Creating a Strategy for Ongoing Community Engagement

Senka Kovacevic

ThoughtExchange gives parents an opportunity to share thoughts in a respectable, anonymous forum. I would also like to see a “climate assessment” engagement done by students for each school. Anonymous input from students would give leadership a better idea of the “needs improvement” areas.

– Actual participant thought, Cheney School District (WA)

ThoughtExchange is a new program for me and I think it will be a good way to stay informed and to express my thoughts.

– Actual participant thought, Highline Public Schools (WA)

What these participants touch on – and what the superintendents we’ve worked with strongly believe in – is the expectation that engagement is a continuum, and not a one-off effort.

To that end, many of the leaders we’ve worked with have asked us about the consultations and conversations ThoughtExchange could help facilitate, as well as how best to plan ahead for a year of meaningful engagement. This blog post aims to answer those questions.

Identifying your needs

A strategy of ongoing community engagement starts with identifying the areas of engagement you want to address. Here are some examples of the areas of engagement in which we work:

Annual Improvement/Strategic Planning — Provides an opportunity to understand the community’s perspective, and leaves districts with both short-term actionable results, and long-term suggestions, for school level and strategic planning.

Facilities/Bond Consultations — Gives the community a chance to share thoughts and priorities about facility needs in the district. The resulting feedback is used to inform the projects on the ballot, and ensure community priorities are represented in the project list. Facility consultations are essential parts of facility planning, and ultimately increase buy-in.

Boundary Redesign — Used to understand and plan for the many ways a community will be impacted by changing school boundaries. It gives decision leaders actionable takeaways to ease the planning process by addressing community concerns before implementation.

Technology Planning — Looks at the impact technology is having on a broad range of issues, from curriculum design to student engagement. It also helps uncover the necessary supports that need to be in place to ensure the smooth implementation of a technology strategy.

Teacher Workload & Efficacy Review — Focuses on how to improve and streamline the teacher workload. It engages staff members on the issue to ensure the solution is driven by the teaching community, and therefore, addresses their concerns.

Program Review — A targeted process that looks at specific programs in a district, revealing successful elements and areas that could be improved. This type of process offers decision leaders actionable strategies to make immediate improvements in the programs offered through a school or District.

Budget Engagement – Gives the community an opportunity to consider the priorities listed in your budget proposal, and allows them to provide feedback on your plan. This type of process helps to inform your budget priorities moving form and creates buy-in.

Professional Learning – Creates an opportunity for needs assessment and priority setting for future professional development and learning, either on the school or district level.

Choosing the best engagement for your decisions

The nature of the decisions facing your district will determine which process, or series of processes, will suit your needs best. Here is how each of the 3 types of ThoughtExchange engagements can address the areas listed above:

The Annual Check-In is a system-wide consultation that seeks input on general strengths and concerns, from all stakeholders, at the individual school and district levels. This type of process helps demonstrate your district’s commitment to listening and learning, and assists in aligning community needs and priorities with district planning efforts. It can also help with community perceptions on the progress of the goals in your strategic plan.

Annual Check-In’s are effective for strategic planning, and the assessment of schools and districts. As well, for change intensive decisions, such as redistricting, this approach can help you scan the district for overall tone, sentiments, and priorities about the changes under consideration.

Issue Based Discussions are ones where the community contributes to the solution of a critical issue facing your district. The topic may have emerged from an earlier process, or is topical in the district at the time of the engagement. Issue based discussions build buy-in and capacity for additional district planning initiatives, and work well for tactical decisions such as use of technology in the classroom, school start times, transportation, or programs review. Issue based discussions can also be used to gather input on a specific district initiative, previously developed plan, or a proposal your district is considering.

Scenarios Engagements begin with two scenarios and invite participants to identify the strengths and concerns of each. From this process emerges a third scenario based on the identified strengths of the first two. These are especially beneficial for supporting bond and levy planning but also work to inform many kinds of planning initiatives.

Each of these engagement types are appropriate for district-wide engagements, staff based engagements such as workload or professional development reviews, and engagements that are more tightly focused on a particular segment of your community.

For information about how best to use open-ended questions to achieve the goals listed above, check out last week’s blog post Asking the Right Questions – Know More Going In, Learn More Coming Out

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.