The Tough Sledding of District-Led Engagement

Troubled by a "we vs. they" dichotomy, an Annenberg Institute study points to the importance of collaboration by JEFFREY S. KIMPTON AND JONATHAN W. CONSIDINE

Frustrated by the rising tide of public concern over public education, school leaders are developing a tool for building solid new relationships among educators, parents, citizens, business and civic leaders and elected officials.

The tool can take many forms--parent involvement or advocacy, school-business partnerships, community visioning and public dialogue, a broad-based bond referendum or a communitywide program for putting academic standards into use. Collectively, this work is called public engagement.

Examples of this work are flourishing in isolated communities across the country. But the number of those communities is growing, and the actors who play key roles in shaping the dynamics of meaningful school change are providing us some valuable lessons. The power to change our schools does not lie in the places that we have traditionally looked to for leadership.

Convening Citizens
In Decatur, Ill., Superintendent Ken Arndt faced an array of tough challenges: The 11,258-student school district needed more than $30 million in infrastructure repairs, yet it had not turned to its voters with a financial request since 1971. One of several major hurdles was this: The school district had no formal communications links to its community.

In response, Arndt convened a comprehensive citizens group to study the district's facilities for a year. Then he went to the voters after an exhaustive broad-based campaign of informational meetings, citizen canvassing and strategic alliances with community organizations. In spite of the intense energy and efforts on the part of the district's top leadership, the voters rejected the $64.8 million bond issue twice.

But Arndt remains adamant that the approach the district used was the right one, and he has forced the community to begin to confront the significant ramifications of its ballot decisions.

In the suburbs just north of Columbus, Ohio, the Delaware City School District has had to work hard to keep pace with a 300 percent growth in housing starts, bringing in many new families to the fastest-growing county in the country. The creation of school quality improvement teams enabled various stakeholders to examine the adequacy of the district's human, financial and structural resources to meet future needs and led to the successful passage of a $19.75 million dollar levy for a desperately needed middle school.

John Thomas, superintendent of the Delaware schools, made himself a key player by meeting frequently with his 500-member staff and devoting countless hours to listening and responding at Rotary meetings, in church basements and at other community affairs. In addition, he required school district employees to read John Cotter's Leading Change to help develop a shared mindset for dealing with rapid changes.

Inaccurate strategic planning by the Washoe County Public Schools in Reno, Nev., led to the district's first defeat of a capital improvement bond in September 1996. In the aftermath, district officials quickly organized a community-led task force to examine overcrowding issues and launched a public campaign to solicit citizens' concerns and priorities for the schools.

As a result of this process, the Washoe County schools have started year-round multitracking to increase the capacity of overburdened school buildings and now use forecasting methods to predict the financial needs of the district. Public confidence has grown and, on its second attempt, the $75 million facility bond referendum attracted 68 percent support, the highest rate of voter approval in county history.

A Visioning Process
In rural McComb, Miss., school officials facilitated a comprehensive, communitywide visioning process to resolve several potent issues facing the district's schools. Superintendent Pat Cooper shaped a core group of 350 people, who took part in a five-month inquiry of community relations, student health, technology, academic opportunities and facilities.

From this effort emerged initiatives to decrease the student dropout rate, establish health centers in each school and ensure each student had an equal opportunity to succeed in the public schools. The results have galvanized a deeply divided community, and student health and achievement are on the rise.

Under the leadership of the school board president, residents of Alread, Ark., a community of 250 in the Ozark Mountains, started communitywide study circles to develop a strategic vision for their K-12 school. Ninety-three residents participated in the conversations, including parents, senior citizens and high school students. Residents emerged from this process committed to revitalizing their single school and making it the center of community life.

In Jefferson County, Ky., Principal Theresa Jensen of Engelhard Elementary School built a school community of students and parents from five family crisis shelters, three low-income housing projects and recent immigrant families from seven countries. Engaging staff, parents and the public in churches, laundromats, community centers, front porches, school auditoriums and classrooms, she pushed high learning expectations for all students, a standards-based curriculum that focused on integrated academic experience and professional development on research-based best practices.

