From Short-order Cooks to Gourmet Chefs: Recipes for Innovation in Public Engagement

Matt Leighninger
Matt Leighninger

Over the last decade, we’ve learned a lot about what works – and what doesn’t – in public engagement. Now, with new pressures on schools, many educators are thinking hard about how to combine those lessons with new innovations. They are trying to develop more productive, dynamic, and long-term relationships among educators, parents, students and other community members.

The core goals for doing public engagement haven’t changed much. Smart educators know that:

  • Parents are critical to the academic success of their students;
  • The support of parents and other citizens is essential for maintaining or raising school funding; and
  • Broad public buy-in is the key to making difficult decisions around issues like school closures or redistricting.

New Challenges and New Opportunities

Educators are also feeling new pressures that affect whether and how they engage the public. Districts are sharing more and more school performance data with citizens, who are better able to use and assess the information. The explosion of social media has meant that citizens have new venues to connect around their concerns and articulate their views about the schools. These pressures present new challenges, but also new opportunities.

The public engagement projects of the last 10 years have given us a good sense of how to do this work. These efforts have mobilized hundreds and sometimes thousands of citizens to take part in school decision-making and problem-solving. In order to engage large, diverse numbers of people, they have employed targeted, network-based recruitment; in order to ensure that the meetings are productive, they have employed group process techniques like impartial facilitation, ground rules set by the group, and discussion guides or agendas that lay out a range of options. In some cases, they have inspired and supported community members to give their own time and effort to school improvements, in addition to making recommendations to administrators.

These initiatives – even the most successful ones – also have limitations. They have primarily been temporary, and limited to a particular issue, plan or policy question. Most have been district-wide efforts that did not lead to improvements or stronger relationships at the school or classroom level. So while they have proliferated dramatically, and have often had many beneficial outcomes, in most cases they don’t seem to have produced long-term changes in the way that schools and school communities operate.

Start with the Basics

For school communications officers who are new to this work, or who have just started in a new position, there are some basic steps to consider. First, you need to know about the local context for engagement: has the school system organized any significant, intensive public engagement efforts in the past? What are the other ways that educators are interacting proactively with parents and other citizens? Second, you need some background and training in public engagement, if you don’t have it already. The annual NSPRA Seminar and www.nspra.org are two good places to start.

Third, you need allies – reach out to other community and neighborhood leaders. If other organizations (like local governments) have experimented with large-scale, intensive public engagement efforts, compare notes with those ‘engagers’ on what they have learned. Every leader and organization in a community has a significant stake in the success of the public schools – explore your shared interests and ways that you might work together to engage citizens.

Ingredients for Innovation

Some educators are exploring ways to incorporate good engagement strategies more fully in the day-to-day life of schools. This challenge goes beyond merely gathering public input – it means developing new recipes for school-community interaction and collaboration. Here are some potential ingredients to consider:

  • Mapping the community, and recruiting proactively. This is a strategy that has been proven over and over again. To engage a critical mass of people, smart communications officers know that they need to figure out what kinds of networks those citizens belong to, find leaders within those networks, and equip them to recruit the people they know.
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  • Good group process techniques. We’ve also learned a great deal about how to make meetings productive and participatory. This family of techniques includes emphasizing small groups (no more than 12), using unbiased facilitation, providing good background information and using guides or agendas that encourage deliberation by describing a range of ideas or policy options. Include ones that the school system favors, but also ones they don’t! The key is giving people an informed environment in which to make up their own minds.

  • District- and school-level online spaces. More and more people use social media, and online tools provide an effective way of maintaining regular give-and-take with parents and other citizens. Nicole Kirby’s work in the Park Hill School District in Missouri is one good example in the NSPRA family; Steve Clift’s e-democracy.org is another resource to consider.


  • Online tracking and assessment of engagement. One thing the Internet is remarkably good for is giving people the ability to collectively gather and interpret information. This capacity could be applied to engagement work, allowing parents and other citizens the chance to report the basics of engagement (how many people participated, decisions made, etc.). Compiling a running record of the processes and outcomes of engagement can help answer some of the key questions asked by decision-makers (e.g., How broad is the support for the recommendations I am hearing?”) and give everyone the chance to assess and improve the way engagement works.


  • Young people as engagement leaders. Schools are focused on the education and upbringing of their students, of course, and they typically offer a range of leadership opportunities for young people. But not many districts have tapped into the potential of young people as leaders in public engagement. The ones that do recognize that young people are often better at recruitment, facilitation and other engagement roles than the adults – and that the involvement of young people is a huge draw for adults. NSPRA President Ron Koehler, APR, also points out that students deserve the chance to be fully engaged in their education, “Every kid should be part of an ongoing discussion about what and how they are learning.” (For more on the parallels between public engagement and civic education see “Education in a Rapidly Changing Democracy”).


  • Fun! One of the rookie mistakes in engagement is to assume that meetings with parents and other communities must be grave occasions. Food, music, art and other kinds of fun – especially activities or performances that highlight student achievements – ought to be an integral part of every school-community interaction. “Sometimes you need a meeting that is also a party,” says Gloria Rubio-Cortés, president of the National Civic League, “and sometimes you need a party that is also a meeting.”

There are yet more potential ingredients for innovative long-term engagement, including:

  • Mini-grant programs to seed partnerships between educators and community members;
  • Schools that are designed to be centers for neighborhood life (such as the Community Learning Centers in Akron, Ohio); and
  • Joint engagement trainings for educators and parent leaders, so that people form connections even as they are learning new skills.

Many districts have one or more of these ingredients already in the larder, but they typically do not combine them in a comprehensive, shared plan for long-term engagement. “Shared” in this sense means that leaders and organizations outside schools take part in the planning. You can’t have too many cooks in this kitchen.

Your Own Unique ‘Recipe’

Each district and community is likely to come up with its own unique recipe. Some may focus on upgrading the existing interactions between schools and community, from school board meetings to PTAs and local school councils; others may weave online communication in with face-to-face meetings; still others may concoct whole new events that combine school and neighborhood socializing and problem-solving.

By thinking together about the long term, educators, parents and other leaders can develop the next generation of structures and strategies that engage the community in helping students succeed.

Matt Leighninger is executive director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium in Washington, D.C. and Hamilton, On., Can. He is the current NSPRA Vice President at-Large for Civic Engagement & Deliberative Democracy. He can be reached at mattleighninger@earthlink.net.