During the past 25 years, members of the OPSAN transition team have been involved in developing engagement strategies to bring citizens together to make a difference for public education. Starting with ground rules for a productive conversation, below are some of these time-tested strategies:
Ground Rules for a Productive Conversation
- Have a “kitchen table” conversation. Everyone participates. No one dominates.
- There are no “right” answers. Draw on your own experiences, views and beliefs. You do not need to be an expert.
- Keep an open mind. Listen carefully. Try to understand the views of those who disagree with you.
- Help keep the discussion on track. Stick to the questions. Try not to ramble.
- It is okay to disagree. But don’t be disagreeable. Respond to others how you want to be responded to.
- Have fun! Collaborating is a rewarding experience. It enables all of us to be of value and make a difference.
Opinion Leader Briefings
Opinion leadership briefings are an effective way to tap into the power of public opinion in a community. Connecting with these opinion leaders is important in generating ownership and support of the OPSAN pilot initiative and in discussing education policy issues and concerns.
- What constitutes a community opinion leader is broad. In addition to current and former civic and political leaders, community opinion makers include barbers, beauticians, neighborhood organizers, former school board and council member, PTA and PTO leaders, garden club presidents, soccer club organizers, religious leaders and a wide range of other citizens who influence how others think.
- To identify community opinion makers, schedule a work session of the members of the school board, school district administration and local OPSAN leadership team.
- The work team spends 1-2 hours brainstorming the names of 100-200 citizens who are influential in the community. The names are placed on flip charts and placed on the walls around the room.
- Members of the work team place their names next to opinion makers they know and/or are willing to contact.
- Depending upon the situation, each work team member has the option of contacting their designated opinion makers to speak with them one-on-one or invite them to a group meeting of all opinion makers.
To generate energy, ownership, understanding and support, there is no better venue than a coffee discussion is someone’s home. The hospitality and intimacy that is created by being in a person’s home builds trust and creates the feeling that “we’re all in this together.”
- It is not unusual for a coffee discussion goal to range from 25-100 coffees. The key to reaching that goal is to assign the job to a team of two or three reliable people who always do what they say they will do.
- To get started quickly, members of the local OPSAN leadership team should host their own coffees. This will enable them to see firsthand the value of the coffee discussions and make it easier to ask others to host coffees.
- To expand the number of coffee discussions, the OPSAN leadership team should ask each member of its local school board to host his or her own coffee, ask building principals to obtain commitments to host coffees from two or three parents or other people they know, ask members of strategic planning committees, tax campaign committees, business advisory council and other school-related groups to host coffees, meet with the leaders of PTA’s, PTO’s and booster groups and ask them to identify 4-6 of their members who will host coffees, and meet with certified and classified leadership groups and ask them to help identify school employees to host coffees.
- The responsibilities of the coffee host or hostess are to get 10-12 people to attend the coffee and provide refreshments.
- How many people should be invited? As a rule of thumb, invite about 15 people with the understanding that 10-12 will show up.
- How should they be invited? The only way to assure that people will show up is to make a personal phone call to the prospective coffee guest, receive a commitment from the guest that he or she will attend the coffee and send a follow up note to the guest confirming the time, date, location and his or her commitment to attend the coffee.
- The format of each coffee includes a thank you to the host or hostess followed by self-introductions from the guests and a brief overview of the topic to be discussed. Each coffee discussion will last from 1½ to two hours.
Community meetings can generate a lot of energy and even trigger tipping points in which the word on the street penetrates an entire school district. One of the keys, of course, is to get people to show up. What follows are lessons learned over the past 25 years about how to turn out 300-500 people at a community meeting — and in some cases, even 1,000.
- In most instances, it is important for everyone in a school district to be invited to attend a community meeting (so nobody feels left out). However, simply inviting them to come will not generate a large response. Unless a person receives a personal invitation and makes a personal commitment to attend, he or she usually won’t show up. However, when people say they will show up, they usually do.
- To generate a large turn out at a community meeting, a minimum of 1,500 personal contacts by phone need to be made. To accomplish this, two work sessions are needed. At the initial work session, invite a group of 30 people “in the know.” This group usually includes members of the OPSAN leadership team, school board members and administrative team, teachers and non-teaching staff from each building and a few key community members. After briefing them about the situation at hand, each person is asked to identify three people who they will invite to a second work session which is scheduled to occur within two weeks. The goal is to assemble a minimum of 100 people at the second work session. Before leaving this initial meeting, each person turns in the names of the people they are going to invite and within a week (create a specific deadline) calls in the names of those who are actually going to attend the second work session. This initial work session takes place on a week night and lasts for an hour-and-a-half.
- At the second work session, these 100 people are divided into groups of eight to 10 persons. Using the list of registered voters as a way to identify school district residents, each person scans each page of the voter list and places a check mark next to individuals (families) on the voter list that they intend to contact. Each person also records and retains each of these 15 names, addresses and phone numbers (if available) and uses this list for making the follow up contacts. The sections of the voter list are scattered throughout the eight-person groups so that, as the pages are passed along from person to person, the entire school district is covered. This second work session usually takes about two hours.
- The 100 people at the second work session are responsible for contacting the 15 families that each one of them has identified. A follow-up phone call script needs to be provided to each caller who completes an attendance and gives it to the superintendent no later than one week prior to the meeting.
- The timing of the phone calls is important. Since the purpose of the phone calls is to obtain personal commitments from community members to attend the meeting (as opposed to being reminder calls), they should be made five days after a district-wide invitation which can be mailed to each household and/or appear in the mass media and on the Internet as an open invitation.
- Follow-up Phone Call Script: Hello. This is _____________. You were recently mailed an invitation to attend an important Community meeting on January __ at 7 p.m. in the high school library to discuss how high stakes state testing is impacting our students. We need your help in deciding what to do about the situation. Will you be able to join us? IF THE ANSWER IS YES, SAY…Thank you. We are really glad that you will be attending. IF THE ANSWER IS NO, SAY…I’m sorry you’ll be unable to attend. I hope you’ll be able to make it to future meetings like this. Thank your for your time.