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May/June 2019

ICYMI: Transforming school culture by connecting with the community

By Victoria McDonald

Victoria McDonald is principal for Robinson High School, Robinson CUSD 2 and a participant in the Educational Administration Intern program at the 2018 Joint Annual Conference.

Presenters: David Bartz, Professor Emeritus, Eastern Illinois University; Gary Dolinko, Board President and Kate Donegan, Superintendent, Skokie SD 73.5; Elizabeth Reynolds, Superintendent, Calumet Public SD 132. Moderator: Patrick Rice, Director/Equality Director, Field Services, IASBWithin this “Transforming school culture by connecting with the community” panel session of the 2018 Joint Annual Conference, the not-so-subtle differences between the terms “public relations” and “community engagement” were explained. The panel discussed in detail how these terms are not synonymous, nor should they be used as such.

Presenter Elizabeth Reynolds illustrated public relations as not ongoing communication, but more “spitting out” information. Moderator Patrick Rice of IASB continued this thought and stated that a district could be good at public relations but not community engagement, or vice versa. Being effective at both communication strategies is essential for the long-term success of a school district. Rice continued this line of thought by stating that both communication tools enable the district to shape the preferred impression for all vested parties.

Here’s how IASB defines community engagement: “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.”

At the core of quality community engagement is building quality relationships with “owners,” as opposed to “customers.” The administration is the complaint committee; big-picture items are the work of the board. When the board approaches those large, high-profile topics that demand community input, it must recognize who is not at the table, and seek out diverse and eclectic perspectives to provide a broad understanding of the past, present, and potentially the future of the district and community.

The topic of owners and customers was brought forth for a separate discussion when superintendents and board members were asked about ways to handle those complaints or situations brought by community members or staff. How can the chain of command be encouraged and supported without angering those raising the issues?

To describe community engagement, Reynolds used a few adjectives to further delineate the difference between public relations and community engagement, noting that community engagement is planned, sustained, and deliberate. Once those ideals are ingrained in the planning process, but before any meetings commence with the diverse committee members, all of the panelists stressed that the first step is to clearly define the purpose of the committee, and expectations of how the committee will proceed towards that purpose. This first step is of the utmost importance because establishing those guidelines will help each member maintain respect for their peers, regardless of any differences of opinion. Well-developed expectations and purposes will also ensure that all of the stakeholders have a voice that is heard.

Kate Donegan took this conversation a little deeper. She explained how vitally important it is that every member is on the same page with the same language; that public statements and language shared with the community are concise and articulated by members who understand the purpose and expectations. A poor choice of a word or phrase could easily become a public relationships disaster when involving an emotion-filled issue. As frightening as this scenario is, in the midst of attempting effective community engagement, one mistaken word could derail the whole process.

Rice asked the panelists for ways to diversify community engagement. The panelists listed focus groups, surveys, social media, public forums, meetings with community groups, and participating in community service. They also recommended meeting with people where they are at, or if they are coming to you, rolling out the welcome mat for community members.

Public schools exist because of the communities that need and support them, therefore schools must make a valiant effort to include the community in the decision-making process. Schools should not be treated as one-size-fits-all; a school district and the schools within it should fit the community. One way to achieve this is by active, ongoing engagement through well-planned community involvement. These efforts invested will be mutually felt in both the school and the community.