Minnesota Administrative Rule 3512.0510, Subpart 1. describes the need for superintendents to engage the community and develop a shared commitment to the district’s mission. Calls for increasing community support are featured in ESSA, Title IV, Part A. And, across the Minnesota, increasing public engagement is listed as a primary goal in every district’s strategic plan. In my experience, however, as the drama of the school year unfolds, the “community piece” is muscled aside by more pressing concerns. Pursuit of this goal falls to the communications director, if you are lucky enough to have one.
There was a time when this was good enough: educators were respected and most Minnesotans had kids in school. But today, shifting demographics, rising expectations, and intense political scrutiny have changed the game. Spend a day in any public school and it becomes abundantly clear that the traditional mandate, “Teach our students,” has mutated to become, “Raise our kids!” The situation is exacerbated by media pundits, ideologue policymakers, anti-tax crusaders, and self-serving entrepreneurs who work 24/7 to erode confidence in public schools. The time has come for everyone on staff – certified and classified – to engage and educate the public. Your schools need all the support they can get.
MASA members have been listening to me talk about his for almost thirty years at convocations and conferences from Thief River Falls to Mankato. On many of those occasions, superintendents asked if I’d be willing to create a resource that they could use to inspire the staff and energize the community. In 2017, after years of ducking the question, I began working on a video series. And as weeks turned into months, I began to see a path – a path that any superintendent could follow to motivate his or her staff to become proactive ambassadors for their schools and, at the same time, dramatically increase community support. This path has six interrelated steps.
Step One – Promote Public Education and Praise Your Staff
In this time of rampant criticism, it is vital that administrators and their staffs stand up and tell the story of public education’s success. Emphasize that public schools have unleashed the potential of tens of millions of Americans both privileged and disenfranchised. Explain that no expenditure of tax dollars yields as high a return as our investment in public schools.
Make the case that your teachers are the most important professionals in your community. Demonstrate how every road to individual and community success runs right through their classroom doors. Highlight their record of achievements. Applaud their dedication. Stress the value of their individual and collective experience. Publicly celebrate their success.
Step Two – Defend public education
Acknowledge the threats facing your schools. Analyze the motivations of those who seek to undermine public support. Provide your staff and allies with the information they need to refute baseless criticism and expose the dangers of empty, free-market rhetoric. Help your staff see that they have the power to speak out and increase support for themselves and their schools. Remind them that they are one of the largest employee groups in the county. Impress upon them that the stakes are too high to remain silent.
At the same time, encourage the staff to eliminate self-inflicted wounds. Show how everyone’s reputation is damaged when staff members bad-mouth one another and their schools in public. Explain the professional and personal benefits that accrue when people shift their attention from the negative to the positive. Ask everyone to look for things in and around their schools that might be considered encouraging, hopeful, or inspirational. Urge them to share their triumphs – big and small – within their social networks.
Step Three – Accept the need for change
Make it clear that defending public education does not mean defending the status quo. Help staff, parents, and the public understand why schools need to change. Reference Thomas Jefferson’s seminal “Notes on the State of Virginia” to expose the sorting problem that sits at the heart of the system. Raise awareness that our schools were created to serve an America that no longer exists.
But make sure everyone understands that attempting major change can, and will, inflame passions. Even reasonable reforms backed by logic and research anger those who hold on to rigid mental models of “the way school ought to be.” Ignore this reality at your peril.
Step Four – Overcome resistance to change
Place today’s need for reform in context. Offer a history lesson to show that our schools have always been a work in progress. Review the choices our ancestors made to meet America’s evolving needs and explain the choices we face today.
Address the symbiotic nature of the school/community relationship. Help everyone see that schools are a reflection of local values, traditions, and beliefs. Accept the hard truth that raising student achievement requires more than changing our schools. It requires changing the culture of the communities they serve.
Step Five – Increase community understanding
Help the public understand the challenges you face. Focus on the great majority of people who haven’t stepped inside a school in decades, and, therefore, have archaic and/or simplistic notions of what you are up against. Expose them to the mountain of academic, social, and medical responsibilities that the people of Minnesota, through their elected officials, have heaped upon your schools.
Be sure to make the need for reform personal. Connect the dots between improving the quality of local schools and improving the quality of life of everyone in the community. Show people that they have still skin in this game, whether or not they have children in school.
Step Six – Reap the benefits of engagement
Watch as more members of your staff become proactive ambassadors for your schools. Enjoy greater public respect, trust, resources, and support as you work to prepare all children to thrive and prosper. Expedite fundraising. Fulfill your community engagement objective. Set the stage for ever-increasing student success.
Jamie Vollmer is the creator of the video series, The Great Conversation™. He is the author of the book, Schools Cannot Do It Alone. www.schoolscannotdoitalone.com