Feature

From Public Enragement to Engagement

To overcome cynicism, a superintendent uses his bully pulpit to convene community members in dialogue about the fate of schools by JEFFREY S. ARNETT


At a time when many Americans are estranged from public education, building support for the local school district is a pressing concern.

Establishing and maintaining credibility is complex yet essential to secure a place of meaningful influence in the community. Institutions that lack legitimacy in the public’s eyes do not generally enjoy high levels of trust. Without trust, there is no confidence, and without confidence, either internal or external, there are typically few results.

This was true for the Rockwood, Mo., School District in the mid-1990s. After a period of tumultuous administration, the suburban St. Louis school system of 20,000 students had generated public enragement instead of any level of engagement. Active opposition groups, along with questionable fiscal practices and dwindling staff morale, had shaken Rockwood to its core and forced the district to re-examine its performance. Scrutiny even occurred at the political level when the state auditor--prompted by patron petitions--conducted a well-publicized review of district finances. Everyone suddenly understood the significant yet fragile role that public confidence plays in a school district’s efforts to be effective.

Hard Lessons
With the appointment of new leadership in 1995, Rockwood sought opportunities to reconstruct stakeholder relationships. Today, the school district strives for openness and accountability, with an emphasis on listening and a commitment to improvement. Diverse opinions are accepted, and constructive criticism is encouraged.

Those lessons, however, were not easily learned and developing effective engagement strategies did not happen overnight. Before the buffeting conditions developed in the early ‘90s, the standard communication programs were in place. While regular publications, strategic planning and a history of mostly successful referendum campaigns all provided a foundation for rebuilding community relations, they no longer satisfied a growing expectation for meaningful involvement.

The winds of change that swirled throughout Rockwood in the summer of 1995 demanded something more than superficial one-way exchanges. Even with a shift in leadership, foreboding clouds remained on the horizon. A reorganized administrative team, including a newly appointed superintendent, read the forecast and developed a plan of engagement. The only way to divert a full-fledged storm was by listening to patron concerns and actively enlisting parents and other community members in worthwhile dialogue about the future of St. Louis County’s largest public school system. Rockwood residents wanted a seat at the table.

Confidence Restored
Four years have elapsed since Rockwood began its efforts to regain credibility. Understandably, the process of reviving trust is slow and arduous, with every new action subject to careful community analysis. The results, nonetheless, are gratifying.

Hundreds of patrons today are directly engaged in a transparent decision-making process that guides curricular programs, financial practices and facility planning. To maintain the confidence it fought so hard to restore, the district now realizes the value of listening to and acting on constituents’ input. Where the importance of conversation was once ignored, there now is appreciation for substantive dialogue.

An attitude of service has taken root in Rockwood. Regular meetings with religious, municipal and legislative leaders, as well as private and parochial school principals, help school district officials understand how they can cooperate with others. Monthly forums with parent leaders provide a setting for uninterrupted discussion about issues and concerns in each school’s community. Engaging the aging public also is a top priority as Rockwood develops programs that cultivate interaction with senior citizens who have comprised an integral part of the district’s tax base for so many years.

District leaders have convened citizen advisory councils to provide objective counsel in such areas as business and finance, communication and curriculum development. Regular meetings with experts in these areas, most of whom live or work in the community, not only provide a different perspective, but also satisfy an important need to involve influential stakeholders.

"The importance of ‘public’ in the definition of a public school system is essential to Rockwood’s success," says John Oldani, superintendent since 1995. "Our schools belong to the community, so we benefit from different voices in helping us establish goals and priorities."

Interaction at Home
Engagement at the district level is a priority, but involvement at the individual building level is necessary to improve Rockwood’s chances of increasing student achievement. Principals are expected to include parents and community members in developing school improvement plans. Parental participation and interaction have an appreciated value in the effort to raise test scores throughout the district, although such inclusive efforts look different from building to building.

At Ellisville Elementary School, a forum for meaningful conversation often takes place apart from school. In Principal Dave Knes’s meetings, there are couches instead of school chairs, and a coffee table substitutes for a podium. Parents feel a little more at home. That is because Knes regularly visits with families in their kitchens and living rooms.

"There isn’t an agenda," Knes explains. "I want parents to come to a neighborhood home and feel free to talk with me about anything related to their children, the school or the district. It is important for parents to feel comfortable talking with their school principal and it is important for me to get out and know my community."

These informal gatherings prove to be successful in several respects. Knes has incorporated issues discussed at the meetings into Ellisville’s school improvement plan.

"I know of parents in my neighborhood who were deciding on whether to send their children to a public school or private school and the principal meeting gave them the chance to learn more about their local school and meet other parents," explains Nancy Simpson, an Ellisville parent who hosted a principal’s visit in her home. "The idea is wonderful because the meetings provide a relaxed atmosphere and you get a different influx of people who may not have the chance to get to school to talk with the principal."

Hosted by families throughout the school’s attendance area, as many as 20 to 30 parents typically attend each home meeting with the principal. Such efforts encapsulate Rockwood’s philosophy of grassroots public engagement.

"We know from research that the key to a thriving school is open, positive relationships with parents and the community," Oldani says. "If face-to-face interaction is at the top of the hierarchy of effective communication, then it must also be a correlate of an effective school."

Fine Art of Engaging
While part of Rockwood’s public engagement strategy is focused on meeting people where they live and work, another component brings the community into the schools so they can observe firsthand the challenges and successes of public education. In 1996, an active contingent of parents and staff formed Spotlight Productions, a conceptual center for the visual and performing arts operating under the auspices of Rockwood’s community education program.

Although primarily meant to advance the documented impact of the fine arts on student achievement, Spotlight and Rockwood quickly recognized community theatre as a comfortable common ground for attracting and involving the masses.

