Effective community engagement is a goal of many boards of education and district leaders. Interactive and effective communication between a school district and its community gets people involved in school or district events. We want participation from parents and residents in our information meetings, school organizations, district surveys and community focus groups. Yet, the strong involvement and participation that district leadership desires escapes many of our best efforts. What is community engagement? What specific questions can the board use to reflect on its engagement practices? Are there recommended action steps that could start a board on the path of effective community engagement?
How does the concept of community engagement impact student achievement? Listen to the two-minute audio clip to set the stage for the community relations key work of school boards.
Community engagement and the board of education
How do you get people to feel connected? How do you get them to care? Does community engagement really matter?
These are important questions for every board of education and district leadership team to address. To solve problems and make choices for the public good, district leaders should do more than talk. They need to understand the community’s aspirations for public schools. Community engagement is an ongoing dialogue between district leadership and community members about a shared problem or opportunity. It is inherently local and requires a high degree of trust among the district, its schools and the community.
Citizens with the ability to access information and connect with it, are less likely to feel alienated and excluded from the school district.
When a community feels a connection to the district, its members are more likely to feel like partners in the decision-making process and support its programs or funding efforts. What sets community engagement apart from public relations, grandparent lunches or Girl Scouts using a building for weekly troop meetings is this - community engagement encourages participation in problem solving and develops partnerships to advance a cause, solve a problem, improve a situation or raise awareness of a need.
Community engagement strengthens and supports student achievement
A robust communication plan is the first necessary component of an effective community engagement process. However, communication and information alone are not sufficient for residents to connect and engage with the district.
In studies of districts that made significant progress in raising student achievement, researchers found that boards of education not only involved the community, but believed in them as part of the larger team.1
Effective districts build consensus with stakeholders that student achievement and student opportunity will be a top priority for the district. Improving student achievement requires us to stretch our thinking and recognize that student success is not defined by test scores alone. What constitutes student achievement in your community? This is a critical conversation to have with the diverse members of your public. We must identify what student success looks like collaboratively and clearly.
The board and district administration create a sense of urgency for improved student opportunity. This urgency is realized when the board takes responsibility for informing the community about the status of student achievement - identifying the challenges and offering a compelling case for an urgent need to change. The community must understand why reform or change is needed, the progress being made and the importance of sustaining the effort.
Community engagement can be a powerful engine for student achievement by involving parents, local businesses and other stakeholders to identify academic goals, resources and measures of progress. To provide appropriate learning opportunities, the entire community may need to focus on social conditions that can interfere with learning. Homelessness, hunger, drug abuse, violence, attendance and access to health care are but a few barriers that impact student achievement. Working with the community to address barriers such as these affords the board of education a leadership role that encourages people to think about and act on ways to improve student and community life.
For more information on community engagement or details about planning a community engagement customized workshop, please contact Kim Miller-Smith, senior student achievement consultant, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 614-540-4000.
The "File Attachments" located on the right side of this page are outstanding community engagement resources used with the permission of the authoring organization. "Links" as noted under the Resources section of the page, are additional media resources, OSBA services and publications that support district efforts in the community engagement process.
1 Iowa School Boards Association. (2000). The lighthouse inquiry: School board / superintendent team behaviors in school district with extreme differences in student achievement. Delagardelle, M.