As the end of the calendar year draws near, many districts may be reaching out to parents, guardians, students and staff with surveys to better evaluate their school climate and culture. This annual exercise can provide valuable insight. But if this is the only time during the year that you seek feedback from these audiences, you may not be getting the whole picture.
Public engagement: How, when, and why
Engaging with your community can take a lot of different forms. Like most school leaders, you probably engage informally with many different groups on a regular basis. Whether it’s a staff member catching you in the hall for a quick word, an email from a parent, or a chat with a student at an event, good leaders find time to hear from the people they serve.
But is that enough?
In every school district, there will be times when leaders should turn to their community to get answers to specific, meaningful questions. The way you choose to ask those questions matters just as much as the questions you ask. Let’s look at a few scenarios, and how collecting feedback can help districts move forward effectively.
Crafting a vision
Goal: Develop a long-term vision to guide district practices.
- Capture nuanced, complex, wide-ranging feedback
- Summarize diverse viewpoints effectively
Strategy: Guide audiences through focused dialogue
- Focus groups
- Sticky note brainstorming
- Walking brainstorming
- Engagement software tools
Developing a mission statement, strategic plan, learner profile or similar document is a nuanced, complex, and thought-provoking process. To effectively gather feedback on big-picture topics, consider guiding small groups of community members through focused discussions or exercises where open-ended feedback and suggestions can be collected. Avoid limiting participants’ responses. Look for ways to cast a wide net, where participants can respond freely, and see and react to others’ responses.
Reaching a decision
Goal: Choose a specific course of action for the district to follow
- Framing the question
- Transparency about decision-making process
- Obtaining a representative demographic sample
Strategy: Poll key publics on targeted questions that will help decision-makers move forward
- Public opinion surveys
- Online poll
- Paper surveys
- Phone surveys
- Spot surveys (show of hands)
If your district is facing a key decision, you may benefit from a deeper understanding of where your key publics stand on the issue. Specific decisions can often be put before your public in an opinion poll, but be careful with how questions are framed – and be clear about what the district will do with this feedback.
If, for example, the district is considering a later start time for the school day, it may be unwise to ask an open-ended question such as, “What time do you think school should start?” Never to provide your community with the opportunity to choose an option you would never adopt. This could put the district in an uncomfortable position.
Another challenge with opinion polls is ensuring that a reasonably representative sample of your community has responded. Targeted outreach to specific demographics is usually necessary. Collecting demographic data as part of the survey can help you see whose feedback is – and isn’t – being heard.
Implementing a decision
Goal: Chart a course forward after a key decision has been made
- Maintaining focus on the task at hand (avoiding re-litigating the decision)
- Defining the decision-making process
Strategy: Empower key stakeholders to develop recommendations
- Task force
- Advisory group
Once a key decision has been made, additional questions may persist about how to implement the desired change. Throwing these additional questions open to the entire community can slow down the process, and create confusion. On the other hand, proceeding without community input can damage trust.
Convening a committee, task force or advisory group of key stakeholders can help districts navigate these situations. However, such a group should only be formed if there is a clear path to follow through on its recommendations. District leaders should communicate this path to the group. In the absence of such clarity, the group may presume to have more authority than it actually does.
Three steps for effective public engagement
- Be clear and honest about your purpose. Don’t ask for an opinion you’re not ready to hear.
- Work hard to hear from all voices, especially those that may be marginalized. Don’t rely on guesses or gut feelings about what one group of people wants or needs – let them tell you.
- Tell people what you heard. Most people are only aware of the opinions of their own social circle. Effective public engagement should expand not only your awareness, but your community’s, too.
The bottom line
Public opinion is a valuable commodity, but district leaders must select public engagement tactics that are aligned to the situation at hand. Above all, leaders must be clear with the community about its role in informing any decision-making process. An opinion that is ignored should not have been solicited – but good leaders become great by taking feedback and turning it into positive action.
Contact Nichols Strategies today to find out how we can help you refine your district’s public engagement strategy.