Everybody has their own ideas about how to respond in a crisis, says K20Connect Senior Consultant Arati Nagaraj, and it’s important for a school board not only to provide forums where community members can air their concerns, but also to listen well. Nagaraj, who has been a Trustee of the Saratoga (CA) Union School District Board since 2010 and has served as Board President for two years, shared from her experience in her session “Community Engagement During a Crisis” at Tech & Learning’s Future-Proofing Your District Plan conference.
Open communication builds a strong foundation of trust and also enables school board members to engage positively and correct any misperceptions, Nagaraj says. Part of a board’s responsibility is to have the big picture in view while the community sees only a sliver of that picture, but assuming positive intent on everyone’s part is key. “Our priority is the students and their learning, and we all want what’s best for them,” Nagaray said.
Maintaining constructive and honest channels of communication with the community starts with A, B, C: Acknowledge, Bridge, and Convert. When someone states an opinion, for example, a board member can acknowledge it by using active listening and summarizing: “I heard you say that these old textbooks will never be replaced.” The next step is to bridge, by sharing the facts: “But the fact is, we’re in the midst of looking at options for replacement.” And finally, convert, by helping the person see a different point of view so they will join you on the journey: “Would you like to be part of the working group looking at this issue?”
Nagaraj suggests five ways to solicit community input. The success of each of these methods depends on assuming positive intent and implementing this A, B, C approach as appropriate.
Forums can be educational and informative; having a skilled moderator and a set agenda is key. Nagaraj suggests soliciting questions on notecards, which avoids rambling assertion of opinions and helps people to think through and frame their questions. Cards can then be sorted and given to the best person for each answer. Cards can also be kept as a helpful record of community concerns and to inform future district communication.
2. Board office hours
Regular open-door meetings build trust, Nagaraj says, and this approach has been successful in her district. “Community members may be intimidated by speaking at board meetings,” she said. “Constructive dialogue can happen during office hours, and sometimes issues can be solved before they even come up. No decisions are made—it’s a conversation, a time to share thoughts. It’s a very positive method of interaction and building trust.”
Remember to send reminders including the date, time, location, and names of the board members who will be present. In Nagaraj’s district, these office hours are often on-site at a school. Having someone on hand in case crowd control is needed is a good precaution.
Saratoga Union School District has developed this protocol to establish clear guidelines and expectations to avoid common pitfalls.
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3. Study groups and committees
During a crisis, these groups will be task-focused, and after the crisis is over, it’s important to evaluate, monitor, and plan—taking what’s been learned into consideration in order to be better prepared going forward.
Surveys are a great way of getting lots of information, Nagaraj says. Surveys can be used at different points during a crisis to get a “pulse check” on the community.
5. Social media
“Social media is both a friend and a foe,” said Nagaraj. It’s imperative for school board members to be vigilant when it comes to social media, and not to engage in discussions.
“Board members are the eyes and ears in the community, but it’s critical that they let the district be the disseminator of information,” Nagaraj said. When a board member becomes aware of inaccurate information being broadcast on social media, their role is to inform the superintendent so the district can respond properly with the facts. Board members then can share messages from the district—without personal comment.
Don’t overlook the evaluation of your engagement techniques, particularly after a crisis, to make sure you’re prepared as well as you can be for the future. Consider whether all voices are being heard, and if there’s a group that has not been engaged by your methods.
A lot depends on your local situation, Nagaraj says, and different methods of engagement will work well in different communities and even with different constituencies within a community. Sharing community feedback and input at board meetings helps to ensure transparency and sends the clear message that community input is important and valued.
“Community engagement is very important but can be very difficult to manage, and I’ve developed a thick skin over my ten years as a school board member,” Nagaraj said. “Respecting the community’s role in the system is absolutely essential to providing the best learning environment possible for our students.”