Connecting the Disconnected

To overcome cynicism, a superintendent uses his bully pulpit to convene community members in dialogue about the fate of schools by LARRY LEVERETT

My first visit to our school district’s high school, which came one week after my appointment to the Plainfield, N.J., superintendency, was met with a student protest. The student body, consisting of 87 percent African-Americans, was upset because the school failed to have a schoolwide recognition of Black History Month.

Most telling to me was the fact there was no large groundswell of public outrage. This pointed to the widespread apathy and complacency in the community. It influenced me to start a process to engage the public around issues important to students, their families and the broader community.

Plainfield, a central New Jersey community of approximately 48,000 residents, serves 7,300 students in its K-12 district. It is racially, culturally and economically diverse. Low test scores, a high dropout rate, frequent turnover in administrative positions, an absence of a shared vision and the lack of strategies to move the district forward were major challenges. Nearly 30 percent of the community's school-age population opted to enroll in private or parochial schools.

Plainfield reflected many characteristics of what education researcher Terry Deal defines as a "toxic culture." It was a place that was spiritually fractured, focused on the negative, effortless in its response to student and community needs and aspirations and plagued by misinformation and defensiveness. Hope for revitalizing the school district had long since been devoured by cynicism, negativity, false starts and a community marginalized by district leadership.

During the initial months of my work, I talked with many people who, like famed civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, said they were "sick and tired of being sick and tired" and wanted to be heard. They had watched a good school system steadily decline for more than two decades. They were hard on people and hard on the issues.

Many people were tired of being shut out and wanted to make sure that the new kid on the block got that message right from the start. They insisted on a meaningful role in shaping the district's future. I heard in their voices a sense of urgency, frustration and hostility toward the district. All of them insisted on a better partnership between the schools and community and wanted change immediately.

That was the energy I hoped to find. I knew that engaging the community was critically important to generate a common vision and mission. I shared the community's sense of urgency. I agreed that major changes would be required to improve instruction and knew that these changes would not happen without the support of the community. Moving ahead without them would have continued the disconnect that could haunt efforts to improve our schools.

Commitment From the Top
Engaging a public that is hostile can be like opening Pandora's Box--a risky business unless the superintendent and school board are committed to deal with all the historical baggage inside. Public engagement efforts almost certainly will fail if commitment is not firmly in place. Fortunately, the board and I were mutually committed to engaging the community.

Our early involvement in conflict management through interest-based negotiations led to a commitment from the collective bargaining units to serve as partners in the public engagement process. Union buy-in supported the recruitment of a critical mass of insiders to participate in this work. This was particularly helpful since nearly 30 percent of the district's workforce were residents of Plainfield and had a stake in the schools as parents, taxpayers or employees.

The superintendency provided the bully pulpit I needed to convene community dialogues on issues affecting the future of the school district. From the superintendency, I could provide moral leadership and advocacy for improving the condition of children and youth in both the schools and the community.

Healing Fractured Spirits
Over the years of system decline, a fractured spirit had evolved, contributing to years of public disengagement. This broken spirit made it difficult for the schools and community to work in partnership to improve academic outcomes for students.

In the early months of our engagement process we had lots of hard talks requiring candid presentations of information previously withheld from the community. We were blamed for nearly two decades of problems, and some community leaders wanted administrators fired, salaries reduced and board members ousted. We went public with information on student achievement, fiscal affairs, facility deficits, curriculum deficiencies, absence of technology and the staff's lack of preparedness to deliver instruction aligned with high academic standards.

Full disclosure was an important early step in establishing credibility in a community that viewed the district to be isolationist and withholding of information. Telling the truth drew a lot of heat from inside the district. At several early meetings of the administrative council, some members criticized me for "airing our dirty laundry" in the public arena. Many insiders saw this as denigrating the district. Others were threatened. The community viewed it as an enlightening and highly unusual move for the then-new district superintendent.

My posture throughout this period of catharsis was to listen, absorb the community perspective and resist the urge to judge or dispel. The community had been shut out and it was now time for the system to listen.

Mining the Community
Too often we do not look deeply enough into our communities to find the strengths and assets that model citizen action for the betterment of its children and youth. Unfortunately, the problems and deficits become the focus of our attention.

In Plainfield, caring parents, citizens and graduates of the school system had developed a number of grassroots initiatives that served youth. We identified a wonderful group, New Horizons, a volunteer precollege program formed more than 25 years ago to assist parents and high school students through the maze of the college admission process. Another group, Youth Action Mobilization, had a membership of more than two dozen African American men, all Plainfield residents and most of them graduates of Plainfield High School. This group independently organized a variety of recreational and mentoring programs for children and youth mostly of elementary and middle school age. A local church had formed a partnership with a neighborhood elementary school and organized the Young Achievers afterschool program in their new Family Development Center.

We found numerous examples of citizens who had organized efforts to take care of the children. Very often, the schools were not linked to these efforts. We found many people who wanted to work as partners in school improvement efforts. The time spent mining the riches of the community continues to pay significant dividends.

With the help of a small group of people I met during my first months on the job, I organized a Community Planning Task Force. The membership of the citizen-led task force was representative of community factions and included a majority of parents and community members. The charge to the group was to develop a structure that would engage the total community in identifying, promoting, monitoring and planning to ensure that the highest standards of achievement applied to all students.

