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