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Public School Pillars

Successful strategies for engaging the public and gaining their support.

Despite the many demands on schools today, districts are finding they don't have to go it alone. Parents and other community members not only like to be informed and involved-they expect it.

"Parents are seeking meaningful involvement, beyond baking cookies and helping in the classroom," says Karen Kleinz, associate director of public engagement activities at the National School Public Relations Association. "We're seeing more projects where people are brought in on the front end."

In fact, a growing number of districts now concentrate on public engagement, which Kleinz defines as "a higher level of public relations," focusing on relationships with all community members. NSPRA has been promoting the practice for the past four years.

District communications offices may be instrumental in implementing public engagement efforts, but the philosophy behind engagement requires support from the top. "The superintendent and governing board need to embrace this idea ... and be willing to build these kinds of relationships and have this dialogue," Kleinz says.

Community input is often an eye-opener to administrators, who have expertise in their field but also have their own interests and priorities. Dialogue with the public can keep district efforts in check. Through NSPRA's communication audits, Kleinz has learned what happens when educators ask parents what is most important to them in education. "[You're] often talking at odds," she says.

The media, which help get information out to the community, are also partners in public engagement, according to Kleinz. She reminds administrators that the "media are part of the community and have a vested interest in making the schools successful." Because of this, Kleinz advocates having a dedicated media relations person on staff, even if media relations is not the person's full job description. Kleinz also recommends that districts consider asking local media to help sponsor community engagement projects.

Whether your district's goal is to pass a bond measure, explain and solicit feedback on a policy or get the community more invested in the success of students, a public engagement strategy can get youwhere you need to go. The following snapshots show how six districts are approaching engagement, each in its own unique way.

Virginia Beach City Public Schools: Communicating a Redistricting Plan

The construction of a state-of-theart, $40-million high school to alleviate overcrowding in Virginia Beach wasn't all good news. The new school was part of a redistricting plan that would shuffle students from eight of the city's 10 high schools.

At the Office of Demographics and Planning, the nuts and bolts of redistricting plans are crafted. Demographer Donald Greer, chairman of a seven-member committee that studies school boundaries annually, uses a geographic information system tool to track populations within the 76,000-student district and consider various boundary shift scenarios.

Since 1998, the school board has decreed that school populations be within 10 percent of their optimum capacity. Last year, Greer's committee found severe overcrowding in most of the high schools-a problem that would lead to excessive wear and tear, especially on facilities like cafeterias and restrooms.

Once the committee recommended a new high school and got Superintendent Tim Jenney on board, it was time to publicly explain the proposal and garner support. At a public hearing, Greer says, "I did a 45-minute presentation on the state of our boundaries," covering the district's policy and redistricting process and showing maps of proposed changes. The district set up a Web site with detailed maps and FAQs, and fact sheets were distributed. Every student in any school that was affected by a boundary change got an information packet to take home.

Greer and other committee members also made appearances on local radio stations, television news programs and several Virginia Beach television shows. VBTV exposure included two call-in programs. One was a segment called "The School Division Wants to Know," where viewer calls are taped on an automated system; the other was a live call-in program on the show Front Page, where guests included two assistant superintendents, a school board member and Greer.

While most families whose neighborhoods would be re-zoned to the new high school reacted positively, Greer says he was not surprised to get complaints from others. "It sits on a main thoroughfare in our city, so it was very visible when being built. There was a lot of talk about the new high school," he says. Negative feedback also surrounded the loyalty that neighborhoods feel to certain schools. In all, thousands of comments from parents and students were considered in the final plan, which went into effect this school year.

Greer says that Jenney has summed up the quiet aftermath of the redistricting effort best: "Children are extremely resilient. They're going to make it work regardless of where they go to school."

Waitsburg (Wash.) School District: Passing Two Construction Bonds

Although this district's town has just about 1,000 residents, its "high school building was popping at the seams," says former Superintendent Burton Dickerson of the overcrowding he found when he arrived in 1992. And with the high school serving grades 7-12, parents were demanding a junior high school.

The breakfast brought them in and the tours really opened up people's eyes to our needs -Jeff Pietila, Principal, Waitsburg High School

Previous efforts to improve school facilities had fallen through. But a new steering committee suggested creating a junior high by renovating Preston Hall, a vacant school building that was built in 1913. "There were a lot of memories in the community about the school in years gone by-a lot of nostalgic ties," Dickerson says. "I decided ... that I needed clear and open communication and [to allow] the community to have a voice in the project."

