Finding the Right Fit: 6 Things to Look For in Districts Ripe for Community Engagement

July 8, 2016

When the Nellie Mae Education Foundation launched its regional school-community engagement initiative in July 2014, we made an important decision: instead of selecting districts through a traditional request-for-proposals (RFP) process, we developed—in collaboration with the Great Schools Partnership, our intermediary partner—a comprehensive “engagement process” that entails a series of conversations, interviews, and in-person meetings with a diverse cross-section of local leaders and representatives. As we move toward selecting our third cohort of districts and communities to participate in the initiative, we’ve learned a lot about what to look for when meeting and talking with community members:

1. Look for candidness, honesty, and self-reflection.

We’ve found that when school and community leaders can speak openly and frankly about their problems—especially the weaknesses of their own organization—it often indicates they have the mindset, abilities, and self-reflectiveness required to lead a successful engagement initiative. We are not looking for leaders who are talented in generating positive public perceptions; we’re looking for leaders who are willing to face and take on the most challenging problems in their community.

2. Look for self-awareness and cultural competency.

In our conversations and meetings, we look for local leaders who avoid making sweeping assumptions about families or cultural groups—particularly families or groups that do not look like them. For example, if we hear someone say “some families in our community just don’t value education,” we know that sentiments such as these not only tend to be inaccurate, but they are more often than not stereotypes directed at communities of color and poverty. To effectively lead an engagement process focused on equity and inclusion, local leaders need to be attentive to their own cultural biases or privilege.

3. Look for evidence that district and school leaders can share power.

It’s easy—in a proposal or conversation, for example—to express a desire to share leadership responsibilities or empower students, families, and community members in authentic ways. But it’s far harder to walk the talk, so we look for leaders who have demonstrated their commitment to sharing leadership over multiple years. During our first meetings, for example, we want to see if leaders have invited a diverse representation of district, school, family, and community representatives to participate in the discussion, or whether the school leaders allow the voices in the room—particularly those that work for them—to speak openly.

4. Look for leaders who can articulate specifics.

During our interviews with prospective districts and communities, we often ask local leaders to describe specific policies, programs, practices, and results—including shifts in mindsets and community culture—that they would like to see result from a 3–5 year investment in improving family and community engagement. Instead of asking, “Are you committed to engaging your students and families?”—a question that will nearly always be answered with a “yes”—we ask might ask, “Can you name one existing district or school program that you would modify to improve parent and family engagement, and tell us how you would specifically modify it?” We are looking for local leaders who can articulate the distinction between authentic engagement and public relations, for example, and who understand the implications of engagement work—i.e., the potentially disruptive impact that it can have on more traditional or hierarchical approaches to school decision-making.

5. Look for alignment in perception.

When the perceptions of district and school leaders diverge significantly from the perceptions of families and community members, it signals that the issue needs further investigation—particularly if those differences are pronounced across racial, ethnic, cultural, and class divides. But when the perceptions of leaders and community members are consistent, it usually indicates that local leaders have engaged in the kinds of honest conversations and authentic relationships that are the foundation of all effective engagement work.

6. Look for leaders who ask hard questions.

When superintendents, principals, and other school leaders ask challenging questions, it’s more often than not evidence of a desire to protect their staff from initiative overload or make sure the opportunity is the right fit for their educators, students, and families. In short, we look for leaders who are skeptical and questioning because it usually means that they are being attentive to the value, coherence, and compatibility of initiatives—and, as importantly, to what it takes to do engagement work well.

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