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Professional Opinion

Energizing the engagement of the community in governance

The School Board’s role in governance is vital to be successful in leading the school district.

The Board’s role in governance is vital to be successful in leading the school district. Although governance models claim to discuss the full role of the board, many provide only half of the board’s responsibilities. In the traditional method of describing a typical school board, the community elects trustees to represent them in running the schools. An organization chart shows the community at the top with elected representatives sitting on a board. They would hire a superintendent who operates the schools.


Most people would argue that school board members should represent the entire community. However, that is not reality, since a special interest may be represented by a member. To represent this reality: The chart above shows that school board members are presented by “different colors,” which represents the different interests of the board members. The goal, of course, is to work with the school board so that the board members pledge to represent the entire community.

1. The Linkage Process
Many governing models listen to the community. Specifically, the Policy Governance and Coherent Governance models have a method called the Linkage Process.

The Listening Linkage Process looks like this:


It is a way that the Board uses to listen, and therefore funnel the information from the public or community to the board and administration to provide direction to school district regarding the education of their children.

2. The Missing Role of the Board in Governing: Energizing the Community Process

The Linkage Process—for most board members—is the only community involvement. However, this is only half of the board’s role. The missing element is a process to energize the Community. It is a way that the Board uses to provide information to all community and business leaders, as well as parent groups regarding:

  • What is the achievement level of our students?
  • How can community/business leaders work with the schools to help shape success and correct problems? and
  • What programs/resources are needed to improve/assure student success?

The Energize the Community Process looks like this:


3. Introducing the Two-Way Full Linkage Process: Listening to the Community, While Compelling Community/Business Leader Engagement

The John Carver’s Policy Governance and the Linda Dawson and Randy Quinn’s Coherent Governance models have a “linkage process” that requires governing officers (the Board) to listen to the community as a gauge to see how well the school district is performing in educating the students. Scheduling regular linkage meetings with community/business leaders does this. This is very important, because the Board is asking for feedback from the leaders.

However, to make school district governance a success, something more than mere linkage process needs to be added. To this end, school districts need to employ a Two-Way Full Linkage Process. Specifically, the model would include two elements to the process:

Process Element 1: Listening Inquiry Linkage: As Policy Governance and Coherent Governance models recommend, regular meetings with parents and the community/business leaders are scheduled to ask for the leaders to give its feedback on how well the school district is doing in examining problems, challenging and educating the students. Using the Carver, Dawson and Quinn models, the Board intensifies the process—with the assistance of the administration—by scheduling regular meetings to ask the parents and community/business leaders many probing questions that attempt to see the:

  • Problems students are experiencing,
  • Challenges that are needed, and
  • It acknowledges student successes within the schools.

The Board—in this intensified process—must make sure that the invitees to the process are balanced between parents and community/business leaders. Specifically, are the community/business leaders—who may not have students in the schools—fully engaged? This process also incorporates another Carver element in his model; specifically, the term “inquiry” in the linkage process, is the ability of the Board to investigate thoroughly how well the district is doing in educating the students.

Process Element 2: Energize and Compel the Community/Business Leaders to Engage Students to be Success: The Board—with the assistance of the administration—needs to challenge the community/business leaders to become engaged, and thereby compel them to help students be successful. Partly, the Board and community/business leaders need to discuss the challenges, resources, and possible engagement strategies that could be used to assist in correcting problems, and securing student success. (Later, we’ll provide examples of programs and community foundations that assist students.)

The second process element—energize and compel the Community/Business Leaders to Engage Students to be Successful—is a much different role than many school districts boards see as their role in governance. In the same vein, many administrators have not seen their role as represented in this new model. However, this second process element is vital in insuring student success. The Two-Way Full Linkage Process completes a school district governance model that is not present in most governance models.

4. The Elements of the Energize the Community Process
Once a Board has received information through the listening Inquiry linkage, the Board must “flip the process” by performing the Energize the Community Process. Specifically, the Board must identify a list of “special audiences,” as well as “identifying the source” of the audience.

These special audiences include the following:

Once the Board has identified the “special audiences,” it is the Board and administration’s responsibility to provide a series of activities that allow the Board and the administration to speak with their true constituency: All levels of the Community can be utilized by using the following model.

Help Models/ Community Engagement Processes
Here is an example of how the Board can bring community/business/college leaders together to develop help models, while also developing a community engagement process. It is important that the programs include many elements to help current students, and reengage dropout students:

  • Academic instruction –which includes GED preparation –academic skills, as well as college and work readiness
  • Instruction by certified teachers, college instructors, paraprofessionals, and work force instructions
  • Case management, counseling, and resource and referral services 
  • Opportunity for qualified students to enroll in tuition-free college courses, and work preparation opportunities.

