Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Value of Relationship

This week at the Wisconsin Association of School Boards Annual Convention, relationship cropped up in so many places. While school districts continue to feel the pressures of accountability, many convention speakers focused on trust and relationships as the way to best achieve success. The importance of trust and relationships were mentioned in general sessions, idea exchanges, and special events.

Jerry Kember, Wisconsin Superintendent of the Year, talked about the importance of trust and the value of relationships and team to the success of the La Crosse school district.

Boards from school districts and the technical college system met for dinner one evening. There was a recognition of the importance of these two groups coming together.

Meg Wheatley, keynote general session speaker, talked about relationships, that if you want to create more health, create more relationships.  Wheatley talked about the power of relationships, that while we may lack financial resources, we have what we need to face our challenges. Wheatley says, "everything is a bundle of potential that manifests itself only in relationships."

Wheatley gave the audience the following ideas to use in their work to build relationships and community:

  • People support what they create.
  • People act responsibility when they care.
  • Conversation is the way humans have always thought together.
  • To change the conversation change who is in the conversation.
  • Expect leadership to come from anywhere.
  • Focus on what's possible.
  • The wisdom resides within us.
  • Everything is a failure in the middle.
  • Learning is the only way we become smarter about what we do.
  • Meaningful work is the most powerful motivator.
  • Humans can handle anything as long as we are together.
  • Generosity Forgiveness Love.
You can listen to Meg talk about this ideas on this youtube video.

Over the last twenty years, education reform has focused on the technical aspects of improving student achievement.  Yet, if we expect to successfully close the achievement gap, we need to consider the important role of relationship.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Extending Genuine Invitations

Community Engagement is on the minds of many school board leaders today.  They struggle trying to understand how community engagement differs from traditional public hearings. And they struggle trying to get other than the usual suspects to attend.

Community Engagement is more deliberate and provides for two-way dialogue with school district stakeholders--including parents, students, teachers and other staff, community leaders--basically anyone with an interest in the district.  Ensuring that you get more than the usual suspects requires a little bit of effort.

After identifying the purpose of your community engagement work, it is important to give consideration to the "guest list" and the way you go about inviting people to participate.  If your stakeholders do not perceive your invitation as genuine, your agenda could be derailed before the process even begins.

Developing multiple modes for delivering your invitation is important.  Because you have different groups with various connections to your district, you need to send invitations specifically directed to each group.  Simply sending a notice home in student backpack mail is not sufficient--even for parents.  Not all students are responsible and timely mail carriers! 

Other ways to reach your stakeholders--announcement on your website, press release to local papers, special notice to key communicators asking them to invite five people to the meeting; notices in staff newsletters.

Of particular note:  how to reach those groups who traditionally fail to attend our events.  Ask people from those groups to invite people on your behalf.  America Speaks designs large scale town meetings on public policy issues and works to achieve a representative sample from the community.  They accomplish this by asking leaders in under-represented groups to extend invitations on behalf of the America Speaks organizers. Then they ensure that these groups have a genuine opportunity to attend by scheduling meetings at times and in places that are easily accessible.  They also provide transportation and child care.

Also keep in mind that when you decide to move from the traditional public hearing format to formats that allow for dialogue, you may be working to overcome community skepticism that may go back a long way. Be patient.  Once you begin to engage with your community in two-way dialogue, people will come to understand that you are genuine in your invitation.  Word will get around and more people will be interested in participating the next time.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Community Engagement in the new year

Happy New Year!

Have you made any resolutions for the new year?  I hope one thing your school district resolves to do is develop new strategies for engaging with your community.  Times have changed and one-way communication is no longer sufficient for many members of our communities.

What do we mean when we use the term "community engagement?"  We are talking about two-way communication that provides opportunity for genuine dialogue.   A recent study by Archon Fung of Harvard found that citizens are willing to participate in public affairs when new practices are used, and "politics as usual" is set aside.

There are lots of tools available to help you develop new communication habits.  Everyday Democracy offers study guides that your community can use to explore important school issues like student achievement and diversity.

Throughout 2010 I will introduce other engagement tools that can help you engage with your community in ways that will lead to productive conversations.  I welcome your stories about how your school district and community worked to practice two-way communication in the new year.