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Aurora Institute

Engaging the Community

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, How to Get Started, Engage Community

This blog post first appeared on CompetencyWorks on September 26, 2016. 

This is the fifth article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders.

Why Engage The Community?

housesDistrict leaders offer many reasons for engaging the community early on in the process of converting to competency education.

  • Nurturing Consensus and Leadership: Communities need to be given time to understand the new structure and why it is important. The greater the number of people in the community who are knowledgeable about the process, the more they can help others to understand.
  • Contributing Valuable Perspectives: Members of the community will bring ideas to the table that educators might not necessarily include. They will bring their values and perspectives to create a richer conversation.
  • Re-Aligning Roles: Engaging community members will shake up the bureaucratic dynamics that have come to shape how educators often interact with families and community members.
  • Re-Building Respect and Trust: Community engagement can help to overcome mistrust and build the mutual respect that is needed to create a culture of learning. In most districts, there are segments of the community that have either had bad experiences in school or have historically been underserved and disrespected by school systems. Districts must create a space for people to talk about what they want for their children, have honest conversations about the current academic achievement levels and graduation rates, and share their fears.
  • Sustaining Change: Community engagement is an essential ingredient for staying the course when unanticipated consequences of implementation arise and when district leadership changes.
  • Unlearning Old Routines and Practices: Districts and schools will receive feedback on what has not been working in their previous community engagement strategies and can begin to co-design new strategies with the community.

There is an additional reason that community engagement is needed in the process of converting to competency education: to build respectful relationships with students. In order to foster strong relationships, school personnel need to have a sense of the culture and experiences that shape their students’ lives. In competency education, valuing the insight and perspectives of the community has to come first. In fact, the most successful district conversions to date begin the process with strong community involvement.

The Pittsfield Approach

In order to establish a community engagement process, districts will need to invest in structuring and facilitating ongoing conversations. The community in Pittsfield, New Hampshire demands to be an active partner—not just in the initial conversations, but in a sustained way. Thus, Pittsfield School District offers a case study of a multipronged approach to community engagement that provides formal structures for ongoing conversations and continued learning and is prepared to engage around challenging issues when they arise.

Start with Questions, Not Solutions: Pittsfield recommends that districts and schools that are beginning the community engagement steps avoid declarative statements like, “We are going to become competency-based!” By starting the conversation with the solution instead of an honest discussion, schools undermine any chance for authentic dialogue. In addition, buy-in strategies do not solicit the invaluable input and ideas from the community.

Instead, the focus should be on what communities and parents want for their children upon graduation… and then the role of the school in fully preparing them for that goal. This is where the conversation begins about what it means to personalize the learning experience to ensure students reach proficiency on all the important skills they will need to be successful in the next stage of their learning. Is it misleading to have an idea where the conversation might end up? Not at all—because it is likely that your community will introduce ideas that expand beyond your own understanding and vision for a personalized, competency-based education system. For example, Tobi Chassie, a project manager of the transformational process at Pittsfield School District, emphasizes that it was invaluable to have community members participate in the process, as they raised issues that educators might have skipped over. “We had not included anything to address unmotivated learners. It was a community member who pointed that out, raising the question about what was in place to support that set of students.”

Structure Governance to Include Community and Students: At Pittsfield, a thirty-five-member Community Advisory Council was created with six sub-teams, which contributed to an overall logic model that was turned into a roadmap for implementation. The teams explored personalization that emphasized student-centered learning, an understanding of the learning process as a combination of habits of mind that supported inquiry-based learning, the goal of building the twenty-first century skills that would prepare students for college and career readiness, and an expectation that students would demonstrate their learning through authentic assessment.

The Council (renamed the Good to Great Team) continues to meet once a month as a full group and once a month in sub-teams that include talent management, community engagement, parent engagement, and student engagement. As Chassie explained, “Community engagement is the key to sustainability. If the district and school leaders fell off the face of the earth, the community would keep it going. They are creating the public demand.”

Inform Design and Implementation from Multiple Perspectives: Pittsfield developed several approaches to engage the community and gather knowledge from different perspectives. They knew it was important to identify as many issues as early as possible and make sure they had been taken into account. To this end, they created a Competency Education Implementation Task Force of three students, five parents, three community members, and eight faculty members to ensure that all perspectives and concerns were addressed. The task force visited neighboring schools to learn more about the transition and to help identify potential implementation issues that might arise.

