Putting the Pieces Together: Comprehensive School-Linked Strategies for Children and Families

Chapter 2
Conducting a Community Assessment

Imagine that you have already recognized the need for comprehensive strategies in your community, collected a group of allies, gathered preliminary information to gauge the context for collaboration, formed a partnership, and developed a shared vision. Your partnership is ready to move forward, but you aren't exactly sure how to turn your vision into strategies that make the best use of existing resources and offer the best response to local conditions. You need more information to guide your efforts--and you can find it through a community assessment.

A community assessment is an exercise by which a collaborative partnership gathers information on the current strengths, concerns, and conditions of children, families, and the community. The information comes from many sources--especially parents and family members--and is elicited by many techniques, including interviews, focus groups, and scanning demographic data collected by local agencies. Because many types of partners participate in a community assessment--strategic planners, program staff, administrators, teachers, parents, and other community members--the resulting information is broad, accurate, and useful.

Community assessments focus on local assets, resources, and activities as well as gaps, barriers, or emerging needs. The process of identifying and appraising this information will help your collaborative partnership:

The process of conducting a community assessment involves (1) scanning the community to locate existing information, (2) developing a family focus, (3) identifying community assets and the degree to which they are accessible to the people who can benefit from them, and (4) analyzing the information obtained through the first three steps. This chapter outlines each of these stages.

What Does a Community Assessment Involve?

A community assessment is a broad look across agencies, systems, and community members to learn more about the circumstances that a partnership has identified as crucial to its vision. It gathers information from many different individuals and groups in the community; the types of information depend on the partnership's focus and the resources it can draw on to conduct the assessment. Most assessments begin by assembling and comparing information already collected by various individual agencies. But you may also want to collect fresh information from families and community members through interviews, focus groups, and public forums.

How Does a Partnership Conduct a Community Scan?

Involving culturally diverse
community members in assessments
"can alert the effort to potential
political and social taboos and help
identify the individuals
and organizations with the richest
sources of information. . . .
By rigorously and creatively
assessing community needs, the
process gives 'voice' to individuals in
the community who have not
traditionally been solicited
for comment. . . ."
--Chang, Leong, & Salazar (1994)

The first step in conducting a community scan is to find out what has already been learned through previous assessments. This information can come from agencies inside and outside your partnership and from interviews or surveys of your partners. Begin by reviewing your vision statement: What is its focus? What types of information will indicate assets, resources, and conditions related to that focus?

For example, if your partnership's vision is to increase high school graduation rates, indicators might include rates for school dropout, juvenile incarceration, and adolescent parenting. You can sort these indicators by age, gender, income, and ethnicity to provide a profile of the community.

Once you have chosen which types of information to collect, contact the local, state, and federal entities that already collect various demographic data; some suggested information sources appear in the box on page 32. Many of these sources break down their information by specific groups and by state, county, and sometimes census tract.

Although a community scan should remain focused, don't artificially limit it; if you turn up unexpected information that seems useful, consider broadening your scan (Healthy Start Planning Packet, 1994). You may have touched on an important but hidden issue that will affect your comprehensive strategies. For example, you may not set out to learn about the number of owner occupied homes in the area surrounding the school, but that information may give you insight into the community context.

Matching (Comparing) Information
Comparisons of information collected from several sources can reveal important trends. For example, school attendance records can be matched to caseload data from health and human service agencies. If confidentiality rules allow, consider comparing lists of students with lists of families that interact with agencies to learn:

This technique is relatively uncomplicated in small communities where agencies do not have thousands of clients. In larger communities, you may want to use a subset as a snapshot of the entire group.

A community scan paints a picture of the conditions in a community and can sharpen a partnership's perceptions of the critical issues that families face. It also can uncover hidden issues. But the community scan provides only one part of the story. To understand how families experience conditions in the community, you will want to focus on gathering information directly from families and the front-line workers with whom they interact.

How Can a Community Assessment Engage Families and Community Members?

An effective community assessment for comprehensive school-linked strategies should lend insight into the ways families and communities address issues--both formally, through agencies and programs, and informally, through their own strengths or with help from friends, extended family, and neighborhood and church groups. The assessment should also measure the views of individual families and the community as a whole concerning the availability, accessibility, appropriateness, and effectiveness of services and activities.

As you collect this information, remember that assessment should be done with children, youth, and families, not to them. The degree to which the process is participatory and inclusive will affect the degree to which your strategies reflect community concerns. For example:

Effective methods for gathering family- and community-focused information include focus groups, community forums, interviews and surveys, and action research.

Focus Groups
Focus groups are structured, moderated discussions that bring together small groups of people (usually six to 12) in neutral settings to talk about specific issues. Discussion is a powerful means of learning from families and community members about their perceptions, experiences, values, and beliefs. It is also a good way to encourage community involvement.

