Closing or turning around a low-performing school is always disruptive, but engaging the community in decision making can help make school transformation less painful and more likely to succeed. Without deep knowledge of the communities that are affected by turnaround and careful attention to engagement and communication practices, even the most earnest leaders hoping to inspire change are likely to see their efforts fail.
In addition to presenting Public Agenda’s lessons and insights, Jyoti facilitated a panel with four respected Chicago education and community leaders, including representatives from community advisory councils and the Board of Education, who discussed the findings.
Panelists emphasized that meaningful public engagement is critically important in efforts to turn around chronically underperforming schools. They also agreed that public distrust is often a central challenge. One panelist called Public Agenda’s research findings a “checklist” of how she and her community have felt, viewed or experienced actions from Chicago Public Schools (CPS) leaders. Panelists and audience members alike expressed a commitment to looking deeply into what is behind community anger and resistance, as well as what strong partnerships with communities can look like.
Panelists offered several recommendations for how to slowly begin building trust and creating more positive experiences for communities involved in school reforms. For example, they called for officials, school turnaround professionals, and schools leaders to speak in a language that parents and community members can understand. This means using simplified, jargon-free language, as wells as translating materials into the languages the community uses. They warned that words or phrases like "right-sizing", "failure" and even "turnaround" are loaded and can be confusing. They noted that numbers need to be meaningful. For instance, what does a “2% improvement” actually mean and how does that impact a student?
Panelists and others present at the event spoke to a need for more listening on the part of the CPS leaders and less presentation. Further, they asked that CPS leaders and others who make decisions about Chicago public schools invest more time and effort in visiting the schools that are struggling and the communities in which they are situated.
"Our challenges are tremendous and the work ahead of us will be hard," said Barbara Byrd Bennett, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. "Academic success is a significant challenge but we also have a responsibility to work to build trust, reciprocal respect and confidence that we will achieve results that are sustained, aggressive and deliberate."
To read more principles for engaging and communicating with the community in a meaningful way on school turnaround, download the full reports for "What's Trust Got to Do With It?" and "Community Responses to School Reform in Chicago."