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Community Engagement and School Transformation

by Megan Rose Donovan

Thursday, November 1st, 2012

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.

Last week, Jyoti Gupta, senior public engagement associate, presented some simple principles for engaging and communicating with the community to nearly 45 of Chicago's education and community leaders. The principles, drawn mainly from Public Agenda's reports "What's Trust Got to Do With It?" and "Community Responses to School Reform in Chicago," help education leaders and the community better work together to transform the most challenging schools into high-performing centers of success. Jyoti's presentation was part of Education Reform Now, Illinois' first annual policy briefing on improving chronically low-performing schools. The forum provided an opportunity for participants to better understand and address school turnaround in Chicago and nationally in a way that is both responsive to community need and solutions oriented.

Both the reports and the presentation help education leaders understand the primary ways communities react to school turnaround efforts and why those efforts can be met with anger and distrust. They also provide actionable steps for working with communities to build trust and plan and implement changes to improve low-performing schools. Some of these steps include:

  • Finding a shared vision: Help the community envision exactly what it looks like when school conditions that empower students and teachers to improve are in place, why those conditions are necessary, and what will be required to get there. Dwelling on negative aspects without giving people a sense of hope can contribute to negative community reactions.
  • Providing information: Community members need the right amount of information at the right time and in an accessible format. They need enough information to be able to understand – and independently judge – the worth and process of a turnaround effort. They need ways to access more information when they want it in a language that makes sense and is useful.
  • Breaking out of the “public hearing” format: While Town Halls or public hearings are familiar to many people, they are often not the most effective way to hear from a diversity of voices, to wrestle with complex issues, or create an environment of problem solving. Instead, engagement in small groups and on a more routine basis can help to build communication and mutual respect, as well as encourage creativity and exchange of multiple viewpoints.

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."


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