Another important element in developing a process to better improve the educational outcomes for students—whether the program is at the district level or the state level—is to identify the components and systems that the student will face in improving their opportunities. Here is a list:

  • Business sector
  • Justice systems
  • Post-secondary education systems (community colleges and colleges)
  • Adult education systems
  • Philanthropic sector
  • Government sector
  • K-12 education systems
  • Child welfare systems, and
  • Non-profit 

The Board –with the assistance of the administration –can invite the leaders/stakeholders to a conference or a workshop. A consultant, might be hired to lead the workshop in the following process:
Engaging Key Community/Business/College/Work Place Leaders and Stakeholders: Reaching out for the groups to help is the first step that must be taken.
Create a Common Agenda: The difference between the current situation, and gaining a common vision is gaining a consensus on what needs to happen. 3
Mapping Special Audiences: A school district can map the location of special need families and students in the school district. This mapping process is used as a strategy to identify locations of special audiences, and thereby provided help to organizations with the locations and the needs of special audiences.
Identify the Needs and Helping Resources Within the Community: The Board, administration, and community/business/work place leaders engage in a process of identifying the needs and resources needed to help students. This process allows community leaders to emerge. This new leadership becomes the basis of a helping community outreach.
Identify Helping Organizations, Persons and Resources: Here are some examples below:

  • Girls and Boys Programs: These programs “offers programs in fitness and sports, the arts, health and life skills, career development, and character, and leadership. As the organization puts it: This gives “kids a place to call their own, where they can have fun, get a hot meal, be creative, be a part of a team, get help with homework, or just hang out with friends.” (Note: the on-line web site provides the resources available.) 
  • Hope Link Foundation (Focuses on families): “Hope Link's grassroots campaign gathers the support of the community to help provide low-income families with food for kids who receive free and reduced-fee. Here’s another example of help: Kids need school supplies: Hope Link's annual summer campaign aimed at helping children in low-income families starts school with the tools they need to do their best work.” (Note: the on-line web site provides the resources available.)
  • Open Doors (1418) Youth Re-engagement: Washington State runs a program that has been developed to re-engage dropouts for youth between the ages of 16-21, who have dropped out of school and are not effected to graduate from high school by age 21.5 
  • Develop A School District Educational Foundation: Many school districts develop educational foundations to provide scholarship funding for students for training and college attendance. 

Develop a Committee Leadership Team to Pursue the Engagement Initiatives: This committee leadership would be formed after the workshop. This then becomes the basis for the help work that will be needed, and will report back to the Board annually.

Schools Should ‘Open Up’ To The Community and Businesses
Most recently, schools have sought partnerships with various agencies. These partnerships are a kind of a sharing for mutual benefit, which is a "give and take" proposition. For example –to be in a business partnership –a school district receives something of value from the business and gives something back in return. But in a typical partnership relationship, something is missing. Simply put, the partnership is usually just centered on a business gift to the school. Obviously, this relationship needs to be expanded.

The school district needs to be a source of guidance to the business and other agencies on what they could do to help students succeed. Simply put, the school district needs to put themselves in the shoes of a business or community agency CEO. Since the executives –through various partnership programs—have given the schools a value (cash, products, employee time, etc.), the school district, in turn, could thank the business, or community agency for their support; thereby, engendering the good will of the community to the business and the community agency for their gifts.

Although a public school can offer businesses and civic organizations the use of school orchestra performances to play at their establishments during holiday seasons, or let business employees attend sporting events for free, but schools also need ways to acknowledge the gifts that they are given from various partnership programs. Here are three ways to help and assist businesses and civic organizations in the work that they do.

FIRST: Development of A Public Enterprise
At the Cedar River Academy Middle School in Washington State, students have established a long-range learning project that will use student ideas, suggestions, and recommendations for the city of Enumclaw’s redesign of Mahler Public Park.

The school district model of education is based on the mastery of state learning standards that apply to work on real-life projects that encourage the interests of students. To accomplish this, the staff and students met with the mayor to define school projects that would benefit the community as they worked with the Community Development Department. The school developed a curriculum that provided the background knowledge that students needed to make important contributions to the Enumclaw Park Board’s Mahler Park planning process.

