SEDL Southwest Educational Development Laboratory
  Building Support for Better Schools
previous next

Getting Started

Think for a moment about the last community forum or meeting you organized on an issue related to school improvement. How well represented were all segments of your community? Did you consider the participation of extended family members such as grandparents, aunts and uncles who help raise children in many minority homes? How effective were your recruitment strategies? In what ways did you follow-up with parents and community members after the meeting?

The answers to these questions become increasingly important as schools across the country grow more racially and ethnically diverse. For years, minority populations were concentrated in border states like California, New Mexico and Texas and in urban areas like New York, Chicago and Boston. Now, demographic shifts require organizers to think more critically about how to engage culturally and linguistically diverse communities in the decisions affecting public schools.


How do you define diversity?

There is no one definition. Diversity means different things to different people. For some, it may mean reaching out to people of diverse cultural, ethnic and racial backgrounds. For others, diversity may mean reaching deeper into one segment of the community; for example, a combination of recent immigrants and older, more established residents. Both definitions are accurate.

What matters is understanding how you and your fellow organizers think about diversity and how that thinking shapes planning and recruitment for a community conversation about improving schools. Identifying some commonly held definitions about diversity will help you take a more unified approach to building community support, identifying issues or recruiting participants.


This engagement is significant because efforts to improve public education have more staying power when they are supported and understood by parents and community members. Failing to involve all community members in decisions affecting public education often results in distrust, leading to apathy on one hand, or confrontation on the other.

What SEDL has learned from interviewing organizers, parents and community members is that obstacles to parent and community involvement can be overcome, but building greater participation requires an understanding of how culture, socioeconomic status and other factors influence parent and community participation. You must earn the trust of minority communities that have traditionally felt shut out of the decisions affecting their children and their neighborhood schools.

Ways to Bring People Together

Here are four examples of how to engage parents and community members in conversations about schools. You may want to use these approaches together or independent of each other.

A forum attracts anywhere from 30-200 people and typically meets once to discuss a single issue. A community forum lasts about two hours and is led by a facilitator who focuses the discussion and ensures all voices are heard.

For more information about forums, contact the National Issues Forums Institute in Dayton, Ohio at 800-433-7834 or the Public Agenda Foundation in New York, New York at 212/686-6610.

Study Circles
A study circle involves parents, community members and advocates, business and religious leaders, and educators and students who arrive at a decision about an issue or a problem through discussion. Study circles are typically made up of ten to fifteen people who meet weekly for two hours over four weeks. A facilitator guides the discussion and asks questions, drawing in different points of view. During the final session, the group decides what can be done about the issue.

For more information, contact the Study Circles Resource Center in Promfret, Connecticut at 860-928-2616.

Who's a Cultural Expert?

A cultural expert might be a school counselor, the neighborhood grocer, a minister or a social service provider. They know the history of minority groups in their community and understand how they relate to public schools, social service agencies and community groups. Some cultural experts are high profile. They sit on boards or hold positions of leadership or head up community organizations. Others may not be as high profile, but have deep ties to their community, as well as credibility. They are tuned into issues confronting the neighborhood and are well-connected.

Q: Do organizers have to become cultural experts?

A: To some degree, yes. Effective organizers are knowledgeable and responsive to cultural differences. The main thing is knowing who to turn to for help in understanding customs and norms.

Focus Groups
Focus groups are designed to gauge how different audiences view an issue. Information gathered from several focus groups discussing a single topic is used to craft community forums, public policy or written materials. Typically, focus groups are held over two days on one topic. Each group is asked the same questions in the same order. Some focus groups are followed by a community forum.

For more information about focus groups, contact the Public Agenda Foundation in New York, New York at 212-686-6610 or the Institute for Responsive Education in Boston, Massachusetts at 617-373-2595.

Citizens Jury™
The Citizens Jury™ brings together citizens representative of the community to examine an issue and pronounce judgement. The jury arrives at a solution after discussing expert testimony and listening to recommendations. A jury is made up of twelve to twenty-four citizens. The entire process lasts up to five days. This approach was conceived by the Jefferson Center for the New Democratic Process which provides moderators who oversee deliberations.

For more information, contact the Jefferson Center for the New Democratic Process in Minneapolis, Minnesota at 612-926-3292.

If you would like to learn more about these approaches to engaging parents and community members, please see Public Deliberations: A Tool for Connecting School Reform and Diversity published by SEDL.

  Building Support for Better Schools
previous next
Copyright 2000 Southwest Educational Development Laboratory Credits Web Accessibility Symbol