Theresa Kelly Gegen is the editor of The Illinois School Board Journal.
“In this and like communities, public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.”
— Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln-Douglas debate, Ottawa, August 21, 1858.
Perhaps no man understood the power of public sentiment better than Abraham Lincoln did in his time. In current times, perhaps no public entity can harness the power value of public sentiment better than a local school board. As many school districts across Illinois are discovering, community engagement is the cornerstone of local governance.
The importance of community engagement cannot be underestimated.
“Community engagement builds trust,” says Kevin Daugherty, school board president of LeRoy CUSD 2 in McLean County.
“It makes the school a part of the community, and infuses the values of the community with our educational vision,” adds Andrea Evers, superintendent at Cairo SD1. “When you’re looking at moving your vision forward, you have to include all stakeholders in the process.”
Several school districts in Illinois have been actively participating in community engagement work for years. Others are joining community engagement efforts as part of a pilot program by the Illinois Association of School Boards. In 2014, IASB rolled out a publication and program, Connecting with the Community: The Purpose and Process of Community Engagement As Part of Effective School Board Governance.
Community engagement, also called public engagement or civic engagement, is the process by which school boards actively involve diverse citizens in dialogue, deliberation, and collaborative thinking around common interests for their public schools. IASB’s key values of community engagement ― what sets it apart from information sharing, public relations or other methods of communication ― are based on theories from not-for-profit Harwood Institute for Public Innovation: community engagement is ongoing, connects with citizens as owners, reflects different voices or viewpoints as well as different geography or demographics, builds common ground, and creates knowledge.
The preface to Connecting with the Community warns that the blame for failures in public education “has been falling on local educators and school boards and the weight of negative public perception is compounding the effect.” As a result, many reform initiatives attenuate local governance. Community engagement is vital, not only to inspire local governance, but also to protect it. Successful community engagement is inherently local. Local factors – economy, demography, geography, culture, and traditions – underlie each school board and district’s unique community engagement efforts.
LeRoy CUSD 2 reaps the benefits
LeRoy is located in central Illinois, within 30 minutes of both Bloomington-Normal and Champaign-Urbana. To its population of 3,600 people, it offers “access to high quality healthcare, entertainment, education, and a well-insulated economy.” LeRoy CUSD 2’s website proclaims it has an “involved community, competitive students, productive citizens.”
The district has been reaping the benefits of a targeted community engagement effort for eight years, with an annual “State of the Schools” event. Held each spring, LeRoy’s effort brings community members into the school for a year in review, based on the previous year’s goals in the areas of student achievement, facilities, finances, and community engagement. After a dinner, the event features breakout sessions with students and teachers, to demonstrate advances and improvements in teaching and learning. The event reconvenes for a closing session, at which the district leadership forecasts its vision for the next one to three years. Communication runs both ways at LeRoy’s State of the Schools. The district uses a “parking lot” strategy during the event and a participant survey after.
“Anyone who has an “ah-ha” moment – an idea, or contribution, question or comment, they write it down on a post it note and put in on a poster,” says LeRoy superintendent Gary Tipsord. “We go through those, we share them and answer the questions, within the week. We also do a survey. Responsiveness is important to this work.”
That responsiveness carries over into the school board retreat in the fall, bringing community engagement in line with the board self-evaluation and visioning.
“It’s important to give those who are affected by a decision a chance to voice their concerns,” adds board member Wendy Dooley. “We strive to listen, address needs, inform, and be transparent. Sometimes we have to make changes to our vision.”
Dooley and fellow board member Kevin Daugherty share a story of how the district’s community engagement work influenced, and was influenced by, goal setting and policy relating to a county school facility tax initiative (CSFT).
“The policy is shared in specific engagement activities and people aren’t surprised when we implement initiatives based on our policy,” Daugherty says. “In the spring of 2014 McLean County had the CSFT on the ballot. Our community engagement aspect not only shared the potential implication to our local district, we demonstrated an actual school safety need – a secure entrance to our elementary school. Because we had engaged in this process, although the CSFT referendum failed, in the summer of 2015 we added a secure elementary entrance with money from our reserve.
