Marrying Citizens and Educators in Decisions

Public engagement projects demonstrate the capacity of citizens to examine thorny school issues and devise solutions. by Matt Leighninger

In the past 15 years, educators and citizens have tried to strengthen the bonds between them. School administrators know public support is necessary to pass bond issues and deal with redistricting dilemmas, while parent groups and community organizations want more say in how their schools function and how students are taught.

The growing attraction between citizens and educators can form the basis of a fruitful school-community relationship. This new way of connecting, in which large numbers of people meet regularly to talk about school issues and find solutions, goes far beyond blue-ribbon commissions and school-business partnerships.

To make the marriage last, however, some important new questions--or rather, new twists on old questions--must be considered: How should schools be accountable to the community and vice versa? Should students be able to help make school decisions? How should educators and citizens work together on a daily basis?

Romance Blooms

To understand how these questions emerge, we can compare what is happening in Hamilton, Ontario, which just embarked on a large-scale public engagement project, with the experience of Winston-Salem, N.C., which began mobilizing citizens two years ago.

The Winston-Salem project was initiated in 2003 by the Community Alliance for Education, a local education fund, while the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board worked with a parent task force to organize an education summit earlier this year.

In both projects, participants met in groups of 8 to 10. Each group had a facilitator who helped the participants set ground rules and who remained impartial in the discussions. First the groups talked about their own experiences with school. Then they weighed various options for improving education and developed plans for action. After the group sessions ended, participants shared their conclusions and formed teams to work on particular solutions.

In Winston-Salem, more than 200 people met in small groups over several weeks; in Hamilton, more than 300 participants went through three small-group sessions in the course of a day.

One of the most successful aspects of the Hamilton project was that many high school students participated, some as facilitators. In Winston-Salem, one of the main action ideas was to get more students to address concerns about the relationships among different groups of students and between students and educators. A school climate action team was formed, and that group has since organized a dialogue project at two high schools involving about 600 students.

Students in both cities have assumed some of the rights and responsibilities of adult citizens. Educators, parents and students now must consider how they are redefining the role of young people in school decision making.

Participants in both communities wanted to strengthen communications between citizens and educators. In Winston-Salem, the communications action team conducted a survey on parent-school relations with the assistance of graduate students at Wake Forest University. The parent-teacher associations aren’t always effective at recruiting parents or giving them a chance to be heard.

Now that citizens have mobilized, will the PTAs (or other groups) be able to sustain this momentum? Hamilton faces the same dilemma with its local school councils and “home and school” associations: In most schools, the two groups do not work together effectively, and neither attracts large numbers of parents on a regular basis.

Participants in both projects also made recommendations that would require changes in school policy. In Hamilton, the ideas included rethinking the zero tolerance policy on school violence and providing more professional-development release time for teachers.

The role of the school board was a hot topic in Winston-Salem. After the small-group sessions had ended, the school board action team advocated that the board shift from partisan to nonpartisan elections. The current school board was not receptive to the proposal. This is just one idea among many that emerged from the Winston-Salem discussions, but it shows that decision makers don’t always feel accountable to participants in a public engagement effort.

Finally, participants in both cities have selected projects they want to work on themselves. In Winston-Salem, the teacher recruitment team has helped three colleges collaborate on a scholarship fund that would allow some teachers to go back to school and help recruit new teachers who are currently in college.

Educators sometimes have reservations about this kind of volunteerism. Whenever citizens take on tasks that would normally be done by district employees, it raises questions about the role of professionals versus amateurs, and it forces citizens and educators to negotiate how they will work together.

Making It Work

The public engagement projects in Hamilton and Winston-Salem are demonstrating the willingness and capacity of citizens to examine thorny school issues and implement solutions. This can result in a bargain that works for both sides: parents and other community members devote their time and energy to solving school problems, and educators give them a greater say over school policies in return. The tangible benefits of this romance have convinced school districts all over the country to follow suit.

This may be the beginning of a long and beautiful relationship. But to keep it growing, citizens and educators will have to learn from the experiences of the communities that have gone before them. By thinking through the implications of their new civic experiments, citizens and educators can harness the full power of the community for the sake of young people.

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