The following guidelines can help you create a useful focus group:

Community Forums
Like focus groups, community forums seek information directly from community members, but forums use large public meetings instead of small-group settings. Although community forums are noisier and harder to moderate than focus groups, they offer an excellent opportunity for families and other community members to raise concerns and become involved in developing strategies. School staff may be especially helpful in planning and conducting community forums because they are aware of families' concerns and cultural preferences.

Community forums work best when they occur at convenient times for working family members and in locations accessible by public transportation; you may also need to provide child care. Some people are uncomfortable presenting their experiences as public testimony, so the moderator should be encouraging and respectful. You may want to split a large forum into smaller subgroups to encourage discussion, and then reconvene the entire group to share common ideas.

In addition, be aware that many community members distrust assessments. "Some communities have been assessed to death and aren't very receptive to . . . data collection efforts because they don't think anything will happen or they are worried the data will be used against them," warns an experienced community advocate. To build trust, it is especially important to give people ample opportunities to voice their concerns and listen to them throughout the assessment process.

Interviews and Surveys

As with other methods of data
collection, the participants who respond
to interviews and surveys should reflect
the ethnic, linguistic, and cultural
diversity of the community.

Interviews and surveys help a partnership understand the perspectives (or variety of perspectives), experiences, aspirations, strengths, and values of individual families. Children, youth, family members, and key community or religious leaders can participate in interviews, paper-and-pencil surveys, and other types of self-reporting.

These methods can reveal what community members want, how they view resources, and what issues are involved in gaining access to resources or programs. Interviews can also reveal disparities between what people want and what agencies think they need. One partnership found that the agencies had focused on providing mental health counseling and drug prevention education, but families wanted basketball hoops to keep their children off the streets and car repairs so parents could get to work.

Interviews can be conducted in homes, schools and preschools, churches, stores, community centers--any setting in which people are comfortable. Try not to make assumptions that could limit participation by some families, however. A telephone survey will not reach families who don't have telephones; in some neighborhoods, door-to-door interviews are more effective, especially if conducted by local residents. Similarly, people who do not understand written English or cannot read will be unable to respond to a written questionnaire.

Staff from agencies within a partnership may conduct interviews, but family members and community volunteers should also help collect information. These partners can develop their own interviewing skills, inspire other residents to become involved in the partnership, and make the partnership truly collaborative.

Action Research
This approach enables partners to develop research based on action. For example, practitioners may trace a family's ongoing progress through the maze of services and supports in a community, and assess ways a partnership could work with family members. The practitioner-researchers document each of the family's interactions with agencies. The resulting case study shows in great detail how a family finds and uses community resources and opportunities.

What Factors Are Involved in Understanding Community Assets?

Before your partnership can design effective comprehensive strategies you must know what assets are available and which are at your disposal. Assets include individuals, associations, and institutions and their strengths and resources. Understanding what these assets are, how they are used and how they could be used, and how families do or do not gain access to these assets will help your partnership choose strategies that fit your community.

The process of identifying assets and accessibility issues is sometimes known as community mapping (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993). Like community scanning, community mapping involves collecting information from existing sources and conducting focus groups, community forums, interviews, and surveys. But while community scanning provides a broad overview of the community, mapping takes inventory of the specific skills, services, and capacities of (1) people--including the old, young, poor, non-English-speaking, and homeless; (2) informal community associations--including recreational, cultural, religious, athletic, and neighborhood governance groups; and (3) formal institutions such as schools, businesses, libraries, hospitals, police and fire departments, and health and human service agencies. For all three groups, community mapping focuses on strengths and abilities as well as needs and services.

Mapping Individual Assets

Ultimately, families' perceptions and
concerns should carry the most weight in
program design if school-linked
strategies are to be truly responsive.

Information about individual assets accomplishes two goals. It helps a partnership understand human strengths and needs. And--perhaps more importantly--it helps the individual understand how to use his or her own assets to contribute to the community (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993). As you become informed about the range of individual assets, think about how your partnership's comprehensive strategies can connect assets among individuals and between individuals and community associations or institutions.

Information on individual assets should address skills, interests, and experience. Does the individual have experience caring for an elderly, mentally ill, or physically disabled person? If so, what skills has the individual developed? Does the individual have experience and specific skills in office work, construction and repair, maintenance, food preparation or delivery, child care, transportation, heavy machinery, supervision, sales, the arts, security, or other activities? Which skills are they most comfortable with, which make them employable, and which could they teach to others? What skills would they like to develop? (Questions adapted from Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993.)

