4 Ways to Use Engagement to Kick-off the School Year

Senka Kovacevic

1. Set a tone of listening and create a constructive way for voices to be heard

Listen carefully to public input before a decision is made.

– Actual Thought Provided in Selah School District’s School Start Time ThoughtExchange

Hosting a community engagement at the outset of the school year allows a district to be proactive in surfacing and addressing community concerns. Agenda-free listening creates trust in district leadership, and by initiating the conversation the district can set ground rules for online community conversations in a way that helps to keep them constructive and on-point.

Selah School District in Washington, for example, was eager to implement later school start times as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Before doing so, however, the District engaged its community and was surprised to discover that half of the community was strongly against the change.

As a result of the engagement, the District deferred the change to the school day and avoided a conflict with half of its community. Being proactive allowed the concerns to be raised and addressed in a constructive way.

Read the full case study: The Challenge of Changing School Start Times


2. Get ahead of issues

Our ThoughtExchange really clarified what we were thinking already, and allowed us to take the key findings and actually apply them to some of the things we were already wanting to do.

– Dr. John Mulford Superintendent, West Plains School District MO

Identifying and understanding concerns before they become contentious gives districts the best opportunity to create positive solutions and avoid potentially divisive conflicts.  Consultation with the community also helps to generate support when it comes time to implementing those solutions.

For example, West Plains School District in Missouri knew that it was running out of space for its students. They weren’t certain, however, about how the community felt about pursuing a tax levy or what the community wanted those funds to accomplish.

By reaching out to its community and engaging more people than it ever had been able to before, West Plains discovered that the community had a greater appreciation for the issue of overcrowding than the District had realized.

Armed with this understanding, the district created two scenarios to address overcrowding, both of which would result in increased taxes, and hosted an engagement to discuss the relative merits of and concern raised by each scenario. By getting out in front of the issue of a necessary tax increase, the District was able to uncover community support for building a new high school, despite the belief up to that point that no such support existed.

Read the full case study: Meaningful Engagement Creates Support for New High School


3. Build relationships

The value I see, as a superintendent who’s been here a long time, is how ThoughtExchange got two very distinct groups talking to one another. That is really unique to ThoughtExchange.

– Dr. Randy Zimmerly, Superintendent Westview School Corporation IN

A positive relationship with and between parents, staff and other community members creates a healthier environment for students and helps to promote successful learning outcomes. Creating a means for parents with different levels of schedule flexibility, access to technology and languages to participate in a single conversation can have a big impact on improving relationships among the broader school community.

For Westview School Corporation in Indiana, creating a feeling of inclusiveness was particularly challenging because 50% of its population is Amish and would not use technology to interact with the District or others in the community. In addition to a regular, online process, Westview provided a paper and pencil ThoughtExchange option for its Amish participants.

Seeing the Amish and “English” thoughts together for the first time, and the effect that had on the community, was a poignant moment for Zimmerly, who was raised in an Amish-Mennonite community in Ohio much like Westview.

I initially turned to ThoughtExchange for a bond issue. But, as an 18-year resident of this community – who has raised his family here and whose children will likely live in this community – I’m finding that ThoughtExchange is improving our community as opposed to just getting me what I wanted as a superintendent. It’s actually becoming a way for us to talk to one another.

– Dr. Randy Zimmerly, Superintendent Westview School Corporation IN

Read the full case study: Breaking Down Communications Silos


4. Remove obstacles to student success

Figuring out how to reach each student can be a challenge. Redefining engagement in the digital age is the key to restoring trust.

– Dr. Becky Berg, Superintendent Marysville School District WA

In the same way that understanding the concerns of parents helps districts arrive at relevant solutions, understanding the concerns of students helps ensure their school environments feel safe and promote learning.

Regina Public Schools in Canada is one such example. In an attempt to bring equal opportunities to students across the district, Regina discontinued its open enrollment policy. Though the strategy was created through careful research, planning and consultation the District wanted to make sure that students felt that they had a voice in the decision. Regina used ThoughtExchange to ask students how they felt about the changes.

Read the full case study: Creating Equal Opportunities

Marysville School District in Washington is an example of using engagement to address students’ feeling of safety. In 2015, a high school student brought a gun onto campus and took the lives of several students, injured others and then took his own life. In that moment and the days that followed, the students and teachers of Marysville felt Pilchuck High School change from a place of connection and specialized learning to a place of deep sadness and shock.

A top concern for the District was the emotional health of the students. Many students wanted the old cafeteria, where the tragedy occurred, torn down and rebuilt somewhere else, while others spoke of reclaiming the space, and not allowing this incident to define their campus experience. These two perspectives became the foundation of the District’s next community engagement. Through this conversation, community members were united by their key values: caring for their youth, being thoughtful about the future and finding strength in tragedy

Read the full case study: Rebuilding Marysville School District

What are your thoughts?

Share your perspectives by commenting below, or email us with your ideas for blog posts that could further this discussion.

About the Author

Senka Kovacevic

Senka is a Writer. She has interviewed superintendents, communications professionals, business and thought leaders across North America and is passionate about bringing their experiences to wider audiences that can benefit from their learnings.