School Turnaround Starts with Community Engagement

School turnarounds are never easy—largely because there is no clear blueprint for how to consistently do this work.

Every educator in every school district faces unique pressures and challenges, political or otherwise. Amid all the uncertainty, one constant has emerged: the need for stronger community engagement.

In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, David L. Kirp, a professor of public policy at UC Berkley, compares two high-profile turnaround efforts in New Jersey, each of which took a starkly different path to change.

Big name, surprising results
By now, you’ve heard about the $100-million check Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg cut the struggling Newark school system. The money, part of then Governor-elect Chris Christie’s and Mayor-turned-Senator Cory Booker’s high-flying plan to “flip the whole city,” was pumped into schools with the intention of dramatically increasing student and school performance. As Kirp explains it, Zuck’s money would be used to fund new charter schools, boost teacher accountability, and close struggling school buildings. And the best part? All of this was to be done in five years!

In nearby Union City, education leaders did not have the advantage of a billionaire benefactor. What they did have, though, was patience, explains Kirp. Like Newark, Union City faced serious hardships. Schools were underperforming, a large percentage of the population did not speak English, and many families lacked access to the tools and resources they needed to succeed. Rather than throw money (there was none) at its problems, administrators in Union City sought gradual improvements over more than a decade of continuous or “slow and steady” reform.

Defying the odds
If you’d never heard of either of these districts, you might assume that Newark had the advantage. They had the money and the clout. But, while test scores are up, the district’s graduation rate remains low (69 percent in 2014). Rather it was Union City with its impressive 81 percent graduation rate that achieved the more dramatic turnaround.

There are myriad reasons for this, explains Kirp. Not the least of which is effective communication.

Reformers in Newark promised to involve community members in strategic decisions. But those efforts “proved shambolic,” he writes. Many of the reforms that were enacted, such as closing 11 schools, were the product of an expensive consulting deal, and not an open consideration of public sentiment.

When Christie brought in high-profile former educator Cami Anderson to run the district, many thought the atmosphere would improve. But layoffs and more school closings only served to feed mounting frustrations.

Kirp cites reporter and author Dale Rusakoff’s 2015 book, “The Prize,” which chronicles the reform effort in Newark.  “She didn’t listen,” writes Rusakoff of Anderson, pointing out that the relationship between the superintendent and the community was so fractured that at one point Anderson stopped attending board meetings.

By contrast, in Union City, educators went out of the way to listen to their community. The district published Spanish-language materials to effectively explain changing school policies to a broader audience and even began hosting bilingual board meetings.

Leading by listening
Union City is far from the only school district to make community engagement a priority. Across the country, educators continue to search for new and better ways to effectively listen to their communities, be it parents, students, teachers or staff.

That push is likely to intensify with passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act. The new federal education law, which replaces the No Child Left Behind Act, expands the definition of school and student performance beyond the classroom to other non-academic factors, such as school climate and grit.

As that work begins, more schools will consider the use of online surveys and other solutions to help educators better incorporate community opinions into school-based decisions.

As school research expert Dr. Stephan Knobloch writes in Education Week, “These types of feedback tools are not new. But school leaders using them for authentic listening, community engagement, and trust building is new, and can make the difference.”

What are you doing to make a difference in your schools? Let’s Talk!

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