Public engagement–in contrast to traditional school communications–was new to the superintendent and school board in San Jose, California in the 1990s, but they wanted to try it as a way to inform school policy and open up communications with the district’s highly diverse community. Now, almost two decades later, public engagement is an established mode for communications and collaboration within the district and an integral part of its planning process.
The district started in a small way, asking Public Agenda to conduct focus groups with Anglo parents, bilingual Hispanic parents, Spanish-only Hispanic parents, students of various backgrounds, and teachers on the topics of student achievement, diversity, and equity. One district official called the findings “an eye-opening experience” because parents of all backgrounds, along with students themselves, called for high expectations for student achievement. Largely in response, the school board raised its graduation requirements.
The district then moved on to a broad-based community conversation about “Standards and Expectations for Our Students” with Public Agenda assisting by training conversation organizers and moderators, and by developing discussion materials. Although the district initiated and sponsored the forum, a committee that included parents, members of the clergy, employers and others took over the planning and operations. The forum, held at a downtown church, drew about 140 participants; some discussions were conducted in Spanish with translated materials and a bilingual moderator and recorder.
Several themes emerged: the need for higher expectations for all students; concern about inadequate parental involvement; and the need to address communication gaps between school and home, including a lack of clarity about district standards already in place. A reporter from the San Jose Mercury News captured the process in a positive article that appeared on the front page of the next day’s metro section.
The result? The district developed an action plan to increase parental involvement, began regularly surveying students and parents, and started holding neighborhood conversations on standards policies and other school issues. It created a department specifically for public engagement programs, which includes the new annual district survey and report cards, as well as ongoing forum work. The National School Public Relations Association awarded the district a top award for its public engagement model. To this day, focus groups, surveys and community conversations remain an integral part of the district’s work.