The committee chose an architect familiar with historic restoration who demonstrated a willingness to do what the community wanted. Dickerson started a district newsletter to update the public on the project and other education issues. Community meetings and surveys got people talking about the restoration of Preston and the modernization of the elementary school.

After the bond measure was passed in 1993 with about 60 percent support, construction began. Elementary students had to be housed at alternative classroom sites, a process for which the community pitched in to help. Dickerson says he noticed "a real sense of ownership there, and when the projects were finished, a real sense of pride."

Within a couple of years, the district set its sights on renovating its 75-year-old high school. "The building was well-preserved, but it needed a general face-lift, primarily to the interior," Dickerson says. The district hired the same architect, who by now had become well respected and liked, and assembled another steering committee. With matching state funds available for the project, the district would be able to minimize the impact of a tax increase.

Principal Jeff Pietila says the community was invited into the school one Saturday morning for breakfast and tours of the facility by students in the National Honor Society. "The breakfast brought them in and the tours really opened up people's eyes to our needs," he says. The bond measure was passed with 85 percent support, and construction is being completed this school year.

But updated school facilities weren't the only result of Waitsburg's construction projects. Dickerson says, "I really do believe that these types of activities [built] a stronger tie between those people and their school district."

Stillwater (Okla.) School District 16: Keeping Teachers Current

The message was loud and clear: Teachers wanted more professional development. When Diana Leggett was hired as assistant superintendent for curriculum instruction and personnel, she vowed to do something about it.

But it wouldn't be easy. Leggett

knew that more time for teacher learning and collaboration typically means adding full or half days to the school calendar. This can create scheduling conflicts for families. And because Stillwater consistently has high student achievement, parents might need convincing about the need. "Sometimes you become complacent when you have something special," Leggett says.

The district partnered with the local National Education Association (which was already studying this issue), the PTA, the chamber of commerce education committee, Oklahoma State University faculty and the League of Women Voters. The group organized three study circle evenings, based on a national model for small-group, peer-led discussion designed to engage community members in dialogue and action. A cross-section of people vested in K-12 education, from parents and teachers to community leaders andstate legislators, participated.

An NEA Foundation for the Improvement of Education grant helped fund follow-up discussion forums. The grant, says Leggett, "made our issue more credible. ... What we were doing was valued not only in Stillwater conversation but nationally as well."

Discussing solutions came next.

"We explored half days of professional development distributed throughout the school year," Leggett says. But the PTA explained that full days off would be less disruptive to families. The district ended up freeing two full days for collaboration during the school year by pushing back the last day of school.

Additional time for development is now the goal. For example, the district has tried using substitute teachers for half days with stateprovided staff development hours, so regular teachers could have a morning or afternoon to meet.

And the Stillwater community is supportive. "Just like with medicine, [in] the whole field of education we learn more every day about how children learn," Leggett says. "If we don't stay on stop of that, we're not doing the best for kids."

Atlanta Public Schools: Signing on Parents as Partners

Crunk. It's a new word meaning "utterly cool" that Superintendent Beverly Hall learned at a rally the day before her district's second annual Walk for Success. Designed to familiarize parents with Project GRAD (Graduation Really Achieves Dreams), Atlanta, the walk and its volunteers were crunk, no doubt.

Project GRAD, a Ford Foundation initiative being implemented in nine U.S. cities, is a collaborative effort that engages teachers, administrators, parents, students, community leaders and businesses in boosting student achievement, raising high school graduation rates and increasing the number of graduates who attend college.

Atlanta's 12 participating schools-nine elementary schools, two middle schools and one high school-focus on reform through reading and math curriculum, classroom discipline strategies and family support. "The heart of turning around a school system is having a lot of support from the community," Hall says.

And what better way to gain parent support than by making house calls? This past September, 600 volunteers, including administrators, teachers, staff, parents and community members, started out together for the second annual walk. Breaking into small groups, the volunteers visited 1,600 homes of third, sixth and ninth graders before calling it a day.

