SEDL Southwest Educational Development Laboratory
  Building Support for Better Schools
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step two: Identify the Issues

The more organizers know about the education issues important to minority and culturally diverse communities, the more successful they are in recruiting parents and community members. Why? Because they can then design community forums with those issues in mind. This may seem obvious, but too often agendas are designed without learning what parents and community members want to talk about most, virtually guaranteeing low turnout. For example, you may want to hold a meeting about a proposal to increase funding for schools, but the community wants to talk about the drop out rate. How do you identify the issues your community cares about most? The answer is simple: ask your community.

In our community, topics of interest have to do with moral teaching and character development. -Tom Kung, Principal, The Chinese SchoolOrganizers interviewed by SEDL say they learn first hand about local issues. They are good listeners. They ask questions, probing for clarity and understanding. They reach out to all types of people, from a well-known community leader to a neighborhood grandmother. They set aside the time it takes to research issues in-depth.

In addition to talking one-on-one with community members, here are some more ideas to help identify which education issues matter most:

Listen to Your Community

Ask parents about their attitudes toward their child's school. Ask them if their child is interested in learning. Is their child receiving a good education? Why or why not? Do teachers talk with families about their child's progress? Talk about these issues one-on-one or in small, informal gatherings or during community group meetings.

Listening closely to what parents and community members say can help organizers identify pressing issues and learn why some parents are not more involved in efforts to improve schools. Parents may feel they have no say in school reform and meetings focused on these issues are a waste of time. Respond to parents' concerns by holding public forums that address their issues. Slowly, you build trust and cement relationships.

Attend Meetings of Community Groups

One of the most effective ways of gathering information is to attend meetings of groups representing different community, cultural and minority interests. Learn more about the issues and how perspectives about public education vary from one group to another. These groups provide an avenue to conduct formal or informal surveys. They can open up doors for meaningful community conversations. Above all, keep these groups informed of your work and next steps. Regular follow-up and personal contact keeps these groups actively involved.

Visit Schools

Often staff members at a local school can help identify leaders in the community. They also know first hand about the challenges facing their school and others in the neighborhood. Talk to teachers, principals, counselors, bilingual specialists and students about issues the school is grappling with. These issues may become the centerpiece of future community forums.

Drop in at Work Sites and Community Gathering Places

Learning about the education issues confronting a community requires going directly to the source. Arrange with owners of local businesses to meet with employees on the job during lunch or work breaks. Find out what's on their minds. Ask questions. Gather input. Consider holding a neighborhood coffee or a Saturday breakfast meeting for community members. Ask people what they think about schools and how they would improve them.

Regardless of where or how you talk to people, remember why you are there: to learn about their concerns. A strong grasp of the issues confronting a community provides the backbone for a successful public forum. Parents, community members and business leaders want to know that the time they have spent with you will lead to something concrete—a solution, a follow-up activity or action. Failing to explain how their input will be used often makes it more difficult to attract parents and community members to future meetings where important decisions are made about the schools their children attend.

  Building Support for Better Schools
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