Academic journal article School Community Journal

Superintendents Building Public Trust and Engagement in Five Public School Communities

Academic journal article School Community Journal

Superintendents Building Public Trust and Engagement in Five Public School Communities

Article excerpt

Stakeholder Engagement in Schools

.. .our institutions need to develop more effective ways of helping citizens work through the issues and move steadily along the learning curve.

- Daniel Yankelovich, 2010

At public school districts across America, administrators and school board members are routinely faced with issues and decisions ripe for controversy and conflict-decisions related to standardized testing, LGBT rights, bullying, curriculum, and freedom of expression to name a few. Controversial issues like these can highlight differences in stakeholder values, activate parents and special interest groups, and create tension between a school district and its community. When educators include parents and other stakeholders (e.g., profit and non-profit businesspersons, directors of educational foundations, and other citizens with an interest in school district operations) in thoughtful, well-run deliberations, the process can pull people together, generate innovative solutions, strengthen buy-in, and build trust.

To navigate hot-button issues, education leaders typically rely on a combination of administrator expertise, legal counsel, industry experts, and other institutional insiders to inform their decisions. This method of decision-making, often intended to avoid uncomfortable public meetings, can actually stoke the public's ire rather than dampen it. With the law on their side, administrators and boards will regularly choose to sidestep public deliberation, render a decision, and endeavor to move on.

An unfortunate reason for excluding community input is the belief that professional educators, unlike "non-expert" stakeholders, are uniquely qualified and know how to address complex education issues. But while many administrators believe they alone have the knowledge and expertise to determine what is best for students (Gurke, 2008), research shows that other stakeholders can make meaningful contributions to complex problems when given information and other tools (Hartz-Karp, 2007; Heath, Lewis, Schneider, & Majors, 2017; Yankelovich & Friedman, 2010).

There are compelling reasons for district administrators and school boards to cultivate a district culture that actively engages stakeholders in deliberative problem solving. The deliberative process includes citizens collaborating with public administrators to expand public participation and contribute to problem solving (Gudowsky & Bechtold, 2013; Nabatchi, 2010). Increased stakeholder participation in school business has been linked to better solutions to shared problems (Fung, 2004) and increased levels of stakeholder agreement and trust (Langsdorf, 2003). Yet another benefit of increased stakeholder engagement in schools is improved student achievement (Rice et al., 2000). Bryk and Schneider (2002) reported that student learning improved most in elementary schools with high relational trust. Importantly, building relational trust in public schools requires commitment from school staff and community leaders to collaborate with the broader community, which positively impacts the day-to-day routine work of schools (Bryk & Schneider, 2002; Van Maele, Forsyth, & Van Houttle, 2014). Additionally, research suggests that parents who step into school and community leadership activities serve as role models for children and for other parents to become involved (Cunningham, Kreider, & Ocón, 2012).

The long-term implications for not engaging stakeholders and actively deepening relationships with them are substantial. This is particularly evident when ballot initiatives are put before the public to fund school operations and capital construction. When educators opt to exclude the public from discussions pertaining to controversial issues, stakeholders are quick to mobilize against tax initiatives or withhold other forms of support such as volunteering, serving on committees, or advocating for the district in the public square. …

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