As a community organizer, and as someone who runs a nonprofit that revolves around civic engagement, I've seen the value and need in community engagement. Community engagement is crucial so parents and students know what's going on in the district, so the district can gain as much community input as possible, and so the district can be further held accountable to it decisions.
When the school board members vote, how do we know they're voting with us in mind? How do we know they're representing the community that voted them in? A board member can be very well intentioned and knowledgeable, but if they're not seeking community input, they're not doing their job. The same can be said for the district as a whole.
So what can we do to improve community engagement in our school district?
Provide a special community forum the day before school board meetings. During our current school board meetings, 30 minutes are allocated for public comment which is the space that's allowed for the public to bring their concerns to the board. If less than 10 people show up to speak, they're allowed three minutes. If there's more than 10, time is reduced per person. I've seen meetings were people are only allowed 1 minute. People come from all over the district to give policy suggestions, raise awareness on issues, ask the board to take action on certain issues, etc. Since what they have to say is so important, why does the district limit the opportunity to hear from them? The argument is, if they allow them more time to speak, there won't be enough time to hear from everyone since they'd to move on to the rest of the agenda after 30 minutes. I say, if public comment gets in the way of the rest of the board meeting, give it its own meeting. By hosting a public forum the day before each board meeting (in addition to the regular public comment), the district would be providing a more convenient opportunity for people to speak on their concerns. This is convenient in that they'll now have two opportunities to speak, they agenda will already be released so they can speak on those items, and they'd have a longer time to speak. At our current board meetings, the board isn't allowed to answer back when a person asks a question. So if you're a parent who heard a rumor that your student's favorite elective is being cut, they can't confirm or deny it when you ask during public comment. This can be solved with regularly scheduled community forums. And of course, this would be a great space for board members in attendance to better engage with what people have to say
Improve school websites. Living in the new digital age, websites and social media are key to communicating information to parents and students. Currently, it's up to each individual school site to run its website. Some sites recruit and train volunteers specifically to run their websites. At other sites, the task is left to principals and assistant principals who already have much larger concerns. Where's a parents supposed to find out when the next SSC meeting is? Where's a student supposed to find out what clubs are on campus? How's a community member supposed to know what events they can volunteer for? If a website isn't properly updated, or it doesn't display enough information, how many engagement opportunities are we denying the community? By having a standard and informative system such as School Loop, which other districts are already using, we can keep our websites efficiently updated so our community can be better informed with what's going on. This is a simple solution to a large issue.
Send a monthly newsletter home with students. If you don't follow the district's Facebook and Twitter pages, it's hard to keep up with everything that's going on. Sending a physical bilingual monthly newsletter home is a simple way for parents and students to stay informed on current issues, and for the district to promote future events.
Hosting weekly parent and student meetings. Everyday new events and opportunities are happening in the district. The district's communication department can use student interns and parent volunteers to provide weekly updates at each school site on what's happening. This is a great way for parents and students who aren't active on social media or who don't have time to attend school board meetings to hear about what's happening in the district.