“Although we would have liked to have had the enhanced performing arts space that the CSFT dollars would have generated, we completed a 12-week building project, which the entire community knew about, and we didn’t get a single complaint. This is because of our engagement process.”
Cairo SD 1 partners, perseveres
Cairo, in Alexander County, is at the southernmost point in Illinois, where the Ohio River joins the Mississippi. Historically an important transportation hub for river and railroad traffic, Cairo in the last century suffered turbulent race relations and economic decline. From a peak population of 15,000 in the 1920s, Cairo’s population today is under 3,000. Over 95 percent of Cairo’s students are black or mixed race.
At Cairo SD 1, community engagement work is just beginning. Cairo’s board has targeted specific topics for its community work, to inform stakeholders and get community reaction on Common Core, school safety, student behavior, and college potential.
“We had an important ‘light bulb’ moment when we talked to the parents about opportunities that they didn’t even know are available to their children,” says Superintendent Evers. “There’s a whole range of post-secondary options but we’re in a community that’s fairly isolated. Having those conversations, and seeing that our families needed more direction in discovering those options, is something we would not have known without community engagement. It was a reflective process, but when a parent says I know how to help my child at home – that’s really powerful.”
The school board’s website promises “Cairo School District #1, in partnership with the entire community, will prepare every student to become lifelong learners who will be productive, informed and responsible members of society.” That mission guides the board in its community engagement work. IASB’s board development and field service staff members have worked on-site with the Cairo board.
“Three years ago we began our community engagement process with Patrick Rice of IASB,” Evers says. “We invited our community members in and did a collaborative table discussion with each of the members talking about where they saw strengths and where they saw limitations. We went on to discuss how we could capture the strengths and improve the weaknesses.”
This work led to Cairo’s target topics for community engagement.
“We took the information garnered at that first community engagement, and developed a systematic process,” Evers says. “When you find out what’s working, that’s great. But what’s not working is where you build your plan and process. We’ve involved families and done work on the school handbook, making it a usable and valuable document with family input. We did a parenting event, sharing information that the community had identified as critically important: common core, preparing students for college, talking to children about risky behaviors.”
Cairo’s school board found that it had to take engagement to the community to draw stakeholders in.
“We discovered the best way is to provide a meal for them,” says Cairo board president Artie McBride. “If that’s what it takes to bring everyone together, we’ll do it. And once we’re doing it, it’s got to be continuous.”
“The process will eventually be as easy as we first thought it would be,” agreed board member Sheila Nelson. “We are getting parents together, having different discussions. People in this community are like family. We will do everything to give parents, students, stakeholders the opportunity to come, to talk, to share their opinions, to find out what’s going on.”
Effective engagement at Wheaton Warrenville CUSD 200
Separated by the length of the state and a socio-economic chasm from Cairo, Wheaton Warrenville CUSD 200, serving 13,400 students in DuPage County, has a well-developed community engagement program to help the district meet its mission, “to inspire, educate, challenge, and support all students to reach their highest level of learning and personal development.”
The district’s most recent “Engage 200” endeavor resulted in five areas of recommendation based on community conversation: finance, student support, staff development, facilities, and communication. Wheaton Warrenville offers stakeholders many opportunities for conversation, highlighted by the “State of Our Schools” event each September, the first of four annual community engagement sessions.
“It was vitally important for our entire community to participate in Engage 200,” says school board secretary Brad Paulsen, who also served on the Engage 200 committee. “Only with diverse and informed voices can we develop an effective plan for our district’s future.”
The Board of Education also prioritizes community engagement as part of “Vision 2018,” a strategic planning document, introduced in 2014, that outlined district goals and priorities for a four-year period. Additionally, District 200 has a citizens advisory committee, which advises the board of education regarding educational and other issues. Members of the committee represent geographical areas within district boundaries. The committee seeks “a cross-section of opinions and educational perspectives with a general ability to work constructively with others,” and notes that households that do not have school-aged children are represented.”