The students made several trips to Mahler Park to learn about its terrain, its condition, and to remove debris left in the park. They constructed models of the parks and proposed various improvements. After six meetings with the city Park Board, a final long-range plan was proposed, which the city accepted and have been installed based upon the student’s design. The bottom line: the skills and knowledge students developed will be a part of the student’s education, while the city has allowed students to gain real-world experiences.

SECOND: Development of GRAVITY School To Reengage Students & Assist Businesses
The GRAVITY Consortium Re-engagement Program in Washington State has been started in one of the regional level Educational Service District.

GRAVITY stands for: GED, Re-engagement, Alternative, Vocational, Individual, Training for Youth

The Educational Service District (ESD) 113 serves 44 school districts in western Washington State, which has developed the GRAVITY program. Students are typically given a problem that a local business must deal with. For example, a business recently expressed a concern about a stack of tires-- which tend to draw water in a wet environment—and could cause a health hazard. The students are then challenged to design a solution to assist the business in dealing with the situation.

A possible student solution to the business issue/concern could be a challenge or philanthropic gift to various communities or the state park departments that states:

The tires could be stacked with chains, then sunk in a water way or bay to provide an underwater platform for scuba or skin diving. This would provide the following benefits to the public:

  • Provide a public park recreational attraction for scuba or skin divers
  • Solve the business concern to avoid a health hazard; and
  • Develop a philanthropic gift from the students to give back to the community.

THIRD: Modifying the School Curriculum To Raise Student Awareness of Businesses and Civic Organizations

In another vein, the school district curriculum could also emphasize to students that they will be a future employee of a business or community agency.For example, the future role of students in a business or a community agency could be discussed. Here’s how it could work: The school district curriculum –through a DECA Class study-- could emphasize the role of a business by developing a sample marketing campaign for a profit or a nonprofit company. Business executives could then be brought into the classroom to discuss with the students the strategies for the implementation of the sample program, and the effect the campaign would have on the community. The by-product of this kind of study emphasizes to the students, the possibility of a future business career, and the skills needed to be successful.

Schools Are A Source of Community Health

It is true that the school district has data about the successes or failures of their students. But, additionally, the school district could also provide summarized statistically data, which would be provided to businesses, other agencies, and the community regularly concerning the overall health of its population; not just the school population but the community as a whole.

To illustrate this point: other data the school district should provide to the community at large are such things as:

  • The number of children speaking foreign languages . . . Is it growing or decreasing, 
  • The number of parents signing up for free and reduced lunch ... Is it growing or decreasing, 
  • Provide state and district test scores,
  • Where do these families of poverty live ... ZIP codes or voter precincts? and
  • How has this demography changed over time . . . Census data?

Moreover, here are some key school and community planning questions that need to be asked:

  • Which parts of the district are growing or shrinking? How fast?
  • What new schools are planned (elementary, middle school or high school)?
  • What new city parks will be needed? Will they be placed near schools?

As the data are shared with the businesses, community organizations, other agencies, it not only helps them succeed but also provides the opportunity for these entities to assist the Board in helping students succeed. Data –that only schools can provide -- becomes a two way street, which helps the community understand the direction and/or trends, plus helping the children in the community at the same time.

Summary: The Two-Way Linkage Process Provides Full Governance
As mentioned earlier, when a Board provides only the Listening Linkage Process-- it is a passive element-- with the Board listening the community/business/ work place leaders. It is, in effect, providing only half of the full governance role. But, when you add the Energizing/Compelling Process to the Linkage Process-- the Board becomes active-- since it is speaking with and to the community/business/work place leaders by asking for:

  • Input on what needs to happen
  • How they should work with the schools to help students, and finally,
  • How to correct the problems.

The Two-Way Linkage Process provides the Board and the school district with another important advantage. It is important that a school district needs to understand the 30/70 paradox of community population. For example, typically a school district will spend an enormous among of energy in serving 30 percent of the community population, which has children in the district. But, the Two-Way Linkage Process continues to allow the school district to serve the 30 percent of the community that has students in the district, while simultaneously, allowing the school district to focus on the 70 percent of the population—which do not have students in the school district. 

Finally, the Two-Way Linkage Process works equally well with the traditional governance structures, the Policy Governance and Coherent Governance models. In effect, the process dramatically improves all governance models. This then is the full governance that is needed to have effective schools.

Chuck Namit is a member of the Board of Directors for the North Thurston Public Schools and is president of Strategem LLC, a governance and management group; Bob Hughes is a member of the State Board of Directors for Washington State and former school board member of the Lake Washington School District.