As they saw the returns rolling in with more than 60 percent in favor of passing their bond referendum, Superintendent Susan Enfield and her leadership team at Highline Public Schools were standing on chairs, laughing and celebrating.
The Highline team had been trying to pass that bond for 10 years—and failed twice in the process. After their second failure, the Burien, WA district leadership knew it was time to take a deep look at what was standing in their way.
“It boiled down to trust with the community,” says Highline Chief Communications Officer, Catherine Carbone Rogers. “We needed to find some new and creative ways to build trust in our community. We did surveys and had low participation rates. We didn’t know if we were asking about the things people really cared about. We felt we had to try something out of the box.”
They looked at some of their peer districts that had bond successes after struggling, and the common denominator they found was Thoughtexchange.
“In both cases the districts used Thoughtexchange, incorporated the feedback and then went back to the public and passed their bond,” Carbone Rogers adds. “So that was pretty convincing."
For Dr. Enfield, communicating with people in her district is a key priority. Just a few months before passing their bond, she and her team won NSPRA’s 2016 Communication Technology Award for Superintendents.
“I think communication represents the Holy Grail for our K to 12 system, because I don’t think anyone can say that every parent, student and staff member knows exactly what we’re doing and why,” Enfield explains. “Part of what I’ve learned is that we have to talk about things over and over. Because as many times as we say it, someone’s not going to hear it.”
Upon discovering Thoughtexchange, Dr. Enfield and her communications team saw a way to leverage technology to not only reach more people, but also have people hear each other and feel heard by leadership on issues important to them.
They worked with the Thoughtexchange team to reach out and let people say in their own words what they thought the district was doing well, and where it could improve. In the process, people could consider other perspectives through the Star step, which let them see and rate thoughts shared by others.
“We had a way higher participation rate with Thoughtexchange and a lot more varied feedback than we’ve had with any survey we’ve ever done,” says Carbone Rogers. “We were really pleased when we saw the results and we had literally thousands of comments and hundreds of people participating. There was way more reach than we could have possibly had with dozens of community meetings.”
“When we use a survey to get feedback, we’re asking about things we care about. Thoughtexchange allows the community to tell us what they care about.”
“Thoughtexchange allows us to not operate from a place of assuming what we think is important in the community, but from a place where the community is telling us what’s important to them. Then we use that to inform the decisions we make going forward.”Dr. Susan Enfield, Superintendent
Building trust in the process
Through their exchange, Highline learned that to pass their bond, they needed to involve the community in the process.
“Through Thoughtexchange, we learned our real challenge wasn’t that people didn’t like the components of the bond. It was that they didn’t trust us to do it well, or to make the right decisions about what went into the bond,” says Dr. Enfield.
“The key element preventing us from passing our bond was the feeling that people didn’t have a say in what was in that package,” adds Carbone Rogers. “So that gave us the impetus to create a citizens’ advisory committee that looked at all the same data we had and created a plan.”
“In the end, the bond package wasn’t that different,” notes Dr. Enfield. “The difference was, the community trusted it was a good decision.
“Thoughtexchange allows us to not operate from a place of assuming what we think is important in the community, but from a place where the community is telling us what’s important to them. Then we use that to inform the decisions we make going forward.”
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- Build community trust and pass a bond referendum after 10 years and two failures
- An exchange that let the community easily share and prioritize each other's thoughts
- Increased trust and involvement from the community
- Passed bond referendum with 67% in favor