More than Just a Multi-Cultural Potluck: Finding Ways to Engage and Include All Families in the School Community

Contributor: Sahba Rohani, Director of Community Development at Community Roots

We are always asked about the community-building work we do with our families.  Traditionally, involving family members in a school community looks a certain way: attending PTA meetings, volunteering for large school events, and, occasionally, cooking a dish for a multi-cultural potluck.  Although these have all played a role in the functioning of a school community, it seems important and critical to re-think what parent engagement looks like.  Growing up, I remember the parents of my middle class white friends, who easily walked in and out of rooms and were able to navigate all the various ways in which one could participate as a parent in my elementary school: from the book fair and the field trips, to the PTA meetings and parent-teacher conferences.  I also remember how much more difficult all of those activities were for my own mother - new to this country and to the English language - who was not as well-versed in the “do’s and don’ts ” that become the silent language by which a parent with privilege may navigate a school.  

I’ve thought a lot about my mother, and about the many other parents who need alternate ways to feel welcomed and included in a school community.  I’ve thought about whose voices we traditionally hear and which stories dominate the halls.  And I’ve contemplated how to remake those spaces in order to value all the family members as important parts of the school community. Being much older now and myself working in an intentionally diverse school community, I understand how important it is to create opportunities for all our stakeholders - our students, our families, and our faculty - to engage in building community.  

At Community Roots, we have been actively working for years to create spaces for our families where identities can be shared, stories told, and perspectives honored.  We have also learned that food, sports, music, and kids are all things that bring families together.  We are a diverse school and not a neighborhood school, meaning children come from all over our district to attend our school.  We find that some of the most important work we can do, particularly in light of the divisiveness we see around us, is to create small intimate spaces where families can get to know one another and spend time with other members of our community.  We do this through programs like, but not limited to: Family Art Making, COOKS, Family Sports Night, Book Clubs, and Discussion Groups.

This requires us to be thoughtful about the way that we create groupings for our family events.  For example, we want to ensure that families new to our community have the opportunity to participate, we want to ensure that we have representation from all of our families from Kindergarten-8th grade, we want to ensure that we have a diverse group of families attending and that we are thinking about race, class, gender, family make up and a slew of other factors that allow for the wide cross section of identities in our school community to come together and learn from one another.  

Our community programs are always more than one session and take place over a number of weeks.  Attendance is required at each session and we intentionally keep the numbers small.  We believe that connections build over time and in intimate spaces.  We have seen this happen through the years.  One family member who participated in our Story Quilt program, said: ”At first I thought Story Quilt was a nice two-day arts and crafts project, but I didn’t expect the level of sharing that would go on.  It was really something to be a part of it; it was as if we were our children in their classrooms, experiencing what their safe space actually feels like.  People of all backgrounds shared their life stories and how their world outlooks came to be.  I felt honored to be trusted with that level of openness and to be able to share my story with people that I did not know, and to delight in discovering similarities.“ Another family who has joined us in Family Sports Night over the last few years commented that this is the place where he and his son can practice all the things they talk about as a family; that it is a chance for them to get to know other people who are doing the same.  

Our Elementary classroom doors open at 8:15am, with family members not just allowed in, but encouraged to sit, spend time with their child and others in the room, and read together.  Our culminations at the end of each social studies unit are spaces where kids proudly take grown-ups through a journey of what they have learned.  Hand in hand or huddled in the corner together, the adult is taught by the child.  “I didn’t learn like this when I was younger,” a 5th grade parent shares after spending an hour with his child learning about the Black Freedom Movement, “I wish I talked about this when I was younger.  I would have been a better adult.”  These small moments, experienced differently by each parent or guardian, make up the building blocks that slowly build trust and, over time, vibrant communities.  

There is no doubt that we live in an incredibly fractured society. Schools have the capacity to provide the space where, with meaning and intention, communities can be built.  Our families are an essential part of that building process and should be considered integral to the overall growth and vibrancy of the community.


A Moment in COOKS

Contributor: Sahba Rohani, Director of Community Development at Community Roots

On Thursday evenings, I help coordinate a cooking class (COOKS) for families.  It's an intentionally small group, maybe 10 or so, and we always start with some sort of community builder - a way to connect.  

"What role has food played in your life and in your family?"  The adults pair up, most of whom don't know each other by anything more than a vague smile, or a quick nod of the head in the hallway.  But each of those grown-ups has chosen to send their child to a desegregated public school, and understand what that means for them in being the parents and guardians of these children.  “If I want my child to know people who are different than they are, if I expect my child to build relationships across race and class lines, then I better be willing to do that myself.”  So here they are, on a Thursday evening, without their children, building community.  

