Friday, June 1, 2007

Citizens Go Back To School

One of the most fertile grounds for citizen-centered efforts is school reform. Today, in scores of communities, citizens are coming together to rally around better schools but in ways that are now getting the rapt attention of the people in charge of their schools. Why? Because the people in charge are starting to realize that to be successful, they need public involvement—not just input—in what goes on in schools.

And that starts with giving taxpayers the chance to come together with school leaders to hunker down and figure out how to improve public schools in ways that not only improve education but the communities in which schools are located...

Education Week writes that in several communities, civic groups are going beyond fundraising and “boosterism” to play significant roles in constructing and driving their districts’ improvement agendas. These reform-support organizations (RSOs) have been established in Boston, Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Mobile, Alabama, where they engage the public, conduct research on district initiatives, and/or analyze and report district performance data. In Mobile, public engagement was the catalyst for effective public education reform through the “Yes We Can” initiative, through which more than 1,500 community members convened in nearly 60 discussions “around living rooms, kitchen tables, churches, and community centers about what type of community they wanted and what type of public schools they needed to fulfill those goals.” From this came the PASSport to Excellence, a strategic plan for the district and community outlining five priority goals for the system, followed by nineteen benchmarks.

These organizations are becoming essential to improving schools and school performance because they help monitor processes that can too often “fall prey to politics and leadership turnover,” writes Norm Fruchter and Richard Gray of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. They say that this kind of engagement can help transform the relationship between the public and schools from one in which the former “seeks permission” to one that is a “negotiated partnership” between the two in pursuit of developing a shared agenda to achieve better education for all young people. With a more equitable distribution of power and resources, the public is then better able to “challenge the power imbalances that have imposed and maintained poorly performing schools….”

Randall Nielsen agrees: More educators have come to recognize—or have been forced to admit—that the success of their work requires active collaboration of parents and other community actors” and that public schools “need to be more deliberately connected to their communities.” Programs that link communities with schools, however, are not enough; equal attention must be paid to building the public’s capacity to participate in this kind of engagement, says Michael Briand.

In a recent article in Harvard Educational Review, Arnold Fege, director of public engagement and advocacy for the Public Education Network underscores the importance of parental and public engagement in sustaining equity in education by tracing the history of this engagement in the United States. Fege also proposes that NCLB data can be used by citizens as a tool for encouraging parental and community-based involvement in decisionmaking, resource allocation, and assurance of quality and equity in schools.

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