According to Hall, their message was this: "Your child is participating in a very special program ... designed to prepare your child and designed to help [him or her] be successful." Parents of the younger students are asked to remember that "every grade counts" and told that all Project GRAD participants who get into college will be awarded scholarships. Parents of ninth graders are asked to officially sign on as partners of the schools, promising to send them to summer institutes on a college campus, to encourage them to take higher level math courses and to help them maintain a 2.5 grade point average.

The heart of turning around a school system is having a lot of support from the community -Beverly Hall, Superintendent, Atlanta Public Schools

Project GRAD's funding progress shows how the Atlanta community has embraced it. "We had a $20 million campaign for the next five years," Hall says. With a recent $2.5 million anonymous donation, the program funds are now 75 percent there. Changes in leadership, strikes, bankruptcy and a perceived lack of interest in the community's input had built up a history of distrust in San Jose schools. Beginning in 1995, its leaders set out change that climate. "We know that parents' involvement in school has a great impact on student achievement," says Bill Erlendson, director of external programs. So creating support for educational results became the goal.

From a series of focus groups to determine parents' main concerns, the district found that academic expectations were not clearly defined, and that these expectations varied too much between schools and individual classrooms. In 1998, 140 parents, students and business and community members met for the first Community Conversation, an open discussion about the key ingredients to student success.

The next year, six additional conversations involved more than 1,000 participants, and this year the district is going on its fourth annual set of conversations. Topics include the district's current efforts to ensure that students meet high performance standards and how the school community can work together to support increased student performance.

Each school is responsible for forming strategies to ensure that parents and community members are informed. "Every school has a different take," Erlendson says. The annual Climate Survey, which includes 41 questions about academic expectations, behavioral standards, school safety, facility use and satisfaction with available services, helps school administrators focus on issues of importance. All students in grades 4-12, all teachers and one-third of the district's parents take the survey, which asks respondents to assign their school an overall letter grade. Superintendent Linda Murray says, "We expect continuous improvement at every level of the organization-from teachers to school bus drivers to food service workers."

Some ways that schools have improved communication include regularly published newsletters, joint meetings with neighboring schools and cultural nights for families. Besides supporting the schools when needed, the district publishes an Annual Report to the community and keeps its Web site up-to-date. All San Jose schools are asked to distribute an Annual School Performance Report based on the Climate Survey results.

Paying attention to the community's concerns is a high priority in San Jose. "Better answers come out of the involvement of lots of people," Murray says.

Douglas County (Colo.) School District: Strengthening Parent and Senior Ties

One way to prevent student disengagement, this district believes, is to promote community engagement. And the home to efforts such as The Parent University and Senior Work Exchange is the Office of School-Community Partnerships.

When Debby Novotny, the department coordinator, presented her idea of offering classes for parents of newborn-aged children through The Parent University, district leaders gave the green light for a pilot program. "We try to promote any and all ideas," says

Superintendent Rick O'Connell.

Now, four years later, a total of 5,500 parents have taken classes, which are mainly one-session workshops taught by professionals in the district. Through about 24 classes offered each spring and fall, parents learn how they can take a more active role in their children's learning and establish relationships with teachers to help them work together more effectively. "The Parent University has really caught on over the years," Novotny says. "One parent moving out of Douglas to a neighboring county recently called, wondering if she could still come to classes." While the $5 course fee doesn't cover the costs of the program, O'Connell and Novotny say the effects have been positive for the district, which is one of the fastest growing in the country.

Better answers come out of the involvement of lots of people -Linda Murray, Superintendent, San Jose Unified School District

Senior Work Exchange, a program started in 1989, is another way the district reaches out to the community. Each year, up to 90 seniors are hired, for a nominal wage, to work anywhere from the district office to the school libraries to the classrooms. Although district funds cover only 150 hours per school year, Novotny says that many of the seniors go beyond this as volunteers. "The schools absolutely love the senior citizens. It's been an incredible intergenerational program where everyone wins," she says.

Take Rod Yoakum, for instance, who comes in every day to read to kids. Even chemotherapy treatments for cancer don't stop him. "He loves kids, loves pushing them to excel. And they do," Novotny says.

O'Connell points out that 60 percent of the county's population aren't parents. "It's imperative that we involve people as much as possible that may not have direct contact with the schools."

Melissa Ezarik,, is features editor.