The 2015 “State of Our Schools” event, held on September 23, was lauded for reaching out to such households. At that event, the district unveiled a focus on facilities planning, in response to input from previous community engagement efforts. To learn more about Wheaton Warrenville’s community engagement-based outcomes, visit www.cusd200.org/Page/12585.
Define, articulate, and re-define
IASB’s Foundational Principles of Effective Governance posits that the primary task of the school board is to continually define, articulate, and re-define district ends to answer the recurring question: “Who gets what benefits for how much?” In order to define those ends and to further clarify the district’s vision, mission, and goals, it is imperative that a school board connect with its community and find focus in the aspirations that people have for their local schools. IASB researched and developed Connecting with the Community, and continues to refine it, to help school boards understand what community engagement is, why it is critical, what they can expect to accomplish, and how to evaluate the results.
“We discovered some pitfalls,” says Cynthia Woods, director of advocacy for IASB and a member of the Association’s community engagement team. “The time commitment is huge, and it can seem overwhelming. What we have found is that, if a board comes to the decision that it needs community engagement, it will find a way.”
Another challenge: “Information has its own value, but communication is not necessarily engagement,” Woods says. As Connecting with the Community promises, and as Cairo, LeRoy and Wheaton Warrenville demonstrate, community engagement is “by no means a one-size-fits-all, step-by-step process.”
IASB offers Connecting with the Community workshops, open to members from any district (see sidebar). In addition, school boards can work in-district with IASB to develop community engagement programs. Currently piloting programs with IASB, in addition to Cairo, are Forest Park SD 91, Grant Park CUSD 6, Skokie SD 73.5, and Maercker SD 60.
For these school districts and others, community engagement is an important part of the future.
“It’s collaborative. It’s ongoing. And it changes,” says Cairo superintendent Evers. “Our needs three years ago are different from our needs today, because we’ve accomplished some of our goals, and by accomplishing that, we see where we need to reach further. It’s important to check in and reconnect, and re-evaluate.”
“Community engagement gives us a purposeful vision,” says Tipsord, superintendent at Le Roy. “Our community members are the investors. Our return on investment is learning achievement and student graduates. The investors have a right to know what the return is on their investment. There is always a win to be found in that ― treating your community, your investors, with respect and having accountability. We share the message of the product we are delivering and the expectations that surround it.”
Education leaders interested in having two-way communication, hearing all voices, taking back the conversation and determining “who gets what and for how much?” are encouraged to explore the community engagement and discover what works best for their community. IASB’s community engagement materials, including the full text of Connecting with the Community: The Purpose and Process of Community Engagement As Part of Effective School Board Governance, can be found at iasb.com/training/connecting.cfm on the Association website.
“Upon the subject of education, not presuming to dictate any plan or system respecting it, I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in.”
--Abraham Lincoln, First Political Announcement, New Salem, March 9, 1832
IASB offers Community Engagement Workshops to school boards
Each workshop is designed to provide professional development, coaching, and implementation assistance for school boards. Based upon IASB’s publication Connecting with the Community: The Purpose and Process of Community Engagement as part of Effective School Board Governance, the workshops will assist school boards that have a goal of enhancing community engagement processes.
The workshop includes four sessions: an overview/introduction of what community engagement is and how it differs from public relations; a session on clarifying and articulating a community engagement purpose; a session on recruiting participants, needs and resources based on that purpose; and consideration of the results, use and evaluation.
At each Community Engagement Workshop, IASB staff will facilitate the school board’s work at the “balcony” governance level, not the “dance floor” operational level. At each workshop, the board will engage in a multi-step process during which it will
- Clarify its purpose for engaging the community: Why do we want to do this? What do we hope to learn/accomplish? What are the issues/questions that we need community input on?
- Clarify its intent for how it will use the community’s input and formalize that in a “promise to the public.”
- Consider what voices need to be at the table and who might best represent those voices.
- Develop a recruitment message and plan for bringing the right voices to the table.
- Consider resource and evaluation needs and parameters for engaging the community that will best suit its purpose.
- Communicate results of the community engagement process back to the community and use those results as promised in board decision-making.
- Plan for making community engagement an on-going district process.
Please contact your IASB field services director for more information about these in-district workshops.