"Today I chose to show you guys how to make 'Kugel,'" a Kindergarten father says, as most of the group makes confused faces and a lot of  - "what is that?" - goes around the circle.  "I used to work in a Jewish nursing home, and we would make this all the time for the residents.  So I want to share it with you."  The next 20 minutes are filled with laughter, chit-chat, and mixing of ingredients.  

Then it comes time to try it.  "I don't know, I'm not sure I want to try that."  It's only silent for a second before another parent chimes in, "Well - TRY NEW THINGS!  That's one of our Core Values!  If we want our kids to do it, we need to do it too!"

She is referring to one of our six core values, the essential principles that lay the foundation for who we are as a school.  Values that, over time, have become increasingly more important in creating a shared language round which the school's community is built.  

More laughter fills the room as the family members nod - "yeah, yeah, you're right."   They dig into the Kugel which, by the way, is a smashing success.   Through this experience, families are able to participate in the culture of the school in a very real, very tangible way.  They are not talking about being involved or trying to figure out their place in the school community, they are co-creating the school community together.

As we ended our most recent session of COOKS, we stood in a circle and each person shared one word or phrase that they wanted to leave the group with.   One parent shared, “Listen, you all know me now.  So when you see me in the hallways and outside school, come and say hi.  We are family now.”  

And in that one comment, the long term effects of these activities was encapsulated.  


Contributor: Sahba Rohani, Director of Community Development at Community Roots

I had the pleasure of sitting in on one of our 8th grade art classes as they presented their "In Your Shoes" milestone project.  They had just finished their Visual Biographies, a series of work inspired by four personal milestones that have in some way shaped or influenced who they are today.  Each student shared one piece of art - one of the shoes they had drawn - and the reflection connected to that piece.   


"I chose to draw this in shadow and with shadow because I felt like a shadow of myself at the other school I went to.  But here, I feel like I can be my whole self."  As one student shared her piece, the 8th graders in the room listened intently and asked questions.  They discussed the power of art, that art is never perfect and it is not supposed to be perfect.  They talked about how the final piece is not the most important thing, but that the process that gets you there is what is most important, and they reflected about how they connected to their own lives, their own processes, and their own growth as people.  

There was such an honesty and purity in which they spoke that as I watched and listened to the conversation, it was as if it, itself, was a piece of art, masterfully created by the reflections of these astute students.  

Of course I was blown away by their pieces of art.  But I was also blown away by the fact that, when authentic learning communities are created, students have the safety, the courage, and the space to be 100% themselves.  They have room to be vulnerable, to hold one another accountable, and to learn from the multiple perspectives and experiences in the room.  

What Room Does Fear Have?

In June 2016, our second group of 8th graders graduated Community Roots.  Below is the poem that a few students shared, written by Jon Jorgenson, the ending of which was adapted by a few of our students to depict their time at Community Roots.   Our 8th graders recited this poem at graduation: 

I used to be afraid at night.

 Afraid of the dark.

 Afraid that just beyond the point my eyesight allowed me to see that there was something lurking.

 Afraid that the darkness itself would somehow surround me and swallow me up...

as if darkness were anything more than simply

the absence of


 I used to be afraid of tomorrow. Afraid that who I was would continually dictate who I am and that who I would be might be someone who I didn't like very much at if there was no such thing as being made new.

 I used to be afraid of opinions. Afraid that though words would not break my bones, they certainly would shatter my if I started doing this for the approval of many rather than the glory of one.

 I used to be afraid of failure. Afraid of losing. Afraid of falling. Afraid of being wrong, creating busts, and looking absolutely stupid because who am I to think that I could ever actually make a difference? As if those setbacks were anything more than stepping stones on the path to success.

 We used to be afraid.  

 Used to.

 But then I did a little research.

 And by that, I mean I re-searched, and

 I re-searched,

 I re-searched,

 And I re-searched

 over and over again, and through all of my re-searching, I kept coming up with the same exact question:

 What room does fear have?

 What room does fear have when I cling to trust?

 What room does fear have when I lean on hope?

 What room does fear have when I search for something more,

 When I discover what's good, and when I stand in awe?

 When I run with perseverance,

 When I walk by faith, and when I rest in comfort.

 What room does fear have when I surrounded by love,

 When I take hold of inspiration, explore the possibilities, and step into freedom?

 What room does fear have when I discover strength,

 embrace courage,

 remember peace,

 Declare truth,

 Choose joy,

 Experience life

 what room does fear have

 I'll ask you again: what room does fear have

 When I step out of the darkness, and I bask in the light?