The board and I assured the task force that its work would be taken seriously and its priorities would be reflected in the district's strategic plan and annual budget. Nearly 250 people worked for about 18 months and presented their "Blueprint for Educational Excellence" to the board of education. The board honored its commitment. From there we began to build the trust and credibility to support the hard work of improving teaching and learning in our system.

Considering Standards
The quest for high academic standards triggered the need to engage the public in dialogue on the implications of standards for students, families and schools. The conversations generated support for an ambitious, comprehensive reform agenda.

Public engagement provides a means to promote discussions on accountability, roles and responsibilities and the need for dramatic changes in approaches to instruction. With the knowledge and understanding, parents and guardians were empowered in their ability to be the advocates that our children need.

Parent-to-parent groups, dialogue with educators, public forums and information exchanges that increased community knowledge served to even the playing field as the district's schools advanced standards-based reform. Rethinking these approaches is necessary to better reach parents and guardians of children with multiple risk factors affecting their lives.

Benefits of Engagement
I am certain that most of what has been accomplished in our reform efforts in Plainfield is directly attributable to the partnership we established with our community. Things that were not thought possible are now a part of what we are willing to work for. Here are several examples:


  • Facility improvements. Voters passed a $33.9 million referendum to support new construction and much-needed renovations. No major construction or renovation work had occurred in the district since the early 1970s.



  • Technology infrastructure. Budget support for wiring our schools enabled every classroom to be connected to the Internet. This early investment positioned us for federal E-rate funding, and Plainfield received the fourth largest E-rate award in New Jersey.



  • Expanded afterschool programs. Comprehensive afterschool programs now operate in five elementary schools and will expand to all 13 schools by the 2000-2001 school year. Plainfield was among the first 90 school districts nationally to be awarded a competitive 21st Century Grant of $1.3 million from the U.S. Department of Education.



  • Critical issues forums. Public dialogue on critical issues have become part of our policy development and reform efforts. Over the past year, we organized three forums to engage parents and community members in dialogue on the elimination of social promotion board policy on school uniforms and development of the school district budget.



  • Advocacy for additional state aid. Shortly after we began our pubic engagement process the district lost more than $12 million in state school aid based upon a new funding formula. The impact on the schools was devastating. The school district, in partnership with the community, joined in a multifaceted campaign to regain our "special needs" designation. Rallies were organized in Plainfield and at the state capital, along with letter-writing campaigns, community education sessions, newspaper editorials and organized lobbying.


    Last spring legislation was enacted to restore our status, and we will receive more than $12 million in additional state aid to be phased in over three school years. Additionally, we now qualify for 100 percent financing of future school construction projects. This would not have happened if we chose to continue the adversarial, closed-shop relationship with the community.


  • Culture of collaboration. Collaboration is becoming a part of our culture. Parents and community members expect it and the school district continues to need cooperation to improve teaching and learning conditions. The value of collaboration has filtered into the broader community. The Plainfield Coalition, an interagency community group, was formed and now is working in partnership with the school system. This initiative was a key recommendation made by the Community Planning Task Force.


  • What I Learned
  • Do a few things well.

    Low-performing organizations typically do not have the capacity to do many things well. In Plainfield there was so much to do and we tried to do it all. This was a mistake. We began to focus much more narrowly and make adjustments to our priorities. We now target the teaching and learning agenda with major emphasis on improving literacy levels of students.

    Low-performing organizations typically do not have the capacity to do many things well. In Plainfield there was so much to do and we tried to do it all. This was a mistake. We began to focus much more narrowly and make adjustments to our priorities. We now target the teaching and learning agenda with major emphasis on improving literacy levels of students.


  • Pay attention to your own staff .


    In our zeal to engage the community, we found we came up short on keeping all of our own staff informed. Some district insiders felt ignored, that attention was not being focused on their issues.


  • Invest in building capacity.


    Persons involved in the public engagement process need to be supported by tools to get the work done. We developed a "tool kit" for individuals and groups involved in the community planning process. This resource provided helpful hints on planning and conducting effective meetings, techniques for decision making and consensus-building strategies. You can't expect people to work in new ways without new tools.


  • Make an authentic commitment.


    Do not begin the process of public engagement unless you are willing to listen to things you probably don't want to hear. You also must be prepared to give assurance that the district is seriously committed to making improvements in teaching and learning conditions with the community's input.


  • Be prepared to reinvent the engagement process.


    We learned that approaches to public engagement must be adjusted to meet current issues and concerns. The ability to sustain engagement over time required us to constantly rethink our strategies. People burn out, lose interest and get busy with other things. We have learned the importance of adjusting our engagement strategies to be responsive to current conditions. We found that what was successful in our early engagement history no longer is effective in the current organizational and cultural context of our district. A willingness to reinvent approaches is important to providing relevant and accessible strategies that meet the public where they are.

  • A Dire Challenge
    Public engagement is a necessity in our political, social and economic context. The critics of public education are increasingly well organized and well financed. Vouchers, charters, privatization and corporate schools are capturing the attention of politicians and citizens, who are eager for solutions to the nation's education challenges.

    A strong system of public education can only survive, perhaps even thrive, when schools and communities are connected and working together to improve outcomes for children and youth. Engaging the public is a means to an end, an end that results in the kind of community support necessary to accomplish the changes needed to ensure that all our students achieve their potential in the setting of the public school.

    Larry Leverett is superintendent of the Plainfield Public Schools, 504 Madison Ave., Plainfield, N.J. 07060.