ERIC Identifier: ED464395
Publication Date: 2002-04-00
Author: Cunningham, Chris
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Educational Management Eugene OR.
Engaging the Community To Support Student Achievement. ERIC
School systems have long recognized the need for public support and
participation, but now many districts are renewing their commitment to
strengthen the ties with their communities. More than ever, school districts
realize they are dependent on community support to meet mandated state and
national performance standards, develop innovative programs, and secure
To build lasting community support for schools that facilitates student
achievement, school boards are developing communication strategies that
routinely reach diverse community groups. The process of building such
partnerships, called public engagement, is ongoing, two-way communication
between a school district and the community it serves (Resnick 2000).
This Digest examines how public engagement can foster student achievement,
how school boards and administrators can facilitate the public-engagement
process, and how school leaders can solicit enduring support from key
HOW CAN PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT PROMOTE STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT?
one report, superintendents and board presidents advised communities just
convening public-engagement efforts to focus their planning efforts on student
achievement (Wright and Saks 2000). Involving parents, teachers, members of the
business community, and others in the process of identifying academic goals and
standards and measures of progress can be a powerful vehicle for improving
student achievement and influencing the direction and success of school
Parents who understand and support educational standards will help their
children meet these expectations. When the community supports the standards, it
is more likely to provide the resources to meet them. "Accountability is
essential in maintaining public confidence, and accountability begins with
shared understanding of desired results" (Gemberling, Smith, and Villani 2000).
Public engagement also gives school systems and stakeholders the opportunity
to learn about trends among youth and in the community that might influence
academic outcomes. The entire community benefits from understanding social and
health conditions that interfere with learning, such as teen pregnancy,
inadequate nutrition, and lack of health care. In other words, public engagement
can enhance the community's overall quality of life (Resnick).
WHAT IS THE ROLE OF SCHOOL BOARDS AND DISTRICT OFFICIALS IN
Student achievement -- and community engagement that focuses
on fostering achievement -- is now recognized nationally as the primary agenda
for boards of education. School boards are charged with the responsibility of
creating conditions within their districts that will help students meet today's
more rigorous knowledge and performance standards.
This role represents a dramatic shift in responsibility for school boards,
which previously held oversight roles and served as passive reviewers of others'
work performance. Now boards are expected to share the responsibility for how
well students and schools perform (Gemberling, Smith, and Villani).
Although 78 percent of superintendents in a recent Public Agenda survey
reported they have processes under way to encourage public engagement, only 41
percent say they actually solicit the input of the community prior to
formulating policy. Only 4 percent of the superintendents viewed communication
with the community as their most pressing concern. Superintendents "absolutely
believe in the concept of public engagement... but when it comes to the
execution as opposed to the intent, the reality is somewhat different," says
Public Agenda's president, Deborah Wadsworth (Deily 2001).
Parents notice this discrepancy between intent and action. More than half the
parents in an Education Commission of the States survey said they believe
schools in their community have gotten off on the wrong track, and fewer than
four in ten think local schools are headed in the right direction (in Solomon
and Ferguson 1998).
If raising student achievement is a district goal, school boards and
superintendents should begin by looking at whether their current processes
actually summon the dispersed knowledge of the community. If processes are
designed merely to endorse the status quo or influence a desired outcome, the
goal of improving student achievement will probably fail. A school district
should not simply view public engagement as one of its projects but as a way of
For example, a school system might realize that it needs public input to
implement the district's goals for student achievement, such as improving state
and district test scores, or raising graduation rates. Rather than hold a series
of traditional forums such as school board meetings and public hearings on an
as-needed basis, the district can initiate continuous methods of communication
that sustain an ongoing connection with the public (Resnick).
Collaboration and participation are key elements in successful
public-engagement efforts, what Anne Meek (1999) describes as "strategies that
go beyond providing public information or ensuring good public relations, to
promoting substantive, participatory roles for citizens in governance matters."
Such efforts should be considered "a purposeful management tool," says L. Joan
Brown (2001), whose definition of community includes all town government units,
businesses, charitable organizations, and other groups interested in the
economic and social well-being of the community.
WHAT IS THE PRINCIPAL'S ROLE IN PUBLIC
Principals play a key role in promoting community partnerships.
Facilitating ongoing involvement with families, with a clear focus on improving
student achievement, is perhaps the most critical step schools can take to
engage the community. Toward this end, the principal should let the staff know
that family involvement is a high priority by providing them the time and
resources and training on how to work with parents (National Association of
Elementary School Principals 2001).
