STRATEGY: One component commonly missing in workforce development training is evaluation of the program’s impact on employers, students, and the community
In The Magic of Dialogue, Daniel Yankelovich wrote, “It is impossible to conceive of successful school reform without the active support of the community. Knowing how to bring the stakeholders into the tent, rather than leaving them outside, is also best practice for democracy.” While Americans have long spoken about the vital link between public education and a thriving democracy, many decisions are made by school and district leaders in a top-down manner, with little input from students, teachers, or community stakeholders.
Open communication among school community stakeholders strengthens collaboration and facilitates school transformation. Meaningful parent engagement through two-way conversations supports shared decision-making and the development of a shared vision for change. Successful partnerships between schools, families, and communities require democratic collaboration or shared decision-making. Larry Ferlazzo has emphasized the importance of educators encouraging parent engagement in place of parent involvement. Engagement is understood as parents contributing to and taking action in the decision-making process (engaged), rather than educators simply telling parents what to do (involved). Meaningful school-family connections have been associated with improved academic outcomes, including higher grades and test scores, better attendance, and more positive behavior. More specifically, researchers Raquel González and Cara Jackson found that shared parent engagement in decision-making and educator efforts to promote volunteering and open communication were related to positive year-end data on mathematics and reading achievement among kindergartners. Open dialogues create opportunities for learning and change and instill a sense of trust in schools—necessary precursors to meaningful parent engagement.
Several effective techniques have been developed to enable people to have meaningful and productive dialogues. The most effective have the following structures and processes in common:
- They use ground rules or agreements to create a safe environment in which people are able to express their thoughts and feelings freely. (This agreement comes from “New Hampshire Listens,” a project of the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. This one is from “Shaping Our Future Together.” These ground rules were created by the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation.)
- They use facilitators to guide the discussion and frame the issue at hand, generating thought-provoking questions and providing background information.
- They include people from all sides of an issue, encouraging face-to-face dialogue in small groups. * They collect and synthesize what emerged from the dialogue to shape decisions and action plans.
- Unlike debate, dialogue deepens people’s knowledge and understanding of issues, increases buy-in for decisions, enhances people’s sense of connection and commitment to their communities, and often brings untapped talent and potential into full view.
A sample agenda for a school-based dialogue includes the following:
- Welcome participants, have them introduce themselves, and then establish ground rules and time limits.
- Define the issues and problems in the school community and discuss possible solutions.
- Build consensus on one or more recommendations.
- Commit to next steps before adjourning, and devise an action plan.
- Identify next steps and timeline to be taken by individuals and/or the group.
- Administer and collect evaluation forms, and wrap up and adjourn.
First Steps to Consider
- Identify issues for discussion.
- Establish a vision of success.
- Define “the community”: Are parents included, or do they engage in a different format?
- Decide how and where to hold the meetings. (Physical or virtual space?)
- Create discussion questions.
- Recruit and train dialogue facilitators.
Complexities & Pitfalls
A key concern for school leaders looking to facilitate meaningful dialogue is deciding between actual dialogue versus virtual dialogue (via social media). As schools work to build dialogue programs, leaders should be aware that even the mostly carefully crafted social media messages are never a substitute for personal relationships built face-to-face over time. While virtual dialogue can be a more cost-effective and flexible way to promote connection, and can involve a broader volume of participants, it can also lead to a shallower level of engagement. Best practices for virtual engagement include the following actions:
- Post often. Facebook is the best channel to reach the community and parents; for maximum visibility, schools should post on their pages ten to fifteen times a week.
- Interact. It is crucial to “like” positive comments on the school’s Facebook page and repost messages on Facebook and Twitter using the school hashtag.
- Share videos. Photos are great, but videos (less than thirty seconds long) are even better. Facebook Live works well.
- Promote. School leaders and teachers should talk about their school’s social media channels face-to-face whenever they can—at concerts, parent-teacher conferences, and sporting events, for example. Sharing in-person and interacting online with school posts will help messages reach more people.
- Streamline. Many schools have found that consolidating their multiple social media channels has improved their dialogue with the community.
- Likewise, a program can rise or fall based on the skill level and attunement of its facilitators. An effective dialogue facilitator sets a relaxed and open tone from the start. The dialogue leader should welcome everyone, create a friendly and relaxed atmosphere, and ask people to briefly introduce themselves, especially noting their background as it relates to the issues to be discussed. Other elements of dialogue facilitation include the following:
- Stress the importance of confidentiality.
- Maintain a balance of participation.
- Follow and focus the conversation flow.
- Build consensus.
- Do not fear silence.
- Accept and summarize expressed opinions.
- Anticipate conflict and stick to the ground rules.
- What do you want to achieve at your school through a dialogue program?
- What is the best format for a dialogue to meet your goals? (Virtual or face-to-face, weekly or biweekly?)
- Who are your facilitators? (Parents, teachers, administrators, community members?)
- How do you market your dialogue program and maintain participant buy-in?