 When I let the past be the past and the future has no limit.

 When they can talk all they want but their opinion doesn't matter!

 And when failure is nothing more and nothing less than the road by which I walk my path to success.

 What room does fear have when I have?


 What room does fear have when I am an advocate not just for myself but my community members?

 What room does fear have?

 When I am an

 up stander

 Because we refuse to be


 in the face of


 What room does fear have when I have to?

 Think for myself













 does fear




The Wall of Love and Kindness

Contributor: Sahba Rohani, Director of Community Development at Community Roots

Inspired by the New York City Union Square subway station, we decided to create our own wall in the hallways of our school.  A wall of love and kindness was put up where students and families could add positive thoughts to send out into the world, or messages that simply remind them of things they love.  Over time, post-its have started to fill the wall, ranging in messages from "Be Thankful" to "Everybody Matters" to "Playing with my friends makes me happy".  

Students slow their stroll as they walk by to read what their community members have written and shared on the wall.   Whether you have a spontaneous thought you want to share, or just need a moment to remember all the good that exists out there in the world, community members stop by to add a message or read one.  

As we take a moment to reflect on the state of affairs in our nation and around our world, it becomes equally important that the messages of connectedness, of love, of kindness, and of gratitude are also heard.  It is critical to make space for those voices to speak, for those moments to be captured, and for our narrative to be one that empowers hope and is a catalyst for change.

The Power of Connections

Contributor: Sahba Rohani, Director of Community Development at Community Roots

One of the most powerful things we can do for our students is allow them the opportunity to build connections with others.  Once a month our K-5 community is transformed as younger students are paired up with their older buddies.  Each individually matched, we watch our students sprawl across the rug reading with their younger buddy or sitting side by side solving a math game together.  Over time, the relationships go from shy hellos to hi-fives in the hallway and visits during class culminations.  

Kindergarten and 3rd grade buddies reading together. 

Kindergarten and 3rd grade buddies reading together. 

Throughout the year we also create space for our middle school students to visit our elementary school and continue to build bonds of friendship.  Our middle schoolers immediately become comfortable in our K-1 classrooms as they join them for morning reading before the school day starts.  Sometimes this connection happens through a curricular lens.  In a Spanish/Art collaboration, our 6th graders prepare their Libro de Colores and teach our 1st graders some new words in Spanish.  Creating opportunities for mentorship, community building, and developing friendships, allows our students to feel connected to others, outside of the confines of their own classroom, therefore enhancing their understanding and appreciation for the larger community. 

Sixth graders reading their Libro de Colores to our first graders. 

Sixth graders reading their Libro de Colores to our first graders. 

A Message to Our First Graduating Class

In June of 2015 we graduated our first class of 8th graders from Community Roots.  In that same year, the lives of a number of innocent young black boys were taken.  Below is an excerpt from the speech our Co-Director/Co-Founder Allison Keil gave in addressing the graduates:

I know that I can not stand before you and this incredible graduating class and pretend that this has been anything  but an incredibly difficult year. This has been a horrific time in our country. It has been a year of devastating consequence of racism and hatred that has long been a part of our history bombarding our headlines over and over and over again. It has been a year of mourning and shame, a time when we have woken up so many mornings to find that once again a young Black man has been murdered by the police and then South Carolina, there are no words. It has been a year of struggling as adults to understand how to take a stand and then ask ourselves how do we face our children, what do we say and do?

And now I look at this graduating class and I have to believe that there can be nothing more important in our country today and in our future then to bring people together. I have to have hope and my hope is that when we create a space, a school where children and families of different races, cultures, socio-economic backgrounds, religions, sexual orientation, and family make up come together that we are less likely to carry with us the devastating stereotypes and othering that occurs when we have not had the honor and the privilege to work and play and learn and build friendships with those that are different from us. I have to believe that the atrocities that are being committed in our country right now are being done by people who have lived incredibly segregated lives, lives where they have grown fear and hatred towards those that are different from them. Our children have been raised together, our children know people who are different from them as human beings, our children will not stand for the othering and the distance that is created when our lives are kept segregated.  I have to believe that this class and all of the classes that follow in their footsteps will stand up with the knowledge and experience of recognizing difference, understanding others perspectives, our history and what it means to be an ally.

