Engaging with your child’s school is often the easiest and most direct way for ordinary citizens to become involved in decisions that affect their communities. Optimally, that engagement is deeper and more sustained. From the local PTA to the municipal board of education, parents, teachers, school administrators and education advocates can and should work together to grapple with difficult and often emotional issues.
School districts often contend with controversial decisions like budgets, school closures and new school construction. As such, it is extremely important for school board leaders to engage the greater community of parents and taxpayers in order to sustain a good working relationship that encourages inclusive decision making. School districts in Western New York are leading on this front.
New York state school districts are supported by Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES). BOCES are liaison organizations for New York State’s Department of Education. They partner with districts and provide a variety of shared support services and programs. These services include professional development to foster a culture of shared decision making.
Over the past several months Matt Leighninger and I (Nicole Hewitt) have been working with Candace Reimer of workshop for Erie 1 BOCES staff and school superintendents representing several of the 19 school districts in the Buffalo area. We designed this workshop to help participants learn techniques for facilitating dialogue and difficult conversations and processes to improve engagement of parents, educators, principals, staff and others.
In January, we traveled to Buffalo to work with Candace and her colleagues to explore techniques for making board meetings, PTAs, advisory councils and other local K-12 networks more participatory, in an effort to contribute to more sustained engagement.
For example, we walked participants through a series of interactive exercises that refined their meeting planning and facilitation skills. Participants also evaluated the engagement strategies their school systems currently employ. This included re-envisioning the traditional town hall meeting structure.
The BOCES staff and school superintendents participating in the workshop found it particularly helpful to view a series of videos we recently produced, modeling scenarios they may encounter when setting up and facilitating meetings. For example, one of the scenarios presents a common challenge: the meeting participant who “hogs the microphone.” These videos launched a vibrant discussion about how to address these situations in a way that leads to better conversation and a more productive meeting. Participants also participated in role playing exercises to sharpen their facilitation skills (and their acting chops).
Because we think it’s crucial to think beyond individual meetings and other singular events, we also worked with participants to help them explore how to design a larger-scale engagement process. In other words, it’s important to think about how to make board meetings more participatory and inclusive. But it’s even more important to think about how board meetings fit within an overarching culture that encourages meaningful input from and engagement with a variety of voices, and through a variety of opportunities.
Through this exercise, we challenged participants to rethink the common trope of “getting buy-in” for pre-determined decisions or policies. Instead, we wanted to help participants cultivate leadership strategies that encourage collaboration with the community in decision making processes. We find that this method of engagement empowers citizens, particularly traditionally marginalized communities, to truly be a part of the decision making process, thereby strengthening the infrastructure for long-term, sustained engagement.