"Through Spotlight, we have literally found a way for thousands of parents and residents to be involved who might not otherwise have given it a thought," says Rockwood Board of Education President Mary Battenberg. "This has been a tremendous opportunity to engage so many diverse populations, everyone from single moms to middle-age taxpayers to home-schooled children."

The program, which now has spawned a children’s choir, a community symphony orchestra and productions of popular musicals, dramas and Broadway revues, has drawn large audiences from the community into the schools, thereby creating a new arena for conversation.

In November 1998, Rockwood held its first Senior Citizens’ Evening in conjunction with Spotlight Productions. More than 600 residents of the community, age 55 and older, were invited to Rockwood’s Lafayette High School for a complimentary dinner and performance of the musical "Annie." During the meal, board of education members, the superintendent and other district administrators circulated among the crowd listening to residents’ comments and answering their questions.

Entertaining hospitality combined with quality conversation equates to engagement in its most enjoyable form, says Battenberg.

"So many people have said they feel welcomed and are thrilled with this new reason to visit our schools," she says. "The more a community knows its schools and understands what great things our students are capable of, the more supportive residents will be of what is happening in public education."

Beyond Ballot Boxes
While community engagement can evolve in many ways, general support for public education is often wrongly defined by a school district’s success at involving patrons to help pass bond or tax referendums. As Rockwood learned, nothing will kill the seed for long-term relationships faster than a questionable increase in communication and requests for involvement around an upcoming ballot item, especially if it ultimately fails.

In the winter of 1994, normally restrained board of education meetings became convocations for contentious debate in Rockwood. Hundreds of concerned parents and angry residents filled high school auditoriums to hear board members and administrators discuss the need to cut $16.3 million from an operating budget of $110 million. Fueling the furor was the fact that only a few weeks earlier the most extensive engagement campaign in Rockwood’s history had failed to pass part of a sizeable and controversial tax levy proposal.

The involvement of more than 1,000 volunteers and committee members was admirable but narrowly focused on the referendum. For a burgeoning school district accustomed to winning at the polls an average of every two years since the mid-1970s, Rockwood was at a loss for strategy. In the past, effective communication and involvement had typically converged on the themes of growth and capital improvement. Now, however, there was controversy. Patrons demanded answers to their financial questions along with open dialogue about district priorities.

Invariably, Rockwood became like many school systems where conflict precipitated another failed ballot initiative that, in turn, triggered a change in leadership on the school board and in the superintendent’s office. By summer 1995, the pathway to public engagement was newly considered. As the Annenberg Institute for School Reform found in its recent study, "Reasons for Hope, Voices for Change," public engagement often finds its genesis in crisis.

The Phoenix Effect
Red flags might be fitting when public engagement is appreciated mostly for the short-term role it plays to inform voters--not for the long-term role in cultivating relationships of understanding with the community. The misperception that communication is a means to an end often leads many school districts into trouble. The alternatives--continuous open discussions and transparent decision making for the sake of ongoing school improvement--are less costly, both fiscally and emotionally.

While Rockwood’s encounter with crisis was not quite the "crash and burn" syndrome some educational systems have experienced, a few smoldering ashes did give rise to a reformed school district.

Communication in Rockwood is now viewed as an asset rather than an expense, something to be esteemed and not compromised. The will of the board includes a new expectation for ongoing relationship building with the community. Engagement in this context becomes the responsibility of every employee throughout the system, not just the superintendent, the principals or the school board. Teachers, custodians, secretaries, bus drivers and all other staff members must understand the important part they have in making a connection with stakeholders. When internal and external audiences invest jointly in ownership of the dialogue-building process, communication becomes a value-added commodity rather than a liability.

Stumbling or Stepping?
Rockwood’s path to public engagement has not been without its bumps, however. Since 1996, two boundary adjustments to accommodate attendance areas for new elementary schools generated a fair amount of friction within the school district.

"Disagreement can be a positive force when it spurs conversation and leads to an open exchange of ideas," says Oldani. "Even changes associated with an emotionally charged issue like redrawing school boundaries can become stepping stones when the process is encompassing and everyone’s input is considered."

Other issues, such as the adoption of new curricula or student discipline matters, occasionally evoke the fervor of district patrons. The keys, Oldani says, are candor, accessibility and inclusiveness so that in telling the story of education everyone understands they have an important role to play in the outcome.

Also integral to telling the story of education is Rockwood’s relationship with the local media. Admittedly, relations between educators and the news media across the country are in a somewhat contentious state where greater scrutiny stems from questions about school safety and declining student achievement. Nevertheless, reporter relationships in Rockwood are viewed through the lens of public engagement or civic journalism. The focus becomes cooperating for the betterment of the community and the schools rather than finding fault.

The superintendent considers interaction with the news media an important aspect of public engagement. Oldani says: "We always make ourselves available to answer reporters’ questions about any issue, whether it is positive or negative."

By bringing balanced attention to the achievements and shortcomings, the ultimate intent is to generate an understanding of educational issues and needs through open, honest dialogue in the community press. The traditional notion of spin doctoring as a communications function is anathema to public engagement.

Withstanding the Elements
These examples of public engagement are not unique. Throughout the nation, school systems like Rockwood enlist similar approaches to involving their communities and rebuilding trust in public education.

Like an old-fashioned barn raising, confidence in an organization’s strength and ability to withstand the elements is often proportionate to the number of people who participate in its construction.

Jeff Arnett is director of communications for the Rockwood School District, 1955-A Shepard Road, Glencoe, MO 63038. E-mail: coadd@rockwood.k12.mo.us. He is a consultant on public engagement projects with the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.