Boards and community engagement

Community engagement is an on-going process of two-way communication between an organization and the community it serves.

Although the most visible form of that communication may occur in meetings, community engagement is not about a single meeting or even a series of meetings. Nor is it about public information, defending or seeking ratification for existing programs, or other strategies primarily aimed at shaping public opinion. Instead, community engagement is an ongoing, collaborative process during which the school district/ESD/community college works with the public to build understanding, guidance, and active involvement in education.

Boards should view community engagement as a strategic, proactive opportunity to strengthen their school systems. Part of that strategic opportunity may be to develop a better understanding of the public’s needs, concerns and expectations. The strategy also may be to determine now parents, business people, and other members of the public can actively support children, their education, the school system and the community. The ultimate goal of community engagement is to focus the community on answering the question, "What must this community be like in order for all children to succeed?"

Community engagement in education can take many forms, ranging from convening the community to identify and solve a specific social problem (such as the rise of drug abuse among teenagers) to addressing broader education issues (such as defining the mission of a community college system.)

Community engagement can help a board with four main goals:

  • Raising student achievement - By involving parents, members of the business sector and others in identifying academic goals, standards, resources and measures of progress, community engagement can be a powerful engine for raising student achievement.
  • Strengthening the whole student - If raising academic achievement is the ultimate goal, the community as a whole may need to pay greater attention to the social and health conditions that can interfere with learning. Teenage pregnancy, drug abuse, gang involvement, attendance, nutrition and health care all have effects on how well students learn.
  • Strengthening communities and schools - By convening the community around education issues, the school board can take a leadership role in leading people to think about and take action on other ways to improve community life.
  • Strengthening representative and participatory government - Public trust in government institutions is low. Boards that engage their communities are involving the public in making big decisions and re-engaging citizens with their representative voice in public education governance.

Community Engagement Tools

Community engagement is a long-term commitment, not a short-term fix or a single event. As part of that long-term commitment, a board can choose from several strategies:

Community Conversations: The traditional "public forum" format is used to present a plan, then seek public comment upon that plan. But that format does little to help school boards understand the underlying values, concerns and priorities of the community. Community conversations are designed to allow a dialogue among citizens, covering a broad range of ideas and mixture of interests. Citizens are asked to weigh options, analyze benefits and tradeoffs, and identify common ground for action. The Institute of Educational Leadership and National Issues Forums provide two models for such community conversations.

Study Circles: A study circle is a process for small-group deliberation. A study circle is comprised of 10-15 people who meet regularly over a period of weeks or months to address a critical public issue. A community-wide study circle program engages large numbers of citizens - working in small groups - on a public issue such as race relations, crime and violence or education. Participants gain ownership of the issues and, as the results of the discussions are gathered and analyzed, provide input to policy makers.

Focus Groups: Focus groups are facilitated meetings of small groups of people brought together for a specific discussion. They can be a useful way for education systems to develop a clearer understanding of the issues they face. Focus groups can be used as a step toward conducting a larger community conversation - that is, as a way to help establish the agenda or anticipate public reaction to key points.

Polling: Surveys, needs assessments and other polling tools won’t provide the depth or reveal underlying thinking the way community conversations or study circles do. However, these tools can help boards understand the broader public’s thoughts about educational goals, student performance, priorities, and views on specific issues.

Guiding Questions on Community Engagement

  • Does our school district/ESD/community college have a way to determine what the public expects of our schools?
  • Does our school district/ESD/community college have a way to determine the public’s perception of and confidence in education?
  • How extensively is the public currently involved in the development of our school improvement plan or strategic goals?
  • How broad is that involvement? Should it be more extensive?
  • If our board convenes the community, what benefits and outcomes do we see?
  • Looking specifically at our board's effort to raise student achievement, do we see areas of vision, goal setting, implementation, accountability or advocacy where public advice, approval or assistance would be beneficial?
  • In what areas do we want the public’s role to be advisory, and in what areas do we want the public to share in decision making?
  • Whom do we want to engage and why? What will their involvement look like? 

Adapted from Communities Count: A School Board Guide to Public Engagement, National School Boards Association.

Communicating during the board meeting