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District Leaders Urged to Rethink Community Engagement Strategies

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Before school district leaders can effectively engage the community they must understand the racial and economic complexities of the people who live in their neighborhoods, in the view of former Milwaukee Public Schools superintendent Howard Fuller.

Fuller made these remarks during the Center on Reinventing Public Education's Portfolio School District Network meeting in Houston last week. Christine Campbell, a senior research analyst and policy director at CRPE, writes about Fuller's keynote address, for the University of Washington-affiliated education policy research group's new blog—"The Lens."

The Portfolio School District Network is made up of 26 school districts, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago, that offer an array of educational options for their students and families. Among the seven key strategy components of a Portfolio School District are school autonomy, performance-based accountability, and extensive public engagement.

During his Jan. 28 address Fuller, a Marquette University professor, who I believe has an uncanny ability to speak uncomfortable truths, told education leaders that they must come to terms with the fact that race and class still matter.

Campbell noted in her blog post that Fuller said school district leaders must reflect the racial makeup of the families they serve in order to achieve meaningful community engagement. That presents a real challenge, he added, since white people lead most higher-performing schools, and much of the funding goes to certain groups of "like-minded and racially homogenous reformers." Further complicating this issue, Fuller said, is the lack of diversity in the pool of future teachers and education leaders which he says is because public schools have failed minority students for years.

Meanwhile, Campbell noted that through its work, the center has seen many school district officials learn that it is a flawed strategy to attempt to gain community support for a reform strategy that has already been implemented.

So why do school districts continue to to keep the community in the dark? Are fears about angering the public worth keeping them out of the discussion?

Fuller told the network members that they should expect that their decisions would make some people angry. However, Campbell said he also stressed the importance of being honest with the public and sharing the entire decision-making process—mistakes and all.

"Tell no lies and claim no easy victories," Fuller said.

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