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Dana Grant Seeks To Bolster Public-Engagement Strategy

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A Kentucky organization with a successful track record for rallying public support for school improvement will spend the next year studying how to bolster public engagement in other states.

The Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence last month announced it has received a $180,000 grant from the Charles A. Dana Foundation to study volunteer school-reform groups across the country and recommend how they can be expanded and made more effective.

Interest in involving the public in understanding and supporting public schools and school reform is running high across the country for a number of reasons.

In some places, educators have encountered a political backlash to innovations. And public-opinion research has highlighted a gap between the public's attitudes and expectations for its schools and those of many reformers. (See Education Week, Oct. 11, 1995.)

Reformers have become aware that the political process, with its frequent elections and bureaucratic decisionmaking, does not provide the continuity necessary for school improvement, said Robert F. Sexton, the executive director of the Prichard Committee, which played a central role in rallying support for a court-ordered overhaul of Kentucky's education system.

As part of the new project, Mr. Sexton and a collaborator plan to write and publish a history of the Prichard Committee, drawing lessons for others interested in similar work.

Networking

The project will study and encourage organizations that bring together the business community, community leaders, educators, and parents to bolster support for education.

It will build on an analysis of existing state-level groups that was conducted last year with support from the New York City-based Dana Foundation.

Norm Fruchter, the co-director of the Institute for Education and Social Policy at New York University, will work with two Kentucky consultants to draw up a plan for building public engagement.

Next summer, a fledgling network of state and national leaders interested in public engagement will convene to review and discuss the plan. Eventually, the group may become an advisory task force on public engagement.

Mr. Fruchter said his study will examine different types of public mobilization in various states and "make some suggestions about why work that's effective is effective, and offer some ideas about how to move things forward."

The grant will also provide modest support to an existing network of 10 southern organizations called the Columbia Group, helping them to continue meeting and talking about common education issues.

It also will pay for the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based clearinghouse, to provide speakers and technical assistance in selected cities and states on public engagement.

John Dornan, the executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, said the Columbia Group network has provided state-level groups with an invaluable opportunity to compare notes on education policy.

Many are facing the same issues: charter school legislation, school-finance legislation, and debates over accountability.

The member organizations conduct research, engage in advocacy, run demonstration projects, and provide training, Mr. Dornan explained.

Their missions are much broader than typical research and policy organizations that would be based at a university.

"We found that being able to get together as a group is energizing," Mr. Dornan said. "So many of us have been reinventing the wheel in our own back yard."

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