Personal touches help Creswell increase community engagement
Wednesday, November 20, 2019
When Creswell School District’s community engagement forum didn’t engage the community, district leaders took a different approach.
The small district south of Eugene enticed roughly four times as many people to show up when it offered dinner and child care and made a targeted effort to reach out to specific communities.
Staff, student and community input are essential ingredients for districts’ continuous improvement plans due Dec. 6. The Student Success Act also requires community engagement for grant applications due in the spring.
The act’s Student Investment Account will deliver approximately $500 million a year in noncompetitive school district grants based on enrollment, but districts must show they have heard the needs of their students, staff and community, especially from historically underrepresented groups.
Some districts, particularly smaller ones, have struggled with where and how to start.
Students and staff are captive audiences, making it relatively easy for surveys and discussions. Districts must be more creative, though, to reach families that typically don’t interact with the schools.
Creswell publicized its first forum through the usual school online and social media channels. Only about a dozen people showed up Oct. 16.
For the second forum on Nov. 6, the special education coordinator reached out to families with students with individualized education programs. The district worked with its Family Resource Center to identify and invite economically disadvantaged families. A bilingual district staff member spent an entire day calling approximately 65 families that speak Spanish in addition to sending notices home in Spanish.
“To really reach them, we had to reach them in the language they are comfortable with,” said Bethany Cross, district English language program coordinator and teacher. The district provided five Spanish translators for the event.
The act specifically requires schools to gather input from families of students of color; students with disabilities; emerging bilingual students; students navigating poverty, homelessness and foster care; and any other student groups that have experienced academic disparities.
The forum started at 5 p.m. with pizza and salad. Providing a meal reduced stress for parents just coming home from work and it set a more friendly and welcoming tone, according to Cross. Trusted district-provided child care also helped ease parents’ burdens.
Superintendent Michael Johnson said the discussions at the second forum went deeper into details because they had more parent participation.
Johnson has worked nights and weekends to prepare for the meetings and sort through the data afterward, but he said the information gathered has been well worth it and extremely valuable. Johnson, who became superintendent this year, is getting to know his district quickly from all different angles. The conversations have highlighted district strengths and places it could do more.
Larger school districts tend to have more communities to reach, but they also have more staff resources. Smaller districts can call on education service districts to help.
From the Statewide Initiatives portion of the act, Oregon’s 19 ESDs have been allocated $24 million to provide technical assistance to districts. School districts won’t see any grant money until July, but ESDs can start spending their new money now. They can offer support such as facilitator training or guidance for sorting data.
Johnson said they collaborated with Lane ESD to facilitate their community conversation.
School leaders will need to show who they engaged, how they engaged them and what they learned, according to Meg Boyd, ODE strategic communications analyst.
ODE will offer more application guidance in early December as well as district estimates of the act’s Student Investment Account grants. The application window will open March 2-April 15. Scott Nine, assistant superintendent of ODE’s new Office of Education Innovation and Improvement, said districts must apply to receive the grants but ODE would work with districts until they had their applications right.
Engagement work for grant applications should continue even after districts turn in their continuous improvement plans, according to ODE. Creswell has another forum planned for Dec. 18.
Johnson is excited about the engagement process and said he thinks it will help them close achievement gaps.
Parents appreciated being involved, he said. The word is spreading through the community, he said, and he expects the next forum to be even bigger.