Pittsfield has also built the capacity to include student involvement in governance throughout the district. By turning to the Center for Secondary School Redesign, the adults in Pittsfield learned to engage with students on committees and task forces. One important step was to clarify the scope of the committees and the responsibility of members. Students continue to have a strong sense of ownership in the school and their education, and policies are more student-centered than they might have been otherwise.

Go into the Community: Pittsfield used a multi-pronged approach to engage the broader community as they moved into the transition stage. First, they worked with NH Listens to organize forums facilitated by community members. Then, in partnership with Pittsfield Youth Workshop and other local organizations, they held a pig roast in a downtown park to attract community members unlikely to come to the school. Computers were set up so teachers could show what competencies and reports cards would look like. They also invested in making sure students fully understood the new system and why it was important to make the transition. Lois Stevens, Director of Student Services and the Chair of the Competency Implementation Team, explained, “Students carry the burden of what is happening in the school. We wanted to make sure they understood it and could explain it from their firsthand experience.”

At Pittsfield, the strategic focus is on student-centered learning, with the competency-based infrastructure operating as the backbone of the secondary school. The district has strengthened its strategic communication capacity to engage the community around student-centered learning and interacting with students. It is also in constant conversation with the community. Meetings are set up before reports are released and as new ideas are being developed. Superintendent John Freeman is constantly presenting to the Select Board, Rotary Clubs, churches, and other community organizations. Students are a part of the communication strategy, participating in presentations and helping to explain student-centered learning.

Something to Think About: Districts that want to engage their community change how they organize meetings. They stop having meetings only at the district office or school buildings and find places where community members feel comfortable, including work sites, faith-based institutions, and community centers. They stop having meetings only in the evenings and schedule a variety of different times, including the weekend. They offer daycare, food, and materials in the language of their community members. Most importantly, they structure the agenda so that dialogue is a priority. 


Community And Communications

The communications demands will be heavy in the early stages of putting a competency-based structure into place. Thus, it is helpful to put the organizational structures and processes in place so that ongoing dialogue continues. Strategic communication should constantly reinforce the shared purpose and highlight why it is important to upgrade the design of the education system to better meet student needs.

In engaging with the initial phase of shaping a shared purpose—as well as the subsequent work to create an instructional structure and implement it—there will be a constant stream of questions. Districts will need to be prepared for some of these issues to be raised in the local media. Some may be easy to answer, but many will require creating mini-conversations that help people understand why the district is trying to change the education system they know so well. Instead of trying to answer each question separately, ask your own question that will open a conversation or prepare a story that will resonate.

Increasingly, there are resources available to help education leaders prepare a strong message. Achieve has created a communication tool kit that can help prepare for these kinds of conversations. Frameworks Institute offers a toolkit called Telling Stories Out of School: Reframing the Education Conversation through a Core Story Approach, which places the focus on our need to prepare our children for the future. Foundation for Excellence in Education has created a communications tool kit to help you engage policymakers. Great Schools Partnership offers several resources, including Ten Principles of Proficiency-Based Learning. However, learning from peers will always be the most helpful in learning how to respond to the variety of questions that pop up. Brian Stack, Principal at Sanborn Regional High School, shared his answers to common questions, including, “Can you explain how competency-based grading practices will help prepare my child for college?” and “Is it true that deadlines don’t matter in a competency education system?” Identify students, parents, teachers, and community members who are effective in communicating personalization and competency education, and ask them to help address questions as they arise.

To date, the districts that have begun the transition to a competency-based system contain fewer than 50,000 students. Larger districts will need to invest more in community engagement strategies and think through roll-out strategies that will build trust with the different sectors of their community. No matter the size of the district, leadership will need to demonstrate that community engagement is a priority and ensure that processes, structures, and timelines are built so that community members can be involved, not just informed.

Something to Think About: Expect that students who perceive they are succeeding in the traditional system (and their parents) to have a lot of questions about competency education. Be prepared to talk about how students aren’t competing against their peers but against students all around the world, and how the GPA can mislead students into thinking they have learned everything they need to know. Emphasize how expectations of learning have increased so students need to apply skills and content—not just recall them—and that applying skills often takes more effort on the part of students who are used to succeeding under the rules of the traditional system. Engage higher education admissions officers in conversations so parents know that competency education won’t hurt their child’s chances of getting into college.


For more information, explore this whole blog series:

Blog #1 Introducing Implementing Competency Education in K–12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders

Blog #2 What Is Competency Education?

Blog #3 Investing in Shared Leadership

Blog #4 Constructing a Shared Journey of Inquiry, Shared Vision, and Shared Ownership