Public Engagement Said To Hold Promise for Schools

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Growing impatience with the pace of education reform has helped to fuel a grassroots movement that holds great promise for improving support for public education, concludes a report issued here last week.

The report by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform is an attempt to map the wide variety of activity around the country that falls under the broad name of "public engagement."

For More Information:

"Reasons for Hope, Voices for Change: A Report of the Annenberg Institute on Public Engagement for Public Education'' is available at no charge (multiple copies are $10 each) from Julie Fain, Annenberg Institute, Brown University, Box 1985, Providence, RI 02912; (401) 863-2018.

In the past few years, the phenomenon has swept through the education community, as educators and school reformers have concluded that much broader support and involvement will be needed to improve schools fundamentally. At the same time, people have become aware of a disturbing--and in some cases growing--gulf between the public and its schools. ("Divided We Stand," Nov. 6, 1996.)

Jeffrey Kimpton, the director of public engagement at the institute, called the actions evidence of "a national movement of profound importance to the future of public education."

Many Forms

The institute, based at Brown University in Providence, R.I., conducted an 18-month study of 174 sites where community members, business leaders, churches, local public education funds, and others were involved in efforts to improve public schools.

The study was conducted with the help of Millennium Communications Group, based in Washington, and included visits to 50 sites. The findings are contained in "Reasons for Hope, Voices for Change: A Report of the Annenberg Institute on Public Engagement for Public Education."

Public engagement takes many forms, it says, including parent-involvement projects, community and parent organizing around education-related issues, efforts to create and implement higher academic standards, and public conversations about the purposes of public education. In some cases, the concept includes public involvement in school governance and decisionmaking and in the drafting of legislation and policy, the report says.

Over the next few months, the Annenberg Institute plans to release several papers on the topic to help stimulate debate, said Ramon C. Cortines, the interim director of the institute and a former schools chief in New York City and San Francisco.

The institute's work will center around supporting all those kinds of efforts--especially in cities that have received money through the Annenberg Challenge, a philanthropic initiative to improve schools, Mr. Cortines said.

"Public engagement is not an end to itself," he cautioned at a forum held here to release the report. "It's about improving what goes on in the classroom for young people."

'At the Table'

The report makes clear that public engagement in education is relatively new. The majority of the initiatives studied, chosen to represent a cross-section of activity, were no more than 2 years old. Some longer-standing efforts also were included, however, such as the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence. The citizens' group, based in Lexington, Ky., rallied public backing for Kentucky's ambitious reforms and is training parents to support them.

Five broad groups are the principal "drivers" of public-engagement efforts, the Annenberg report says: parents; civic leaders and business people; education professionals; elected or appointed officials and policymakers; and local or statewide collaborations and networks.

In Baltimore, for example, a group called Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development started after-school programs at 10 schools and recruited parents to staff them. The group uses door-to-door canvassing to organize parents around issues of common concern.

Anthony Walters, a parent involved in the Baltimore project, told the forum that he defines public engagement as "being at the table when decisions are made, instead of being a pawn afterwards. It means putting both hands in, rather than expecting a hand out."

Public engagement is often born out of a crisis and challenges traditional ideas of power, the report says. The most visible efforts tend to be those driven by the community at large, not by educators, it says, with students' potential to contribute to the initiatives "largely untapped."

Measuring the impact of such disparate efforts, which work in isolation from one another, is difficult, the report says. Some of the desirable outcomes are "soft" but important, it says, such as increased community trust in schools.

Engaging the public demands leadership skills that are in short supply, such as knowing how to bring different groups together to reach common ground, the report says. The work is difficult and hard to sustain, and could benefit from more information, increased visibility from funders and policymakers, and help in devising ways to measure outcomes.

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