Principals can promote teacher commitment by stressing the benefits of parent
involvement: When families are actively involved in schools, teachers learn more
about the students in their class, and students are more able and willing to
Creating stronger ties with families is accomplished by keeping parents
informed about their children's progress and what they are learning, explaining
how they can help children budget their time for homework assignments, and
describing ways they can assist them with their school work.
Involved families can effectively advocate for schools with the general
public. In fact, informed parents are among the best ambassadors when it comes
time for the community to vote on bond issues (NAESP). Only 24 percent of adults
in the average community have children enrolled in community schools. Obviously,
the support and positive votes of an entire community are critical to the
passage of operating levies and school bond campaigns (Lyons 2001).
HOW CAN PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT FACILITATE STUDENT SUCCESS AND
Inviting parents, members of the business community, and
service organizations to identify academic goals and standards and quantify
measures of progress "sends the message that what students learn and how well
they learn it isn't an issue just for teachers and administrators but is a real
priority for the community as well" (Wright and Saks).
Five methods that help school boards and administrators engage the public are
focus groups, telephone polling, public meetings, email, and study
Focus groups, which bring together a diverse group of ten to fifteen people
to discuss a specific topic, can help school systems understand what issues they
are facing. School officials can learn about hot issues that might derail a
large public meeting. Focus groups also pinpoint key issues that will establish
agendas for larger public forums.
Polling services are a relatively inexpensive way to engage the public.
Although polling renders more superficial input than focus groups, it can give
the school district an overview of the public's thinking. One advantage of poll
questions is that they can be incorporated into the public-engagement process at
any time. In the beginning they can be used to monitor public sentiment on
education reform issues, and later, to gauge public understanding of and support
for new curriculum development.
Public meetings provide an opportunity for diverse groups to talk about
critical issues. These forums also give districts and the general public a
chance to understand opposing sides of an issue, which can help to build
consensus and create a sense of participatory government.
Email is a powerful, low-cost tool that can be used to connect school
personnel with parents, business people, and other audiences. Email responses on
issues cannot be considered a representative sample of opinions, but they are a
convenient way to communicate with diverse audiences.
Study circles are a semi-structured, multi step method that convenes
policy-makers and the public over extended periods in small-group discussions.
More than 200 communities have used this method in the last decade to resolve
issues ranging from education reform to racism. Policymakers say study circles
give them the opportunity to understand a variety of perspectives about key
issues and to receive a reality check on their policy direction (Rouk 2000).
HOW CAN SCHOOLS MAINTAIN THE LONG-TERM SUPPORT OF KEY
Leadership teams comprised of key stakeholders-teachers,
parents, students, and community members-can contribute continuity and stability
to the public-engagement process. These teams should include people who have an
institutional knowledge of the school district and who have access to top
district leadership (Solomon and Ferguson).
Leadership teams monitor progress in reaching student goals and evaluate
lessons learned from successes and failures. What differentiates this method
from typical evaluation processes is that the teams do not wait until the end of
the project but focus instead on continuous feedback.
To find out what's being said about their schools, districts might also seek
out people who are willing to organize into special cadres. Cadre members should
look for "a thousand little things done well" that can be included in district
marketing and communication materials (Carroll 2001).
Board members and school leaders in one report made other recommendations for
maintaining community support: Let the public know that district leadership is
committed to public engagement; be clear about roles and responsibilities for
maintaining communication; let the public know that their input makes a
difference in outcomes; and keep all publics informed of the progress in
strategic planning efforts (Wright and Saks).
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Carroll, David J. "Respecting the Grapevine." Principal Leadership 2, 1
(September 2001): 21-23.
Deily, Mary-Ellen Phelps. "Poll: Words, Actions Fail To Match on Public
Engagement." Education Week 20, 28 (March 28, 2001): 12.
Gemberling, Katherine W.; Carl W. Smith; and Joseph S. Villani. The Key Work
of School Boards: Guidebook. Alexandria, Virginia: National School Boards
Association, 2000. 95 pages.
Lyons, James E. "Using Data To Market Public Schools." School Business
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Meek, Anne. Communicating with the Community: A Guide for School Leaders.
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Virginia: National Association of Elementary School Principals, 2001. 75 pages.
Resnick, Michael. Communities Count: A School Board Guide to Public
Engagement. Alexandria, Virginia: National School Boards Association, 2000. 26
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