emphasize improving working conditions for teachers because it is a good thing to do. Echoing his and others' earlier work on moral education (Nel Noddings's The Challenge to Care in Schools [1992], for example), Sergiovanni persuasively argues that communities are important because people and connections between them are important. This is refreshing material for any who have felt the need to tie already morally defensible efforts to standardized measures of success, attaching community to instrumental gains. Sergiovanni himself falls back on these instrumental claims at various points in the book, noting, for example, that "Deborah Meier's Central Park East Secondary School students score higher than city and state averages on the New York State Regency Examinations" (p. 51). He does so unnecessarily. His eloquent call for attention to meaningful relationships in schools could easily stand on its own merit as a morally sound and intelligent policy and practice for schools in a democratic society.1

    Building Community in Schools also provides an accessible theoretical framework. Sergiovanni shifts the focus away from schools as formal organizations built on formal agreements and bureaucratic structures towards schools as communities brought together by common goals and moral commitments. Drawing on Ferdinand Tönnies's (1887/1957) distinction between Gemeinschaft (loosely translated as "community") and Gesellschaft ("society" in the formal, contractual sense), Sergiovanni demonstrates that neither extreme adequately serves as a model for school community. Rather, the real challenge is to build Gemeinschaft within Gesellschaft. Sergiovanni's suggested model for community demonstrates strong insights into the practical and theoretical tributaries that those interested in building community in schools must cross.

    He is less clear, however, when discussing the social and political forces that often turn tributaries into quagmires. His descriptions do little to convey the serious challenges schools face in creating what John Gardner (1990) has called "wholeness incorporating diversity" (p. 116). There are many visions of community — some bold, some dangerous. To what extent are efforts to build community in schools derailed by reformers' reluctance to confront these substantive ideological and philosophical differences? Does the ever-common invocation of the need for community and shared commitments obscure the diversity of values, ideologies, and cultures present in today's schools? By relying primarily on articles written by the schools' principals and interviews published in education newspapers and journals over in-depth case studies, this book glosses over and obscures these tough questions.2

    Schools need to state their missions, Sergiovanni asserts. They need focus and clarity about their beliefs and values. But, remarkably, he goes on to argue that "the subject matter of this focus and clarity may well be secondary"

    . . . when accounting for the success of certain schools — "back to basics" Christian fundamentalist schools, Coalition of Essential Schools, Catholic parish schools, magnet public schools, ungraded elementary schools, or just plain-vanilla schools — the specifics of their undergirding educational philosophy may not be key. Philosophies among successful schools differ, often dramatically. Instead, success seems to be related to the fact that though substance differs, the schools have achieved focus and clarity and have embodied them in a unified practice. (p. 100)

    To illustrate, he presents the reader with various "successful" schools' mission statements. "Is what we're doing consistent with what we believe?" becomes the guiding question schools should ask to become authentic communities (p. 109), Sergiovanni argues. After reading about the various exemplary schools cited in the book, I am left wanting to know: 1) Do beliefs matter at all? 2) What beliefs are important to share? 3) How should teachers and administrators manage the conflicts inherent in putting any significant system of beliefs into practice? Sergiovanni conveys little about how school communities might accomplish such a task, which is fraught with difficulty and political conflict.

    If teachers at Central Park East decide that their middle school curriculum should be interdisciplinary and social studies driven, how should the community accommodate a teacher who wants to teach math in a more traditional way and with fewer links to other subjects? Sergiovanni does not say. Hawthorne Elementary School, Sergiovanni notes, has adopted a curriculum based on E. D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1987). Should a teacher at this school who thinks that a critical understanding of how knowledge is constructed is more important than the assimilation of a particular canon be fired? Again, Sergiovanni does not say. What of the school where one group of teachers would like parents to have a major influence in setting the educational mission of the school and choosing the textbooks, while another group would prefer that parents not play such a major role? Or, the school in which one group of teachers and parents would choose an Afrocentric curriculum while another group prefers a more traditional curriculum? These are the topics of real disputes in schools. Building Community in Schools does not convey the institutional structures or activities at work in the studied schools, and does not discuss how they accommodate beliefs that are not shared.

