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October 1, 1998
Vol. 56
No. 2

Public Engagement: Lessons from the Front

What factors keep the public on the side of a school district? Focus, informed staff, and feedback are key.

Six years of managing community relations at Edmonds School District, north of Seattle, Washington, have given me a rich range of experiences in engaging the public successfully. I have also learned that most people can remember about three things, so let me offer three lessons: choose a focus; acknowledge that employees are a school system's first public; and use feedback loops.


Let's play a quick game of Bottom Line. Bottom line, what does Ford do? Builds and sells cars. Walt Disney? Entertains us. School? Prepares students for the world they'll greet when they graduate. Right. And while teachers in my school district are busy in classrooms helping students get to where they need to be, the calls I typically need to answer are from reporters wanting to know what schools are doing to protect students from sexual predators, from taxpayers wanting to know what kind of tax increase the district is asking for now, from a bowling alley owner wanting to know whether he can distribute coupons for a "school's out special" to all the elementary kids.
The hard work for communicators in school districts is not communicating. Rather, it's figuring out how best to communicate about how students are achieving.
In Edmonds, we try to keep the conversation focused on three topics, two of which are shared by every school district in the country—what students are learning and how learning is measured. The third topic, of particular interest to parents and real estate agents, is school choice. In Washington State, we also talk about school funding on a regular basis.
If you accompany our superintendent's staff on school visits, you'll hear conversations about a three-page memo prepared by the Standards and Assessments office charting the school's performance on five or more tests. If you pick up our last school calendar, you'll find a focus on measurement—tests and other assessments. When you come into the district office, you'll find school performance reports on display. And if you check my budget, you'll see that I track expenditures by topic: basics (student learning goals), proof (measurement), choices, and funding. If you read a newsletter from one of our schools, you'll find principals who are writing about how teachers are using early-release days to analyze the results of Washington's newest assessment—and you'll find an invitation to a meeting to learn more about the test yourself.

Employees—Our First Public

Public engagement often gets interpreted as work focused outside the schools and happening somewhere out there in the community of the school district. Our different approach—first engaging our employees—is a practice built on history and on systems thinking.
Following a divisive strike in 1987, Edmonds developed agreements with its teachers on how decisions would be made. These agreements then expanded to include other bargaining associations as well as parents. The understanding that those parties affected by a decision would be involved in making it provided the essential underpinning for engaging staff as well as the community.
More than 10 years later, the curriculum frameworks that define what students should know have "hundreds of fingerprints on them," as one math teacher said. The new high schools reflect the thinking of committees of staff, students, and community residents. The structure of the organization has changed from an elementary-secondary division to a K–12 model. Elementary teachers no longer wonder what happens to their students when they arrive at middle school. They hear about them from middle school teachers in sessions that bring together teachers from all levels. Staff members also serve on the usual site councils; administrator-selection teams; and district-level committees, such as a budget advisory council and a committee on professional standards. This participation is even more meaningful because it is evaluated each year with a decision-making survey that applies to schools, departments, and the district as a whole.
Although we emphasize informing employees through involvement, we also use other tools to keep our 2,200 employees informed: voice mail, e-mail, action items and information distributed every Friday, board minutes by e-mail and newsletter, a staff newsletter, a Web site, news clippings, and a paycheck letter from the superintendent each month describing the work of the district.
Even our Labor-Management Council, which represents all our bargaining associations, has produced a video that delivers an important message: Employees are school ambassadors whose words and actions can either build support from, or destroy the confidence of, a community. Every employee in Edmonds learns that he or she has a responsibility to know what's going on.

Feedback Loops

We use both simple and sophisticated strategies to involve our staff and community in the work of schools. But whatever the strategy, we try to incorporate a feedback loop: ask the question, receive an answer, make decisions or changes, and provide feedback and ongoing updates.
We host community forums on different evenings in several locations to answer the big questions, those you can be sure everyone has an answer for: What should students know and be able to do when they graduate from our schools? How should we be spending your tax dollars? Using the media and personal outreach, we provide information and opportunities for discussion, questions, and answers; print the conclusions and findings; and keep reporting on progress.
After three consecutive bond issues failed a few years ago, we began asking members of the community the big question on facility funding—what kind of funding package should we put on the ballot? And they have been saying yes—and voting yes—to increased school funding ever since.
Sometimes an advisory group, such as our hardworking and productive Citizen Advisory Committee, initiates the groundwork for decision making. Its conclusions are sent to the public through the media, newsletters, mailings, and board meetings, and we set up feedback options, such as dedicated phone lines for messages and Web site messaging. We track our community's grade report on schools with telephone surveys, check readership of publications through simple surveys, use focus groups to learn whether our school performance reports are informative and readable, and then close the loop by reporting the findings.
The bottom line for all this public engagement effort: The Edmonds School District understands what the community wants, and the community understands and supports the work of the district.

Sylvia Soholt has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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