Working With the Public on Big Decisions


Many school leaders realize that the “decide-and-defend” approach to school district policymaking is a thing of the past. They know that making major decisions without involving parents and other community members can create controversy and threaten funding support. They are using more participatory strategies to avoid open conflicts, obtain useful input on major decisions and build support for implementing those decisions.

To accomplish this effectively, some superintendents are borrowing principles and strategies from successful public engagement efforts in other fields, such as race relations and crime prevention.

One of the most important tactics they have learned is using small groups instead of large public hearings to help people share their experiences, analyze the policy options and decide how the schools, the parents and other community organizations can all play a role in improving education for young people.

Broad Representation
The administrators who have pioneered this new approach have learned several lessons.

Encourage truly broad-based, large-scale participation.
You don’t want your dialogue with the community to be dominated by a small number of opinionated people. Successful citizen involvement efforts make an impact by involving large numbers —up to 100 in a neighborhood, up to 1,000 in a city. To encourage participation from people who reflect the makeup of the community, start by building a coalition of organizations that represent many different parts. You need the leaders of those organizations to recruit people from their networks to participate. It is particularly beneficial to enlist grassroots organizations such as neighborhood associations, businesses, religious organizations and civic clubs.

In rural Harford County, Md., school leaders worked with community organizations to recruit 150 citizens. The project focused on the achievement gap between students of color and white students. The school district subsequently won a $1.1 million federal grant to implement the recommendations, including additional staffing at four schools to help evaluate and modify instruction, train teachers and advocate for low-achieving students.

Provide structure for the small-group discussions.
Limiting the groups to 8-12 people allows everyone to contribute. To ensure the discussion feels safe and builds trust, give each group an impartial and well-trained facilitator and ask the participants to set some ground rules. Make it clear that the groups will meet several times—with a first session that focuses on their experiences and concerns, a subsequent session on the critical decision facing the district and a final session that helps the group decide how each one of them can contribute to school success.

Provide the small groups with basic information about the schools and the situation, plus a fair and candid restatement of the main arguments about what should be done. These materials should establish a framework for the sessions.

The school district in Decatur, Ga., faced a potentially explosive decision about how to redraw the boundary lines for the community’s elementary schools. More than 300 people participated in small groups addressing the question. The groups used a guide that laid out the main redistricting options. The guide had been written by a committee of parents and other citizens led by a local nonprofit called Common Focus. Because the project allowed people to examine the options in an even-handed, analytical way, the school board was able to adopt a redistricting plan with less acrimony than school leaders had expected.

An Action Stage
Ask participants to take action, not just make recommendations.
From the outset, school leaders should clarify they are not simply asking for recommendations. Citizens should be encouraged to think about what they can do on a number of levels: as individuals, as members of new or existing organizations and as a community. A large-group meeting at the conclusion of the small-group discussions can move the ideas to an action stage. Clearly some policy changes can only be enacted by school leaders, but individual citizens can do a host of things on almost any issue. Projects can be undertaken by a combination of citizens, school district employees and other community organizations.

For example, at the end of a project involving 700 participants in Inglewood, Calif., gains were noticeable in PTA meeting participation, donations to schools and volunteer participation at schools. Many parents started volunteering their time for cleaning school facilities and taking care of school gardens. Across the district, after-school programs and community activities, such as English as a second language and computer classes for parents, also were begun.

School districts have used this approach to generate a range of outcomes, including construction of new schools in Florida and Illinois, creation of a regional school district in New Hampshire, averting a teachers’ strike in Arkansas, devising initiatives for bridging the achievement gap in Calvert and Montgomery counties, Md., passing school bond issues in Kuna, Idaho, and South Kitsap, Wash., and launching tutoring programs and other grassroots projects.

In an increasingly busy and sophisticated world, where citizens have more to contribute but less time to spend, school leaders are rethinking the ways they work with the public. To involve parents and other citizens on an ongoing basis, they are incorporating public engagement principles into school and district governance, using them to analyze school reform ideas and employing them at the teacher-parent-classroom level. They are bringing policy decisions into the community, using small groups to create safe, informed discussions and asking citizens to take an active role in problem solving.

Matt Leighninger is senior associate of the Study Circles Resource Center, 2 Beulah Ave., Hamilton, ON, Canada L8P 4G9. E-mail: