October 16, 2014

Steve Lamb

Community Engagement: THE Job of a School Board Member

If you asked a group of school board members what their primary job is, most would probably say “local control and accountability”. It seems obvious doesn’t it? Who better to hold a Superintendent’s feet to the fire than representatives of the community, with a strong vested interest in providing the best education possible for our children? Good point, but we beg to differ.

Yes, local control, accountability, and of course governance, is important. However our experience – engaging hundreds of school districts, with tens of thousands of stakeholders – continues to suggest that in fact the most important role that a board member can play, is that of champion and steward of community engagement.

In “School Boards Matter: Report of the Pan-Canadian Study of School District Governance” (Sheppard, Galway, Brown, and Wiens; 2013), the authors noted two key roles – “translating local needs into district-wide policy” and “ensuring schools operate in a manner that reflects local values and needs”. Of course in order for this to happen, there must be genuine resonance between our schools and the community.

We’re all familiar with the saying “we are the company we keep”. In a similar vein, a prominent Washington Superintendent and ThoughtExchange customer told us that “a community is known by the schools it keeps.” We think he’s on to something. And as research further suggests, another important reason to have school elected boards is to build community confidence. It’s through the board’s community engagement that residents develop their attitudes toward the district. And those attitudes strongly affect their support for, or against, local education.

Influence of Attitudes

Another thing we know from research is that one of the largest variables in human performance is attitude. Attitudes are contagious. A study of urban elementary schools in Virginia found that community engagement boosted optimism among teachers. And their improved attitude led to improved student achievement.

One of the most important things that board members can do collectively is build and maintain community optimism and confidence. With this confidence, our principals, teachers, parents, local groups and associations and business – everyone who makes up the strong fiber of a community – will in turn boost student confidence and performance. There is significant literature in both the business and the education worlds to support the importance of attitude. Contented Cows Still Give Better Milk, by authors Catlett and Hadden, noted that companies listed in the “100 Best Companies to Work For” during the period 1995-2010 outgrew their industry counterparts by ten to one and earned sixteen times the net income per employee. Why? Because as Blanchard and Associates report, companies with a strong positive culture had a 31% higher level of employee discretionary effort over companies with a poor culture.

Of course this human trait is not limited to the corporate world. Trust in Schools, by Byrk and Schneider described a ten-year study in Chicago schools that found schools with high public trust levels were three times as likely to produce positive student outcomes.

Which brings us back to school boards. Why are boards so necessary to student achievement? Because the school board is the community’s window into district operations and overall student performance. It’s through the board that the community gets to oversee the district budget, the hiring of the Superintendent, and the way the schools are run (local policies). If the board is doing a good job of engaging the public, confidence improves and so does student achievement.

In a recent Gallup report (“State of America’s Schools”), students who answered “strongly agree” to the statement “I have a teacher who makes me excited about the future” were thirty times more engaged than the students who “strongly disagreed”. Thirty times! What if everyone with a vested interest in our kids’ collective success also “made them excited” about the future? About their education? About how they can contribute to a better world? We need highly qualified teachers, dedicated superintendents, passionate board members, and supportive communities to ensure that students receive and are motivated to realize the best possible education. Only then will they realize the highest levels of academic and social achievement.

Deepening Community Engagement

Unfortunately, the listening tools of yesteryear prove to be insufficient. It’s difficult for boards to connect with the diversity of their public using traditional methods such as town halls, surveys and focus groups. Fortunately, new, large-scale online engagement processes have made this task much easier – and much more effective.

Meaningful online engagement provides community members with more than a voice. It offers a safe and convenient way to share and learn from the diverse thoughts and ideas of others. It’s also a process that provides boards and their Superintendents with both a sense of direction and a sense of accomplishment; with the results driving improvements, informing strategy, and even passing bonds. And with increased engagement, comes increased public trust and confidence. Who wouldn’t want that?

Which brings us back to the importance of school boards. They are the critical link between the classroom and the community. Their engagement inspires confidence in the community and optimism in classroom, which leads to improved student achievement. And who wouldn’t want that?

If you’re currently a school board member, have been in the past, or are considering being one in the future, we thank you. Our kids thank you. Our communities thank you.

Steve Lamb
Steve has nearly 40 years of community engagement experience in such fields as juvenile justice, children services, mental health and education. He most recently served as a board development specialist for the Oregon School Boards Association. Steve believes in starting with what you have (asset mapping), not what you need, making the best use of what you already have before requesting access to more, involving everyone to the degree they desire using techniques that make even the smallest contributions valuable in the aggregate and celebrating success, both for the warm feelings and the opportunity to discuss next steps. In his spare time, Steve has started writing ‘The Snowflake Effect’ and occasionally picks up the guitar.

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