Theresa Kelly Gegen is editor of The Illinois School Board Journal.

Effective and ongoing community engagement is necessary for school boards to determine how local resources are invested and delivered. Since the initial publication of “Connecting with the Community: The Purpose and Process of Community Engagement As Part of Effective School Board Governance” in 2013, IASB has worked to help school boards and superintendents understand what community engagement is, why it is critical, what boards can expect to accomplish, and how to evaluate the results.

Five years later, community engagement remains vital. Although some of the stakes have changed, they are still high, and local boards of education remain in the best position to protect public education from outside forces. To further help school districts understand community engagement and work to achieve local goals, IASB has updated its community engagement publications, refreshed its workshop offerings, and added an Online Learning Center course, based on knowledge gained in the first five years of the program.

Here’s how IASB defines it: “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.”

By unpacking that definition, we can share what we’ve learned about developing community engagement efforts in local school districts.

Community engagement, also called public engagement or civic engagement
Explaining what community engagement is requires us to start with what it’s not. Community engagement is not public relations. Community engagement starts by making the distinction between owners (the community) and customers (usually, students and parents). The biggest difference between community engagement and public relations is the two-way nature of community engagement — when it’s done right.

is the process
The word process is right there in the definition, because it’s vitally important to understand community engagement as an ongoing, two-way process that creates knowledge — in the community about the district, and in the district about the community.

by which school boards
School boards are in a unique position — not only to be champions of education in their commun ities, but also to reflect the interests of the community in its local system of public education.

actively involve
Without active involvement, community engagement efforts fall flat. Best practices for community engagement include the Spectrum of Public Participation’s “inform, consult, involve, and collaborate” and each of these involves a “promise to the public.”

diverse citizens
Community engagement addresses big-picture concerns of the entire community, and so it needs to include stakeholders beyond the district’s buildings: business and economic representatives, local government leaders, the religious community, civic organizations, ethnic and cultural representatives.

in dialogue, deliberation, and collaborative thinking
This is the heart of community engagement: The two-way communication that creates an exchange of knowledge.

around common interests
Successful community engagement involves framing a question for the school board and its community to consider together.

for their public schools.
Since the original document was published, including the attacks on public education from those who would seek to wrest control away from local school boards, the discussion surrounding local control has expanded in activities, conversation, and legislative action at the federal and state levels. Attacks on public education continue. Concerted and organized efforts to privatize the public school system continue, school funding is politicized and often reduced, even as the demands on public schools increase. One way local boards of education can fight back is by engaging their communities.

Based on the starting point created by the definition, IASB took its community engagement program to school districts across the state. Here’s what we’ve learned from that work, added to the toolkit, developed into points of additional emphasis, and clarified how community engagement is best practiced by school districts in the five years since IASB’s community engagement programs took flight.

1. Develop a common understanding of the key principles of community engagement work.

This includes focusing on the ongoing nature of community engagement and taking extra steps to ensure “diverse voices and viewpoints” are represented, in addition to diversity on locale and demographics. Another point of emphasis is building common ground, in which community engagement participants are “finding where we agree and building on that agreement, rather than just coming to a solution that we all can live with,” according to the new program documents.

2. Frame the question.

In working with IASB member boards, we discovered that school boards often get bogged down determining what they wanted to engage their communities about. Ultimately, the framing of the question depends on where a board is in its level and scope of engagement, and on its vision, mission, and goals. To help boards at this step, IASB added the following series of questions that the board needs to answer:

Why are we engaging in this process?

What do we hope to learn? To decide? To accomplish?

How will this process inform and/or support our mission/vision/goals?

How do we intend to use the results of this process to inform our work?

3. Use the Public Participation Spectrum.

For many individual school board members, the Public Participation Spectrum shines a light on the process and potential for community
 engagement. The Public Participation Spectrum developed by the International Association for Public Participation is a planning tool that boards can use in their community engagement efforts. When the board is engaging the community, it can fulfill one or more of the following purposes: to inform, to consult, to involve, or to collaborate.

4. Recruit participants.

As with framing the question, IASB’s early work with school boards embarking on community engagement demonstrated that school boards sought additional assistance with identifying what voices need to be a part of this conversation and a plan for recruiting the participation of the people who will bring those voices.

Research indicates that people prefer to be asked, rather than to volunteer. For most people, a personal invitation is more effective than a form letter/invitation. While a letter of invitation might hit on many of these motivators, personal communication will allow the appeal to be tailored to what might best motivate individual participants.

Develop a recruitment message that will appeal to the core interests of potential participants. Understand that participation will appeal to different people for different reasons, such as a sense of giving back, the opportunity to learn, the opportunity to meet with others around a common interest, or a true passion for or interest in the issue. Recruiting involves answering the question “What’s in it for me?” from the perspective of the potential participant.

5. Clarify the promise to the public.

To be effective in community engagement work, the board should frame an explicit and clear promise to the public that is shared by all participants. The promise reminds both the board and the participants that the community does not make the decisions for the board; the community assists and supports the board in carrying out its responsibilities.


For more information, consider attending the Community Engagement panel series at the 2018 Joint Annual Conference and read the updated “Connecting with the Community.” Links to this and all resources from this issue of Journal can be accessed at