Engaging the Community to Support Student Success
Cunningham, Chris, Teacher Librarian
SCHOOL SYSTEMS HAVE LONG RECOGNIZED THE NEED FOR PUBLIC SUPPORT AND PARTICIPATION, BUT NOW MANY DISTRICTS ARE RENEWING THEIR COMMITMENT TO STRENGTHEN THE TIES WITH THEIR COMMUNITIES.
More than ever, school districts realize they are dependent on community support to meet mandated state and national performance standards, develop innovative programs and secure financial resources.
To build lasting community support for schools that facilitates student achievement, school boards are developing communication strategies that routinely reach diverse community groups. The process of building such partnerships, called public engagement, is an ongoing, two-way communication between a school district and the community it serves (Resnick, 2000).
This Digest examines how public engagement can foster student achievement, how school boards and administrators can facilitate the public-engagement process, and how school leaders can solicit enduring support from key stakeholders.
HOW CAN PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT PROMOTE STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT?
In one report, superintendents and board presidents advised communities just convening public-engagement efforts to focus their planning efforts on student achievement (Wright & Saks, 2000). Involving parents, teachers, members of the business community and others in the process of identifying academic goals and standards and measures of progress can be a powerful vehicle for improving student achievement and influencing the direction and success of school programs.
Parents who understand and support educational standards will help their children meet these expectations. When the community supports the standards, it is more likely to provide the resources to meet them. "Accountability is essential in maintaining public confidence, and accountability begins with shared understanding of desired results" (Gemberling, Smith, & Villani, 2000).
Public engagement also gives school systems and stakeholders the opportunity to learn about trends among youth and in the community that might influence academic outcomes. The entire community benefits from understanding social and health conditions that interfere with learning, such as teen pregnancy, inadequate nutrition and lack of health care. In other words, public engagement can enhance the community's overall quality of life (Resnick, 2000).
WHAT IS THE ROLE OF SCHOOL BOARDS AND DISTRICT OFFICIALS IN PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT?
Student achievement--and community engagement that focuses on fostering achievement--is now recognized nationally as the primary agenda for boards of education. School boards are charged with the responsibility of creating conditions within their districts that will help students meet today's more rigorous knowledge and performance standards. This role represents a dramatic shift in responsibility for school boards, which previously held oversight roles and served as passive reviewers of others' work performance. Now boards are expected to share the responsibility for how well students and schools perform (Gemberling, Smith & Villani, 2000).
Although 78 percent of superintendents in a recent Public Agenda survey reported they have processes under way to encourage public engagement, only 41 percent say they actually solicit the input of the community prior to formulating policy. Only four percent of the superintendents viewed communication with the community as their most pressing concern. Superintendents "absolutely believe in the concept of public engagement ... but when it comes to the execution as opposed to the intent, the reality is somewhat different," say, Public Agenda president Deborah Wadsworth (Deily, 2001).
Parents notice this discrepancy between intent and action. More than half the parents in an Education Commission of the States survey said they believe schools in their community have gotten off on the wrong track, and fewer than four in 10 think local schools are headed in the right direction (Solomon & Ferguson, 1998). …