Community Engagement—More than a "Cup of Joe"
Now more than ever school leaders are being asked to provide transformational leadership in their districts. In pondering how to accomplish this goal, it is worth considering that at least two of the 2015 ISLLC standards speak to the importance of community engagement: “Build a shared vision of student success and well-being;” and “Engage families and the outside community to promote and support student success.” During my thirty months as superintendent of Lumberton Township School District, several strategies have been implemented to enhance community engagement, including the superintendent’s transition plan, the “Cup of Joe with Joe” and the strategic planning process as ideas that have benefitted our children and our district.
Shortly after the news of my appointment as superintendent, a colleague invited me to meet with him. As an experienced superintendent, he encouraged me to develop a transition plan, and provided his plan as a template. My default leadership style is consensus building, and after studying his model carefully, community relations became the primary focus of my transition plan. Conversations were held with community leaders, association leadership, individual administrators, the local business association, the board of the PTA and the executive county and regional superintendents in order to begin meaningful dialog and solicit input. I also visited each faculty room in the district during lunchtime to develop relationships with the staff. Finally, I joined each Board member for breakfast or lunch in an effort to understand their goals for our school district. These interactions provided valuable insight into the district. I learned history and past practices, identified community priorities, and determined key communicators. Along the way, I studied much of the data and material culture that existed. The resulting transition plan summary was presented to the Board at a public meeting. In addition, I was able to develop short-term and long-term goals for the district as a result of these interactions. I personally benefitted greatly from the mentorship of a very talented Chief School Administrator.
Cup of Joe with Joe
Simplicity. I have seen few initiatives as simple as “A Cup of Joe with Joe”: A pot of coffee (courtesy of the PTA); a plate of cookies (from food service); open dialog between members of the community and the Chief School Administrator. And from these sessions, which were held in the evening at 7:00 or in the morning before rush hour, came very worthwhile ideas. One community member, seeking to improve science instruction, provided resources that included a grant opportunity. As a result of this discussion, we are now entering our third year in partnership with Rider University, focusing on Next Generation Science Standards implementation. Out of this work came the formulation of a Science Leadership Team (SLT) and the adoption of IQWST science curriculum at Lumberton Middle School. This work brings promise of improved science achievement in the future throughout the district.
In another session, a Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia trauma nurse voiced a concern about the bicycle helmet usage in the community. Working together with the PTA, we offered a highly engaging assembly on this topic for the students in the Bobby’s Run and Lumberton Middle Schools. Listening to engaged stakeholders can pay dividends for your district and students.
The final component of community engagement is the strategic planning process. Lumberton is a small K-8 district serving approximately 1,370 students in four buildings. We invited the staff, students and community to join us for three community meetings, and each session brought out nearly 100 attendees. Together, we participated in idea generation and consensus building. Of particular note was the involvement of numerous students through the process. Additionally, we had nearly 500 responses to our community survey, which is an amazing percentage of the families in town.
Next, district administrators identified and prioritized the ideas into four focus groups: curriculum/technology; teachers/staff/administration; students/families/community; and finance/facilities. We formed a Steering Committee, and utilizing collaborative strategies that have been part of my administrative toolbox since being trained by a Principals’ Center for the Garden State grant in 2003. The Steering Committee narrowed the focus of the ideas and provided a framework for our final plan. Our Board approved the strategic plan in February, and we were able to incorporate some of the priorities into the 2016-17 budget process. In addition, the final plan was mailed to all community and distributed to all staff members. It can be located here: https://www.lumberton.k12.nj.us/strategic-planning-2015-2019/ As of June 2016, our four implementation teams have been formed and are developing action plans that will guide our self-improvement process through 2019.
A note of caution regarding strategic planning: as a school leader, you (and your board) need to be ready to relinquish control and let the process take place. I vividly remember our initial community, seated at a table with a variety of stakeholders, as our facilitator gave the community in attendance their assignment for the night. The loss of control brought on feelings of fear, excitement and optimism as we began our work together. I am pleased to share that the community engagement process definitely worked in Lumberton, as it has in many other districts.
Finally, I would recommend that any school leader seek the counsel of an experienced colleague before undertaking a community engagement initiative. New Jersey has some of the most talented and innovative public school leaders in the world. My cohort of unpaid “advisers” are too numerous to list, but I am greatly indebted to each of them for their contributions to my personal professional growth. As a way of “paying it forward,” please be in contact if I can assist you in becoming transformational in engaging your community. @LumbertonSuper or firstname.lastname@example.org