SEDL Southwest Educational Development Laboratory
  Building Support for Better Schools
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step one: Know Your Community

You have just learned that your local school board is crafting a comprehensive plan proposing major reforms. The plan is far-reaching and the implications are great. School board members are eager to gather community input and they want your help. How will you engage all segments of your community in the conversation? Where will you begin?


These agencies and organizations can help identify less visible community groups that have stronger ties to culturally diverse and minority neighborhoods:

Religious Organizations, Churches and       Temples
Neighborhood Centers
Arts and Cultural Foundations
School Staff (bilingual coordinators,       counselors and community       counselors)
Social Service Agencies
City Council
State and Local Government       Commissions
Red Cross
Camp Fire Boys and Girls
Chambers of Commerce
Rotary Clubs
African-American Sororities
Senior Citizens Centers


Knowing your community is critical. Your efforts to engage all segments of your community should be just as far-reaching as the "proposed" reform agenda. But too often organizers limit their outreach efforts to schools, churches, governmental agencies or youth groups. This is a good start, but organizers are missing a bigger opportunity to cast a wider net. Experienced organizers start with these leads to identify less visible community groups that have a deeper reach into culturally diverse and minority neighborhoods. True community engagement begins here.

For example, many business and community groups are affiliated with minority and ethnic organizations. The local Chamber of Commerce typically has ties to the Asian, Hispanic or Native American Chambers of Commerce. National advocacy groups will help put you in touch with local affiliates or leaders. Some examples of national groups include the National Advancement for Colored People, La Raza Unida (a national advocacy group for the Hispanic community), the Asian American Arts Alliance or the Native American Cultural Society (a nonprofit group committed to educating people about the Native American culture).

Another good source is local cultural groups or museums that concentrate on preserving native language, customs and traditions. Not only can these groups help recruit parents to discuss school reform efforts, but they can help break down cultural or language barriers along the way. Think of them as your cultural experts—knowledgeable leaders who can deepen your knowledge and increase outreach to members of different communities.

Seek Out Established Coalitions

In Tulsa, the Coalition of Hispanic Organizations talks regularly about the issues facing the Hispanic community. Members include Catholic and Protestant churches, service organizations, a Hispanic commission formed by city council, a local cultural and arts foundation and a Hispanic education group. Many of these groups have outreach programs that have strong and extensive ties to Hispanic neighborhoods. Work with similar coalitions in your community.

Community and recreation centers that offer after school tutoring, English classes, career counseling, job placement or citizenship classes are another valuable resource. These centers are a good way to promote upcoming community meetings and attract new participants.

Building community support for increased public involvement requires legwork and know how. The results, however, are invaluable. Ensuring parents and community members of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds participate early in school conversations not only broadens the diversity of opinion, but cements relationships over time. When done well, minority parents are an integral part of the decision-making process affecting public education, not just an afterthought.

A local museum can offer links to the past and the present.

The Heritage Museum of Falfurrias, Texas is a regional museum that informs about Mexican and Spanish culture and heritage. It was organized in 1965 and has 456 members located in the southern part of the state. Its mission is to tell about the local customs, music, food and cultural celebrations and to chronicle the area's past. The members of the museum are active in this ranching community and represent many generations of families living in the area since the 1700s.

A Checklist

In Native American communities, you must include the elders as an important group that gives their permission and support. -Lillian Williams, Resource Advisor, Indian Education ProgramSEDL attended several Study Circle meetings to gather research for this publication. While participants and organizers liked the process and were eager to participate again, they shared candid observations with SEDL about improving community outreach. These observations spoke volumes about their commitment to meaningful public engagement.

After one Study Circle session, some expressed concern that only middle income community members had attended the meeting. Organizers and participants agreed that they needed to do a better job engaging participants from other socioeconomic levels. As they brainstormed ideas, they crafted this checklist of guiding questions:

  • Which leaders in our community can best connect us to groups that work with minority and low income parents, residents and others?

  • In what ways will we ensure these leaders and organizations are involved early on?

  • What considerations—time, expense, outreach efforts—must be made to accommodate participants?
  Building Support for Better Schools
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