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 financial resources.
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 stakeholders.
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).
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 doing business.
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.
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 learn (NAESP).
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).
Five methods that help school boards and administrators engage the public are focus groups, telephone polling, public meetings, email, and study circles(Resnick).
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).
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).
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 Affairs 67, 5 (May 2001): 35-39. EJ 629 310.
Meek, Anne. Communicating with the Community: A Guide for School Leaders. Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1999. 144 pages.
National Association of Elementary School Principals. Essentials for Principals: Strengthening the Connection Between School and Home. Alexandria, 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 pages.
Rouk, Ullik. "Policymakers Build Bridges to the Public." Insights on Education Policy, Practice and Research 13 (November 2000): 12 pages. ED 451 580.
Solomon, Monica, and Maria Voles Ferguson. "How To Build Local Support for Comprehensive School Reform." Getting Better by Design Series. Volume 7. Arlington, Virginia: New American Schools, 1998. 29 pages. ED 450 482.
Wright, Anne, and Judith Brody Saks. The Community Connection: Case Studies in Public Engagement. Alexandria, Virginia: National School Boards Association, 2000. 67 pages.