Mapping Associations' Assets

"Associations, together with the
capacities of individuals, are the basic
community-building tools of local
neighborhoods. . . . [A]n effective
process of regenerating local
communities requires an organization
that identifies and involves as many of
these associations as possible in
creating and implementing a vision
for the local community."
--Kretzmann & McKnight, Building Communities from
the Inside Out

Associations exist for almost every interest group, including the arts, businesses, the elderly, age or gender groups, ethnic groups, neighborhood blocks, schools, civic or service clubs, and political groups. To find out what neighborhood groups exist, what each one does, and how their members participate, Kretzmann and McKnight suggest the following steps:

Mapping Institutions' Assets
In addition to identifying the institutions that exist in the community, remember that institutions often provide a range of assets to families and communities--and to collaborative partnerships. For example, a school's assets (in addition to education opportunities) may include facilities for meetings, materials and equipment, purchasing power, employment, adult education, access to teachers and student interns, and financial capacity. Think of each institution as a collection of assets that can help your partnership in building comprehensive strategies (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993).

Access Issues
A family's ability to contribute to (and benefit from) community assets is influenced by the degree to which families have access to those assets. For example, family members who do not speak English or cannot read may not know how to contribute skills to a community association or program. Families who don't own cars or can't afford car insurance may be unable to use capacity-building services offered by a community institution, especially if the institution is not located near affordable public transportation. Low-income families may not be able to participate in activities that require a financial investment--either for the activity itself or to pay for child care while a parent participates. Families with members who have physical disabilities may not be able to use services provided in a facility without access for the disabled.

As you map your community's assets, compare the location of resources and services to the location of the children and families your partnership is trying to reach. Draw a diagram of assets, resources, and services that shows gaps and areas of overlap (for examples, see Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993). Or, use a large map and colored push-pins, or commercial geographic mapping and database software. A partner from the business community may be able to help.

How Should Assessment Information Be Used and By Whom?

Comparing information gathered in
different ways provides insights and
information beyond what can be learned
from a single method of data collection.

A good community assessment produces a wealth of useful information, and it's natural to feel confused about the best way to sort through it. Don't panic; remind yourself of a few key principles:

In addition, the following questions can help your partnership analyze and interpret information from a community assessment:

Are services, resources, and programs accessible to families and children? Review the information you collected during community mapping. Are there obvious or hidden barriers--costs, inconvenient locations, differences in cultures or languages--that keep families from contributing to or using community assets? If so, what actions did families, associations, and institutions recommend to remove the barriers? How can these actions fit into comprehensive strategies that use existing and potential assets?

Are the assets of families, informal associations, and community institutions being used to the best advantage of children and families? Again, look at the match between the location and use of community assets and the interests and needs of families. How could comprehensive strategies improve the use of existing resources, make better use of potential resources, develop hidden assets, and attract resources from outside the community?

What do families and community groups want to see happen? The interviews, surveys, focus groups, and community forums your partnership conducted should indicate what families want in order to improve their conditions. This information will also indicate the kinds of outcomes families and community groups want from comprehensive school-linked strategies. Your partnership can use this information to set priorities and to guide an evaluation of your strategies (see Chapter 4).

How does your partnership's vision compare with the information collected by the community assessment? The assessment gives a partnership a new lens through which to view its original vision. Based on the assessment, you may want to revise or refocus the vision.

How Can a Partnership Use Assessment Results to Move from Planning to Action?

The process of analyzing assessment information precedes action, because it requires a partnership to:

Developing an action plan involves creating goals that respond to a shared vision and to the issues identified by the community assessment, and planning ways to meet those goals that form comprehensive strategies--strategies that include a range of partners and offer an array of opportunities.

To provide comprehensive school-linked strategies that respond to the interests, strengths, and needs of children and families, an action plan must involve:

The action plan should specify what the comprehensive partnership will accomplish in each of these areas. The remaining chapters of this guidebook explore these topics in greater depth.

Learning Opportunities

Partners learn a great deal by participating in a community assessment and by interpreting the information it collects. Try to involve all of your partners and other community members in every phase of assessment--planning the scan, conducting interviews in neighborhoods and by telephone, conducting and participating in focus groups and community forums; and mapping community assets.

When you are collecting assessment information, remember that a small-group approach helps families feel comfortable sharing their concerns. For example, your partnership might learn from community interviews by dividing into small groups to consider different points of view expressed in an interview or survey. Small-group discussions might give voice to disenfranchised groups and reveal why different community members hold different opinions about strategies such as locating family resource centers at schools. This knowledge will deepen stakeholders' understanding of one another as well as your partnership's understanding of its community.


A community assessment enables collaborative partners to gather information about the strengths, concerns, and conditions of children, families, and the community. A thorough assessment involves scanning existing information about the community, developing a family focus, identifying community assets and their accessibility, and analyzing information. Assessments should view the community from multiple perspectives and recognize cultural, linguistic, ethnic, and economic diversity.

Techniques for gathering assessment information include focus groups, community forums, interviews and surveys, and action research. Partners can also create a community map to identify assets and accessibility issues.

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