Districts go beyond school meetings to engage their communities
Gladstone school board member Stacie Moncrief listened Oct. 10 while parents shared where they thought their schools were succeeding and where they could improve. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Parents’ voices cracked and tears came as they talked about dreams and fears for their children on a Thursday night in Gladstone. They described schools packed with heroes, giving their all. And they want more.
More staff. More social and emotional student support. More opportunities for their children.
Gladstone Schools invited the families to give their input on the district’s work on its continuous improvement plan and Student Success Act plan. Superintendent Bob Stewart and school board member Stacie Moncrief, along with district staff, soaked up the parents’ emotional praise for their schools and the raw need for help.
Districts across Oregon are ramping up community engagement on a scale and condensed timeline unseen before. Districts are employing tried-and-true methods while also pioneering new ways to reach often unheard populations.
Districts must submit a continuous improvement plan that includes a needs assessment to the Oregon Department of Education by Dec. 6. ODE moved back the deadline from June so that school districts could combine their preparation for Student Success Act grant applications with their planning work.
The act is expected to generate $1 billion a year for preK-12 public education, with roughly half awarded as district grants. Applications, due in the spring, will use the needs assessment within the continuous improvement plans. Districts should be able to show how they are reducing disparities, meeting students’ mental and behavioral needs, providing a well-rounded education, allowing teachers and staff more development time, and building partnerships.
Needs assessment includes community engagement with staff, students and families — the driving requirement for grant applications. According to the act, the engagement must include students and families from groups that have experienced academic disparities. The law names students of color, students with disabilities, emerging bilingual students and students navigating poverty, homelessness and foster care.
ODE expects to flesh out the grant application rules by January, but documentation of engagement efforts will be crucial.
Stewart said that at the first of his nine “Soup with the Superintendent” meetings, he watched parents’ eyes glaze over as he explained the Student Success Act. Then he asked them what they wanted for their schools and the light came on. Now he barely mentions the act, instead focusing on four questions about Gladstone.
Parents answer through an app called Poll Everywhere on their smartphone or with Chromebooks supplied by the school. The anonymous answers are projected on a screen and discussed.
Stewart mostly listened Oct. 10 as the parents took over the discussion, talking among themselves about what was working and possible improvement plans. Parents talked not only about what their child needed but also the needs of the other students, the other families and the school staff.
The act’s Student Investment Account is expected to distribute about $475 million to schools in July. Grants, which will be based on enrollment, can be used to address class size, instructional time, health and safety, or well-rounded education programs.
Grant uses must be aimed at students’ mental and behavioral health needs and increasing achievement while addressing academic disparities. School boards are required to hold meetings to inform the community and approve plans.
Districts are forming committees and polling families, students and staff through email, websites and surveys. Some bring the surveys to meetings, providing computers for families who might not have access.
Springfield School District is using Thoughtexchange, an online engagement platform. Jenna McCulley, community engagement officer, said the platform allows the community to hear each other’s voices.
Some districts are taking data from YouthTruth, a survey tool for gathering student input. North Bend on the coast is making a special effort to talk to students who are chronically absent because they often represent multiple community challenges.
Many districts are holding public meetings at schools with child care and meals, but some leaders say those tend to reach only the usual suspects who are already engaged in school decision-making. Proactive districts are inviting specific parent groups to meetings or going where their communities gather.
Hood River School District is reaching out through existing channels, such as its Spanish-speaking parents group and groups in its federal programs meeting.
Superintendent Candy Armstrong, of North Wasco County School District in the Columbia River Gorge, said she had great success taking her act discussion to a long-running migrant parents meeting, held in Spanish.
Armstrong said parents were excited to talk and give feedback in a setting comfortable for them. She said parents shared frustrations with her, such as the difficulty of getting a student into a talented and gifted program if the parent doesn’t speak English well.
Armstrong said they are looking to visit other already existing meetings, such as with the Native American parents committee or The Arc of the Mid-Columbia, which serves people with developmental disabilities.
Parkrose Superintendent Michael Lopes-Serrao said that although his east Portland district is more than two-thirds students of color those are the families they hear from the least. The district is trying to partner with community groups — such as Elevate Oregon, Self Enhancement Inc, Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, and Latino Network — to create ongoing fun community events that involve more than an information download.
“The district’s purpose of being there is really to listen,” he said.
At least 60 languages are spoken in east Portland’s David Douglas School District. It has held meetings specifically for Spanish-speaking families, southeast Asian families and Somali families.
On Monday afternoon at a meeting for Russian families, parent Nicolae Kostinyuk said he appreciated a translator’s help so he knew he understood 100% of what was being said. He was a strong voice for more sports opportunities.
School board member Frieda Christopher, who attended the meeting, said they are still finding the best ways to reach the area’s changing immigrant communities.
“Making them feel welcome is the key,” Christopher said.
Districts report common themes: more hands-on learning, more student supports, more help for parents to guide their children.
Still, the group-targeted meetings have revealed unseen needs.
Gladstone’s Stewart said Arabic families brought up that they would like to see more of their culture within schools, such as Arabic-language books in the library. They also asked for more understanding, such as lunchtime options for students who are fasting during Ramadan.
He said he began to ask other groups if they saw themselves in the schools, altering the conversation.
David Douglas Superintendent Ken Richardson said the main difference he saw with different cultural groups was a desire for more staff who spoke their language.
“Overall, wanting what is best for their kids is kind of universal,” he said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA