"Nothing about us without us."

This adage gained currency in the civil rights and disability movements of the 20th century, but readily applies to educational change efforts as well.

We believe strongly that, for change to stick in schools, everyone in the community needs to be at the decision-making table. It is true that, in the short run, the strategic planning process will take longer and be more cumbersome than if a small committee of district leaders sit in a room together and hash out a plan in a few weeks. But in the long run, engaging diverse district and community stakeholders from the very start is nothing short of a sturdy insurance policy. 

Who are the stakeholders? 

We define district stakeholders very broadly: students; teachers; administrators; staff; parents; grandparents; school committee members; business owners; agency directors; community, cultural and faith leaders; policymakers; philanthropists; and taxpayers. In other words, everyone touches the schools in some way because schools are the incubation hubs for the future of the community. In fact, one of the leading indicators of success is the recognition that the fate of the schools is inextricably linked with the fate of the community as a whole, and vice versa.

Why change? 

An important outcome of any stakeholder engagement process is for the community to understand why changes in education are necessary. “If it was good enough for me, it’s good enough for the kids now,” is a common refrain in many communities. It is your job as a facilitator or leader to build a sense of urgency, and to create an ever-growing coalition of the passionate and the willing. Once the community understands why change is needed, they can be brought into the process to plan for those changes, and then help to implement the changes. This way, the community is truly at the table and you will not have to explain yourself at every stage of the process.

Successful stakeholder engagement creates a "continuum of interaction that builds trust, respect, and a sense of purpose" that ultimately results in stronger and more sustainable outcomes.

School leaders are often reluctant to engage a range of stakeholders because they believe that education professionals should be making the decisions about teaching and learning. We are not suggesting that the community supplant educators as the critical decision makers, but rather that community members weigh in on some of the larger questions facing the schools. In Salem, for example, we asked stakeholders to answer the following two questions:

  1. What is the grand vision to which Salem and SPS will aspire, and that will guide the work of the schools and the community over the next 10-20 years?
  2. What is the community's vision of a successful Salem Public Schools graduate in the 21st century and the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that will lead to individual and community thriving?

These two questions were authentic and substantive, giving stakeholders a genuine opportunity to provide guidance to the district.  Their responses to these questions deeply informed the strategic planning process and the creation of a new mission, vision and set of values for the district. In this way, we ensured that the community was providing input on critically important, core components of the plan and the district's future -- we weren't just asking for superficial input on a small portion of the plan.  

A parting thought: though it may feel overwhelming and cumbersome at first, creating a community-engaged strategic planning process is well worth the effort. It provides both short-term wins and sets the stage for the long game of educational progress.

key takeaways

  • Confidence
    A community-engaged process will give you confidence that you have taken the temperature of the community, that you know what people need and want.
  • Gaps
    This deep process helps you see where there might be gaps in stakeholder understanding—for example, that people are unaware of a district’s bright spots or are not attuned to trends in best practice.
  • Bring everyone
    Bring everyone to the table so that the deep assets of the community can reveal themselves. Harness these assets—whether cultural, financial, or social—on behalf of the district.
  • Investment
    Perhaps most important, people will support what they have helped create. Salem’s strategic plan had unanimous support from the School Committee because they—and so many others in the community—were instrumental in shaping it. There were no eleventh hour surprises.