So graduates my dream for you is that your experience at Community Roots will not be a stand-alone experience. Whether you began this journey with us in Kindergarten or joined us at another place along the way, you are now part of our family and will always have this as part of your story.  I ask that you go out into the world sharing your story, you have had an unfortunately rare experience even in New York City, one of the most diverse cities in the world where our schools are some of the most segregated. There are so many factors working against exactly what you have experienced, so many factors working to keep people segregated. I ask that you work to remind the world that humanity exists in all people. You know how to collaborate with people who are different from you, you know how to share from your own perspective while listening and working to understand the perspective of others, you understand that friendships are based on both common interest and experience as well as on widening our interests and perspectives. You know what it means to stand up for equity and justice. You have tools that so many do not. Go out into the world, remember we love you; we will always be here for you and use the tools you have worked so hard to develop!

De-Segregation Is Not Enough: Why Building Strong Integrated Schools Matters

Contributor: Sahba Rohani, Director of Community Development at Community Roots

I was getting my coffee a few weeks ago when I overheard a couple talking animatedly about the recent education diversity plan announced by New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña. Starting this September, seven schools in Brooklyn and Manhattan will set admissions quotas to enroll a more diverse mix of students.

Later that day in the grocery store, I was distracted by two women talking about “diversity in schools” and the implications that desegregation has for our city.

I’ve lived in New York City for 12 years and never before has school segregation been more of a hot topic than it is now. In 2014, UCLA put out a report stating that New York City has the most segregated schools in the nation. Suddenly, we are all interested.   

While the effort to desegregate schools is the first step in moving toward educational equity, desegregation alone is not enough. For it to work, there needs to be proactive attention paid to the three stakeholders in the school community: the students, the staff, and the families.

At Community Roots Charter School in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where I work as the director of community development, we have 10 years of experience running a purposefully integrated school. That’s been possible for a few reasons. Home to three of the largest public housing facilities in the city and some of its most pristine brownstones, Fort Greene is rich in history and diverse in its demographics. We have also set aside a percentage to ensure a student body that reflects the racial and socioeconomic diversity of our neighborhood.

But over the last decade, we have learned that enrollment is just the first step. To move from desegregation to integration, schools must:

  • create a curriculum that gives students of all ages entry points for discussing issues related to diversity, including (but not limited to) race, class, ability, gender, and sexuality;

  • engage students in intentional community building across race, class, and gender lines;  

  • engage families in meaningful programming that builds community; and

  • work with staff to develop the capacity to be proactive about discussing race, class, gender, and sexuality (among other things) in a school setting.

An important step is deciding what, and how, we teach our students. While our national culture has been successful in teaching most of us to avoid conversations about race, we create opportunities for our students at Community Roots to tackle issues of race and racism head-on in a safe and trusting community.  

Today, you can walk into one of our eighth-grade classrooms and find that students are not just considering the perspective of the narrator in “To Kill A Mockingbird” but are discussing whose perspective is missing in the novel, and the role that institutionalized racism plays in that omission. I have seen students have a conversation with their peers about white privilege and look at one another with empathy and say, “I didn’t know that was your experience,” or “I don’t think that’s fair.”  

Our students are able to make connections with people of varied backgrounds about topics that can, particularly for adults, feel very high-risk. One eighth-grader recently wrote, in response to a question about racial profiling: “If we are not exposed to each other at a young age, like at Community Roots, how can we understand each other? … Without real people to contradict those opinions, I don’t think racial profiling can be completely erased.”

For students, these discussions come naturally because they have been having them since kindergarten. At four and five years old, they learn about one another’s families, talk about the differences they see, and reflect on the similarities that make them all human.  They are learning to build trust through their conversations about their identities and the way that they problem solve by hearing one another’s perspectives.  By second grade, the trust has deepened and they have internalized what it means to be an ally and practice the language of speaking up for someone else.  

In fourth grade they begin thinking about bias and omission (in history and in the texts they read), and in many cases come to the realization that every story holds different truth based on one’s own identity. Because they have these conversations over the course of nine years, living integrated school lives becomes common practice.   

It isn’t just about students, either. It is important to create spaces for families to have opportunities to get to know one another. For example, on three consecutive weeknights, our adult cooking class gathers families and allows a chance to learn and cook a new recipe and then enjoy that meal together. Somewhere over chopped onions, connections are made.   

Book clubs, arts nights, family sports nights, family music nights — the activity isn’t as important as the fact that families commit to a series of two to three (or sometimes eight) evenings and engage together in an activity. Groups are kept intentionally small and diverse, and over time, barriers fall.

We have also learned that meaningful staff development comes from within, from folks who know the school community and are committed to its growth. Our Diversity Working Group, a self-selected group of staff members, has designed training that makes space for the whole school staff to think about how their identities impact their work.  The group has created a sequence of social justice terms and concepts to be taught in each grade, and thinks about institutional changes that can be made to support our commitment to diversity.

