Record engagement helps Central Valley School District create a quality facilities plan

When classrooms are overcrowded and children have to learn in portable classrooms or get bussed outside of their neighborhood schools, it’s not hard to see what the problem is. Capacity and facilities issues may be the easiest to identify, but arriving at the right solution is surprisingly difficult. Funding is an obvious challenge, but the real struggle is often in gaining the support and commitment of the community, when it comes to spending those funds. Taking a best-educated guess at what the collective community wants – and will most likely support – is simply not effective. Rather, leveraging community engagement to help inform and ultimately pass school bond proposals is quickly emerging as a successful way to give districts the best chance possible.

Parents and community members care deeply about the state of the schools in their district, but they need to be engaged in a way that’s inclusive and easily accessible. And while there’s a plethora of traditional listening tools such as town halls, surveys and focus groups, none yield the quantity and quality of input in the same way that new, large-scale online engagements can.

Building on past efforts

This is familiar territory for Superintendent Ben Small of the Central Valley School District. Despite many previous, well-intended attempts to find a better solution to the District’s declining facilities, they continue to face the prospect of having 1,500 elementary students without classrooms by 2018. In fact, Small and the District tried “every traditional engagement method they could think of” to help inform past bond proposals, but there just didn’t seem to be a process available to get at the depth of engagement needed to do so.

“A community is known by the schools it keeps, and if that is true, then the community needs to be involved,” says Small of his decision to partner with Thoughtexchange. Using their unique online engagement process, the District heard from more community members than all of their previous attempts combined. They heard from every corner of their community and some of what they learned was surprising.

“A community is known by the schools it keeps,
and if that is true, then the community needs to be involved.”BEN SMALL, SUPERINTENDENT

“We’re proud of our [past] efforts but nothing has even come close to Thoughtexchange,” says Small of the results they were able to achieve. Besides informing Central Valley’s next bond proposal, the process provided a shared learning experience that united stakeholders.

Strength in vulnerability

Approaching a large, diverse group with open ended questions can be intimidating. Especially when the process is as open and transparent as the one Thoughtexchange employs. What if something is said that may not be easy to hear? In Small’s experience, the best intentions for children prevail. Thoughtexchange’s unique process, which includes best-practices for moderation, ensures engagements do not become places to single out or “bash” individual educators. Participants are made aware of this up-front, and personal attack comments are flagged and removed.

“Critical feedback however is what principals expect, and is in itself an affirming experience because it validates what they already know is a challenge,” explains Small. In fact, because of the significant quantity and quality of input gathered, Central Valley is now better positioned to put forward a strong bond proposal – one that is much more likely to resonate with the community, because it represents a unified stance – despite differing from the individual positions that stakeholders may have held prior to the process. As community members hear and learn from one another, a phenomenon often occurs, where individual thoughts and ideas evolve and even change completely.

As Small reminds us, “We are listening in order to learn, and as we learn we get better. And while we [as leaders] may feel a bit vulnerable asking open-ended questions, it’s actually that vulnerability that creates a more empowered position.” Central Valley’s confidence in the process was further bolstered by “all of the Thoughtexchange staff we interfaced with,” adds Small. “If I had a question about data, they did the analysis and got it back to me. If we needed a face to face meeting, we’d get it.” Partnering with a team that is passionate about “modelling leaders as learners” and understands the difference timely results make, helped Central Valley foster a trusting environment with stakeholders.

Big data clarifies big issues

Following on the heels of a previous and successful broad community engagement using Thoughtexchange, Central Valley created a subsequent one specific to its facilities, in an effort to open discussion around two potential bond proposal scenarios. Participants were asked for input on the benefits and challenges they could see with each scenario. At the same time, the District held two town hall meetings and asked the same questions. Ten people attended. However with Thoughtexchange’s large-scale online community engagement, more than 1,900 participants shared over 4,000 thoughts and assigned nearly 50,000 stars to their top priorities.

The depth and value of the input they received using this process was like nothing
the District’s Capital Facilities Planning Committee had ever seen. The results were extremely insightful – both validating the committee’s thinking in many ways, while
at the same time shedding light on some new perspectives they hadn’t heard before. Amongst the learnings that surfaced, three key take-aways emerged: there was little tolerance for increasing the bond tax rate, the issue of overcrowding and its negative impact on high school and middle school students must be addressed, and assurance that the growing number of Central Valley families with young children will continue to have access to safe and well-equipped elementary schools close to home.

Moving forward together

“Transparency can be risky, but when done well it can propel a district forward,” says Small
of his experience with Thoughtexchange. In fact, with their key priorities now identified, Central Valley has taken their recommendations to the school board for a construction bond package, slated to appear on the February 2015 ballot. The District is determined to build on their momentum and is eager to get an even stronger response to its virtual engagements by building up their email lists and organizing computer labs for those without access to the Internet. Small feels that in-person engagements like town halls are still a vital communication tool, and sees their value as a representation of his commitment to reach out and continue to be personally accessible to his community. In that spirit of openness, Central Valley plans to use future engagements to learn how schools can be further improved and how best to address the issues that arise out of those engagements.

Small is wholeheartedly dedicated “to making sure the District continues to demonstrate that we’re listening”. He believes repeated engagements are the answer and will ensure that future challenges are met “with zest and passion so that kids get the best”. And the “sooner collaborative decisions can be reached, the sooner our children will be immersed in the best learning environments possible.”


“We’re proud of our [past] efforts but nothing has even come close to Thoughtexchange.”BEN SMALL, SUPERINTENDENT