From these unique partnerships Engelhard can boast nearly perfect student attendance, dramatic increases in student achievement, reduced student and family mobility and the involvement of parents and community members in every aspect of the management and instruction of the school.

A Study of Engagement
Arndt, Thomas and Jensen aren't alone in their efforts. Neither are the communities of Reno, McComb or Alread any different from school districts across the country.

For the past three years, researchers at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University have canvassed the country, documenting the practice of public engagement in a rich collection of places large and small, urban and rural, rich and poor. Last year we released the first national report on the practice of public engagement, "Reasons for Hope, Voices for Change." The places we visited and the thousands of Americans we met inspired and motivated our work and present a compelling case for positive change in American public education.

The examples above indicate that school leaders are willing to tackle tough issues and engage their communities in developing solutions. At the same time, the number of those willing to forge new collaborations for positive school change is insufficient. For every leader who is interested, many more are looking for a quick-fix workshop and 10 "how to's" to take back to the school board and their central-office colleagues.

Still others think public engagement is a temporal, short-term process and come to us with pleas and claims, such as "Help me pass this bond issue." "My community just doesn't understand the issues we're facing." "Help me get some buy-in for this reform." "As the education professional, community input is fine, but I have to run this district."

It is the age-old "we vs. they" dichotomy exhibited by district leadership that has us concerned. We just don't find enough school leaders taking the concept of public engagement very seriously. Just as in the game of bridge, this lackadaisical attitude will produce few winners and a lot of losers.

The concept of leading is still viewed by far too many as a personal skill, rather than as a collective responsibility. Who gets credit for the leading is still driving superintendent contracts and board power.

At a time when public education needs all the wins it can get, parents and the public are becoming increasingly demanding about improved school and student achievement, greater district/community accountability and meaningful education reform. For many, the game of who leads in a district is one they're tired of playing.

A Shared Responsibility
Watching school leaders in the many places we studied and visited indicates that the most effective styles of educational leadership today combine a bottom-up/top-down and highly inclusive approach. To be sure, superintendents, board presidents and principals play a vital role in rallying their communities around better results for children.

Arndt, the Decatur, Ill., superintendent, has the problem pegged. He observes that "school leadership today is really the art of pushing from behind." In today's environment, school system leaders must be the key conveners and facilitators of the discussions around the work of school improvement. But they also must invite a new corps of school, parent and community leaders to participate in building a collective vision for higher academic achievement and greater accountability.

Leadership isn't about pulling people along anymore. It is much more about orchestrating ideas, people, visions, potential and diverse organizations into a cohesive program of education improvement. To effectively lead engagement efforts, leaders should be as concerned about who isn't at the table as well as who is. It is very much about collective responsibility and shared accountability, rather than "we vs. they."

If there is tough sledding ahead in school district-led engagement, and we think there is, then the issue isn't just learning the rudiments of the process of engagement so much as the leadership that is required to initiate the process of engagement. It isn't so much that district leaders have to learn the how-to's of engagement. Rather, our research indicates that the how- to's come from figuring out that you need to engage teachers and staff, parents and the community in different ways.

In looking at several hundred sites, we found that a simple series of behaviors and actions starts the process of engagement (see table, below).

Simple Concepts for Complex Relationships

  • Use symbols and themes to bring people together around things they mutually value.
  • Reduce complex issues to simple visions the farther you move from the school.
  • Ensure open sharing of information and data, both inside and outside the school.
  • Empower many new leaders. Engagement is most successful when there are multiple leaders.
  • Create an atmosphere of shared responsibility and mutual accountability. Know that increased achievement drives the expectation of participation.
  • Start small. Initiating huge engagement won't create the trust that comes from small but meaningful wins.

In reality, public engagement is about creating meaningful relationships with everyone involved in schools: teachers, staff, parents and community members. These potentially powerful relationships are founded on active listening, sharing information, building partnerships and finding common ground.

Trust is a major ingredient in the success of these new collaborations as school doors are opened and outsiders are invited into principals' offices, classrooms and assembly halls. Conversely, the best examples of engagement find school leaders invited into homes, libraries, community centers, churches and council chambers. Indeed, the administrators in the communities above are coming to count on the energy, spirit and expertise of parents and community members from many walks of life to devise and advocate local standards, examine and set budgets and build support for the public schools in their communities.

