Wausau School District
Plan for Community Engagement
by Mary Ellen Marnholtz, Community Relations Coordinator
ELEMENTS OF A SUCCESSFUL COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT PROGRAM
Throughout the past few decades, citizens across the nation have been seeking new and relevant ways to be involved in the public life of their communities. Today, there is national movement embracing the basic need for civic involvement by our citizens. This process is called community engagement. In neighborhoods and cities across the nation, groups of citizens are coming together in a new type of purposeful dialogue that leads to community understanding, public input, shared decision making, and public action.
Community engagement, public deliberation, and public engagement are all terms used to describe this process. It is not a new endeavor and heralds from the early days of the republic when town hall meetings and deliberations were the ways communities practiced public discussion and took part in the decision-making process. This process is based on a sharing of ideas, experiences, and a real attempt at listening and understanding other points of view concerning an issue. There are certainly leaders in this movement-individuals and organizations. The work of Daniel Yankelovich of Public Agenda and David Mathews of the Kettering Foundation, as well as the work of other organizations such as the Annenberg Institute for School Reform and Study Circles, Inc. have all contributed greatly to the knowledge and practice of community engagement in America.
The Annenberg Institute’s survey and study of community engagement practices across the United States established a body of research on current practice in its report, Reasons for Hope, Voices for Change. In the document, the authors relate that, “three broad characteristics are common to this widely used strategy for achieving social change.” They report that the first is inclusiveness. Effective community engagement programs reach out beyond the usual suspects to solicit broad-based involvement from a variety of citizens in the community. The second characteristic is a focus on change. The dialogue created is focused toward positive action that benefits the broader community. Finally, the last characteristic is consensus. This process builds, informs, and deepens local conversations around issues aimed at developing far-reaching support for community action.
Community engagement around the subject of education and educational issues is critical because these efforts can and do impact the bottom line for local school systems-school improvement and student achievement. Engagement efforts can be tied to the improvement of teaching and learning by increasing support for the development of new standards for student achievement. Community engagement can also be credited for bringing more people to the table by reaching out in new ways to stakeholders. It can better prepare citizens to take an active role in making tough decisions. The bottom line for encouraging public engagement and deliberation in the schools is that it leads to greater understanding of and greater support for public schools. Research, documented by the National School Public Relations Association, demonstrates that building broad-based community support leads to higher expectations as well as higher student achievement.
The identification of a process as “community or public engagement” can be very inclusive as demonstrated by the work of the Annenberg Institute, or it can be more narrowly defined as in the case of the Kettering Foundation’s Public Issues Forums or the practices of Study Circles, Inc. It is incumbent upon each community to decide the process that best meets its needs and will reach a logical outcome for its investment in public deliberation.
In the Wausau School District, the process of community engagement has been fashioned around the needs of individual emerging issues. This process has worked well and will most likely continue in the future. The detail and constrictions of Public Issues Forums may work well in certain instances and with certain subject matters but, by and large, a broader plan of action is indicated for the District’s ongoing engagement work. There are components that must be in place to make any community engagement effort successful.
Developing a Board Policy that endorses the use of community engagement as part of the decision-making process for critical issues having wide spread community impact establishes the Board of Education’s and Administration’s commitment to involving the community in meaningful ways in the decision-making process. This is the first step that must be taken to institutionalize this process.
THE WSD PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT PROCESS
Step One: Administratively review emerging issues.
The Administration should determine the effectiveness of community engagement in the decision-making process. Is the issue broad enough in scope and impact that it requires participation and involvement of multiple segments of the larger community or can ideas for dealing with the issue be discussed and action plans developed internally? What are the benefits and the tradeoffs for dealing with an issue in this way? Is the organization prepared to consider a broad range of input provided by participants? The practice, by its very nature, is risky. The old adage, “Never ask the question if you don’t want the answer,” must be dealt with for, in the realm of community engagement, one cannot be certain that the question asked will elicit a response equal to the expectation. Though the community participates and becomes, in essence, a part of the decision-making process, it must be clear that policy decisions are made by the Board of Education and that even this governing body answers to authorities beyond itself at both the state and national levels.
Step Two: Identify key publics.
David Mathews says that publics are created and re-created around issues of interest and concern. Identifying the key publics interested in and impacted by each issue determines the scope of the community engagement process. After these groups are identified, a process for selecting participants must be employed that provides the broadest possible involvement of community members. If representative groups exist for a particular public, that group should be encouraged to select its own representation to the process. In this way, District officials remain unbiased and able to receive truly open and honest input.
Each issue that touches the broader community has a variety of viewpoints for discussion purposes. These must be identified as well as the possible outcomes that may arise from the varied stances. Early identification of the viewpoints and possible outcomes helps the facilitator guide the discussion while requiring participants to consider viewpoints that may not be their own. Greater understanding of the complexity of the issue, the participants and their personal experiences and viewpoints, and the ramifications of the decision are gained through implementing this step in the process.
Step Four: Determine the extent of public participation.
One of the key decisions in every community engagement process will be deliberation on the extent the general public is to participate, if members of the general public are to be invited to participate at all. How should they be informed and invited to participate? This will again be dictated by the scope of the decision being made. If community members are to be invited to participate, the District should develop print advertisements detailing the location, date and time, and other pertinent information concerning the community sessions to be offered. Other, more specialized, media should be employed for deeper outreach if the issue so dictates.
The process used must effectively garner the necessary information while respecting the participants’ involvement and the time required. This will depend largely on the complexity of the decision at hand and the number of individuals and publics impacted by the decision. Community engagement processes focused on very narrow issues may be complete in a few short hours, while some may require a series of community discussions, focus group deliberations, and a steering committee to manage the process and the community input elicited.
The community engagement process will comprise only part of the overall decision-making process. The timeline must consider the timeframe in which the Board of Education and Administration must act upon the decision. Ample time for sharing the final decision with key stakeholders is critical to process success. Those individuals who invest their time in the decision-making process must be informed that the process is moving toward fruition.
These public discussions and deliberations on the issue and on the public input provided by the stakeholders involved in the process will create broader public understanding for the process and the decision that is made.
Step Eight: Communicate final decisions.
The Board of Education and Administration must share the final decision and plans to all participants and to the entire community, as appropriate. Express gratitude to participants and encourage their future involvement.