    After reading about schools that are particularly well known for their emphasis on community, such as Central Park East, as well as lesser known examples, such as the Jackson-Keller School in Antonio, Texas, I am still left asking what community means to these teachers and students. They have a "commitment to personalized relationships and to caring" and "mutual shared obligations and commitments" (p. 28). They are "motivated by a sense of what was right and good, a desire to serve others, and a desire to serve ideals" (p. 61). But these are merely slogans. Whose ideals do they want to serve? In what do these teachers and students believe? For what kind of world do they strive? Avoiding these more thorny concerns, Sergiovanni maintains that what is important is that beliefs are shared. Does he care, however, whether the beliefs that are shared are worth sharing or whether they contradict his vision of community?

    Clearly Sergiovanni does care, and this is what makes reading his book all the more frustrating. All of the examples of shared beliefs cited in the book are ones on which most liberal progressive educators can agree. Even the Christian fundamentalist school — usually representing the type of educational philosophy invoked to demonstrate the difficulties of wholeheartedly embracing notions of community — has a special emphasis on multicultural curriculum and hopes to help students "go beyond sympathy to empathy when viewing other cultures" (p. 101). But what about the more controversial fundamentalist schools, like the one portrayed in Alan Peshkin's (1986) God's Choice? Alasdair MacIntyre (1981) and Allan Bloom (1987) would both prefer a return to traditional communities with "traditional" values. Schools based on these beliefs would look different from those based on John Dewey's (1916) vision of a democratic school. We can all agree that schools must have a common purpose. But what that purpose is matters, not just the fact of having one, and here is where Sergiovanni's guidelines end and the truly difficult work of community-building begins.

    Diversity is central to all discussions about community. Words like "tolerance," "multicultural perspective," and "diversity of ideas" abound, but surprisingly few works address the tough dilemmas that emerge when practitioners pursue the ideals of democratic and egalitarian communities, hoping to become neither excessively insular nor aimlessly diffuse. The philosophy of most Christian fundamentalist schools flatly contradicts diversity. One can wink at the value of dissent, but without creating the space for it and the institutional structures that can encourage and manage it, dissent is more likely to be suppressed or ignored than heard and considered. Dozens of reformers and policymakers eloquently and persuasively advocate working together, overlooking differences, and creating friendlier, more open work settings without acknowledging insidious power imbalances and the resulting sense of impotence that threaten to undo so many reform efforts. Unfortunately, Building Community in Schools, though eloquently conveying the need for community, does not adequately convey the dilemmas that practitioners face, nor does it suggest processes for overcoming them. By using ideologically palatable examples of beliefs that faculties share and maintaining all the while that the content of the beliefs is not important, Sergiovanni evades the obligation of plodding through the muck, the ambiguity, and the mystery of how communities succeed and fail to manage conflict and how they ensure full participation of members with diverse backgrounds and interests:

    Schools can become [among other types of community] inclusive communities where differences are brought together into a mutually respectful whole [but] schools must first become places where members have developed a community of mind that bonds them together in a special way and binds them to a shared ideology. (p. xvii)

    In the everyday life of schools, the beliefs and the ideology, as well as how they are elicited, matter. There are philosophical, political, and ideological commitments that allow people to make relationships priorities, and to create spaces that are inclusive and school cultures that are community oriented. These commitments are sometimes incompatible with, for example, a belief that the major books of one culture represented in the school community are less important for the curriculum than those of another, or with the support of a law (such as California's Proposition 187) that denies one group of children within the community education or health services.

    The practical task of community building in schools must follow the development not only of a clear conceptualization of community, but also of the specific values and commitments that such a conceptualization embodies. Acknowledging and exploring the difficulties involved in such an undertaking is the first step towards creating and recreating schools in which students, teachers, and administrators engage in meaningful and communal relationships. It is also the first step towards a more just and caring society in which, among other important consequences, seniors and disabled persons get seats on buses, even when there is no sign demanding it.

    New York University


    Bloom, A. (1987). The closing of the American mind. New York: Simon and Schuster.

    Conley, S. C. (1991). Review of research on teacher preparation in school decision making. Review of Research in Education, 17, 225–266.

    Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. New York: Macmillan.

    Gardner, J. W. (1990). On leadership. New York: Free Press.

    Hirsch, E. D. (1987). Cultural literacy: What every American needs to know. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

    MacIntyre, A. (1981). After virtue: A study in moral theory. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

    Noddings, N. (1992). The challenge to care in schools: An alternative approach to education. New York: Teachers College Press.

    Peshkin, A. (1986). God's choice: The total world of a fundamentalist christian school. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Creating a school community: One model of how it can be done. An interview with Anne Ratzki. (1988). American Educator, 12(1), 10–43.

    Tönnies, F. (1957). Community and society (Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft). East Lansing: Michigan State University Press. (Original work published 1887)

    Wehlage, G., Rutter, R., Smith, G., Lesko, N., & Fernandez, R. (1988). Reducing the risk: Schools as communities of support. London: Falmer Press.

    1 Sergiovanni makes frequent references to instrumental claims like "this stance [community] pays dividends in increased student learning" (p. 27) or "community is also a powerful means to achieve academic ends" (p. 51). Still, he precedes or follows each by a reaffirmation of the moral justifications for making community important.

    2 The descriptions of Central Park East are based on conversations with Herb Rosenfeld and from articles by Deborah Meier, teh school's cofounders. The descriptions of Koln-Holweide are based on an interview with Anne Ratzki, the school's prinicpal, published in a 1988 issue of American Educator (p. 34). Other descriptions are generally attributed to secondary sources such as the edited volume Public Schools The Work: Building Community or "The Denali Project: An Interview" from the faribanks, Alaska, Department of Education. The second to last chapter of Building Community in Schools is devoted mostly to the Jackson-Keller School in San Antonio, Texas, and seems to be the first school in which primary research was conducted by Sergiovanni and his colleague, Margaret Burns.

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    Winter 1996 Issue


    The Colonizer/Colonized Chicana Ethnographer
    Identity, Marginalization, and Co-optation in the Field
    By Sofia Villenas
    "To Take Them at Their Word"
    Language Data in the Study of Teachers' Knowledge
    By Donald Freeman
    Inclusion, School Restructuring, and the Remaking of American Society
    By Dorothy Kerzner Lipsky and Alan Gartner
    Sustained Inquiry in Education
    Lessons from Skill Grouping and Class Size
    By Frederick Mosteller, Richard J. Light and Jason A. Sachs

    Book Notes

    Saving Our Sons
    By Marita Golden

    This Is How We Live and Tapori

    Wasting America's Future: The Children's Defense Fund Report on the Cost of Child Poverty
    By Arloc Sherman; Introduction by Marian Wright Edelman; Foreword by Robert M. Solow

    Blacked Out
    By Signithia Fordham

    Works about John Dewey 1886–1995
    Edited by Barbara Levine

    By Matthew Lipman

    Diversity in Higher Education
    By Caryn McTighe Musil, with Mildred Garcia, Yolanda Moses, and Daryl G. Smith

    Handbook of Qualitative Research
    Edited by Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln.

    Commissions, Reports, Reforms, and Educational Policy
    Edited by Rick Ginsberg and David N. Plank.

    The Multilevel Design
    By Harry J. M. Huttner and Pieter van den Eeden.

    Search and Seizure in the Public Schools (Second Edition)
    By Lawrence F. Rossow and Jacqueline A. Stefkovich

    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.