Common Traits
After studying the conditions of the many school communities we visited, we developed five simple, common characteristics of public engagement activities that typified all of the school sites. They were:
  • Characterized by inclusive, in-depth dialogue;
  • Dedicated to real improvement in schools;
  • Committed to creating dynamic partnerships;
  • Devoted to find common ground; and
  • Based on candor, mutual trust and shared information.

Of course, this work is not necessarily easy, and we would be lying if we said it was. Public engagement is hard work. Ask any of the people in the districts we've described. It takes time, patience and the ability to both listen and converse very differently to both internal and external constituents and work hard to include them. Just as hurricanes require large amounts of new, warm water, so too does public engagement require an ever-expanding circle of warm bodies--from educators within the system to parents, civic, business and elected leaders as well.

For those leaders with lots of experience in the "we vs. they" syndrome, this is hard. Yet it is precisely these things that are marking the leaders who succeed in engaging their communities. They are the foundation on which the power of contemporary school leadership lies in the future, and they will form the basis for success in district-led engagement.

Public engagement also requires collaboration and communication within school constituencies and communities, a fact that can be threatening to established hierarchies of authority. Therein lies probably the best reason why district leaders don't embrace the concept of engagement more eagerly: the loss of power.

We were hesitant to underscore this notion 18 months ago as we wrote "Reasons for Hope." Today, we think it is the underlying, dominant reason behind the recalcitrance of school leaders to readily employ this tool for school leadership and change.

In a society where we have pushed for greater citizen involvement and responsibility and pushed the devolution of government responsibility and decision making ever deeper into the community, public engagement represents the natural redistribution of both the responsibility and the accountability for public education. In successful engagement, the word "power" is replaced with responsibility and accountability.

An Anxious Citizenry
As parents and the public continue to grapple with the implications of standards, testing and accountability, increasing fiscal challenges and the emotional issues of crime, safety and school violence, district leaders who are slow to recognize public concern risk the loss of real power--their constituents, who will vote with their feet toward new options and choices waiting in the wings.

Yet we think the fact that two-thirds of the sites we studied drew their primary energy for engagement from external constituents sends a clear signal to district leadership. The public is restless, eager for quality, anxious for change.

Kelly Butler, executive director of Parents for Public Schools, a national organization of community-based parent chapters with headquarters in Jackson, Miss., believes that leadership is the most common specific and identifiable thread among the successful, high-performing schools so often profiled around the country. "Effective leaders in the public school setting, including parents, are risk takers. To those of us struggling to garner support for and improve the public schools, these persistent risk takers are nothing short of refreshing. Where engagement around public schools is happening, more often than not communities are being galvanized because of risk-taking leaders willing to stand up for public education. This means not just standing up against the status quo, but also offering a new vision--and a new path--to better schools."

We are quite confident that public engagement represents the only way in which schools and communities will garner the necessary local support to negotiate the treacherous waters of school change, creating the energy for the vision that Butler and so many other Americans are desperately seeking.

If school districts fail to take the initiative, then the alternatives to public engagement are far more threatening to the future of public education and local school support than the act of engagement itself.

Is there a choice? We think not. But it is apparent from our research that not enough district leaders understand the choices that lie ahead. Until they do, there will be a hot market for paraffin to wax the runners of the sled.

Jeffrey Kimpton served until June as director of public engagement for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University and was co-author of "Reasons for Hope, Voices for Change." He is now director of the School of Music at the University of Minnesota, 2106 4th St. S., Minneapolis, MN. 55455. E-mail: kimpton@tc.umn.edu. Jonathan Considine, formerly a senior researcher in public engagement at the Annenberg Institute, is a graduate student at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas.

The Annenberg Institute for School Reform maintains a comprehensive Web site of information on public engagement. It is available at www.aisr.brown.edu.

"Reasons for Hope, Voices for Change: A Report by the Annenberg Institute on Public Engagement in Public Education" may be ordered from the Annenberg Institute, P.O. Box 1985, Brown University, Providence, RI 02912.