The biggest lesson that we have learned is that this work takes an incredible amount of time and patience. We have had to try things, and then try them again. We understand the cyclical value of planning, action, and reflection. It is only through a posture of learning that we are able to see movement and growth and that rests heavily on the amount of community building we have in place to create a culture of trust.

We are still considering questions like: How do we draw families into the same conversations about race and class that we are having with our students?  How do we gather enough research to tell our story through numbers and percentages that align with our qualitative data?   How do we raise awareness as staff around microaggressions and practice being true allies? How do we ensure that our students are action oriented and have the individual drive to work for equity, long after they leave our school walls?

We ask these questions and we continue to work each day to figure them out because we are committed to the mission of school integration.

By placing students from different racial and economic backgrounds in one room, without any thought or intention, we are doing nothing but reinforcing stereotypes. If we don’t make it a point in kindergarten, for example, to talk about skin tone and validate the beauty of everyone’s color, we solidify the stereotype that white is what is considered beautiful. If we don’t make room to consider multiple perspectives when we look at history, we are saying that there is only one story counts. These choices matter.

Approach school integration with engaging and relevant curriculum, meaningful community programming, and strong staff development, and I believe we will begin to see the changes that our nation needs. As the city’s new experiments start to scale, I hope that our experience can help point the way.

Why do Students Call You and Their Teachers by Their First Names?

Contributor: Allison Keil, Co-Director & Co-Founder of Community Roots

I used to be asked a version of this question on every tour. I realize that whether or not a parent’s educational experience was positive or negative, elements of school that are different than their experience in school can be  jarring.  

Therefore, when one first steps into our school and walks down the hall,hearing a little person call me “Alli” can be off putting to some. On these tours, I have begun to address this question before it is asked, before we walk our halls, when we are all together in the family room for the first time.  I begin by talking about our school culture as warm, nurturing, and built on trust and respect. Respect, I have found is not based on formality but instead is the basis for a deep relationship. I have a strong belief that children should not be taught to blindly respect authority. I believe that it is our responsibility to begin our relationships with young people by modeling for them respect for humanity.  Is this the way of the world?  

Not currently, but in setting up an educational environment where we are starting with 4 and 5 year olds, we have an opportunity to create something new, something innovative.

We have an opportunity to develop deep relationships with each other as adults and with children. And as we get to know each other, we get to know what each person needs to be successful, to take risks and to learn. And we find that when these basic needs are met, trust and respect develop, first modeled by the grown up and then mirrored by the child.

When does the "diversity" work really start?

Contributor: Allison Keil, Co-DIrector & Co-Founder of Community Roots

A professor from Harvard was visiting yesterday and asked us; “So when would you say this work around diversity really started?” I have to think before I answer and I have been thinking about this all night: What is the real work around diversity?

Is it the work started doing in the last 3 years to explore our own identities as a faculty and make connections with each other as adults, the same connections we hope to foster between children and families? Did it begin 4 years ago when a group of faculty with social justice backgrounds and expertise started the Diversity Working Group? Did it start when that faculty group created a scope and sequence of vocabulary and concepts related to social justice and diversity? Or was it when that scope and sequence was shared with faculty and grade teams went into their social studies curriculum maps to look for entry points to incorporate these concepts more deliberately?  Maybe it started when we revamped the Apple Study in Kindergarten to a Bread Study to begin to give children more concrete experiences with culture?Or  when, in year 5 we created a Director of Community Development position, a position that does not exist in other schools, to focus strategically on ensuring that all of the diverse voices in our community are heard? Was it when we began to expand our family programming to include purposeful small spaces for families to come together week after week to cook, and eat, and play sports and make art together?  I am left thinking that each step we have taken over these last ten years has been instrumental in bringing the work we are calling “diversity work” to an even deeper level, a level where we are considering our three major stakeholders: faculty, families and students through Professional Development, curriculum development, and family programming.

But when I push myself to really answer the question asked by that Professor I am struck that the “real diversity work” began when we opened our doors 10 years ago to a diverse group of students and families who all chose our school.  It was then that our work began to make this a school that worked hard for all of these students and families. This school had to be a place where children were loved and respected, where families were welcome,  where curriculum was relevant and engaging and where faculty were supported, and where struggles were approached by a team.  This is the work we continue to do and it is work that grows and deepens every year. It is work that is steeped in the belief that bringing a diverse group of students, families, and faculty together is paramount and that strategic work needs to be done to create spaces for us all to get to know each other, to recognize and respect different perspectives and that ultimately learning to work with a diverse group of people is the most important work that we do.