The Importance of Civic Engagement for School Boards

Lena Eisenstein

The importance of civic engagement for school boards cannot be underestimated. Civic engagement may be what draws school board members to put in the hard work of representing their community, but this can then encourage others, even young students, to see the importance of engaging in one's community, eventually creating a life cycle of commitment and development within the community. This life cycle of civic engagement is what cultivates a sense of investment and ownership in the public.

School board leaders can be direct reflections of their community through a variety of demographics (economically, culturally, etc.). The importance of civic engagement for school boards through this representation can be literally seen when the school board is composed of individuals who reflect the public they serve.

Civic engagement in school boards is vital to ensure that the community's needs are appropriately represented, and its goals are met. School boards are leaders and advocates for public education within their communities, identifying areas for growth and developing plans of action. These community leaders represent the public and hold the Superintendent accountable for achieving the goals set before them.

By identifying areas in which they can promote the quality of life within the community through civic engagement, the school board can then take specific steps toward identifying and tackling these goals.

  1. Importance of Civic Engagement in Goal-Setting

What are the goals and desires of the community? The very constituents that the school board represents have their own hopes for the public education system and growth within the area. Take time to identify common themes from community members. Civic engagement may begin with the hard work of involving community members to make sure that all voices feel heard and included.

The National Civic League provides this reminder regarding civic enhancement and community involvement, 'Where there is inclusive civic engagement, in whicheveryone has a place at the table to define, direct and implement public services and amenities, there is a greater civic pride and responsibility, which then lead to sustained community wellbeing.'

Theresa Kelly Gegen, editor of The Illinois School Board Journal, has done several studies of Illinois school boards and the importance of civic engagement, and how schools can study and develop their own civic engagement. The goal-setting part of the process may take additional efforts to ensure 'diverse voices and viewpoints' are represented,' (Gegen, 2018). While community members may not have the final say in board decisions, they can be involved in the process of identifying areas of growth and development to encourage involvement, trust and ownership. This involvement provides assistance and support to the board in carrying out responsibilities, while maintaining the framework that the board will make final decisions.

BoardDocs, a Diligent brand, lets school board members actively follow the progress toward strategic goals through a comprehensive goal-tracking tool. Utilizing resources like BoardDocs allows school boards to manage their time and efforts so they can provide results on initiatives that the public is expecting to see. Incorporating the community in plans around short- and long-term goals fosters civic engagement and involves the community, making them feel like they have an active role in the dialogue.

  1. Develop a Plan of Action

The school board has the difficult and significant task of not only identifying areas of growth for the schools, but to also develop a vision and set goals. Once goals are identified, a plan of action must be developed and implemented. Without action, community members can feel like their concerns are not taken seriously.

Through the Superintendent, the school board can implement the plan of action to make progress in identified areas for improvement, which may foster a community atmosphere of trust and engagement. Civic engagement comes to life when we go to work putting into action the very goals, desires and needs of the community.

Using paperless meeting and board management software, like BoardDocs, school boards can utilize the goal-setting features to develop a plan of action that can be updated and maintained. This information can be manageable at different levels to maintain information that should only be board-accessible and to share information that is open to the public.

  1. Keep the Community Informed

Community members are investors, and investors have a right to know what the return is on their investment. Success and a return on that investment can be found in treating your community with respect and maintaining accountability. Gegen (2015) did a study at Cairo SD1, of Alexander County, Illinois. Superintendent Andrea Evers found that even after engaging in the community, parents were still unaware of many opportunities available to their children. Distributing information through paperless software can make accessing this information easier.

School boards can make use of software like BoardDocs to ensure that relevant information and updates regarding resources, goals and projects can be shared with the community. Providing the appropriate level of information with the public promotes community ownership and trust.

It is through the board that the community can be heard, and that the performance of the schools and the Superintendent can be held accountable.

Civic engagement is an unending, continuous process and the work is never truly finished. The needs of your community will change, possibly every year. This process is collaborative and fluid. Goals may be accomplished, but then it is imperative to see where your reach may be furthered. This may require opportunities to reconnect and re-evaluate with your community. Identifying new areas for development and growth while providing open lines of communication with the public is imperative to maintaining civic engagement within the school board (Gegen 2015).

A lot of responsibility rests with the school board ' not only to be supporters and defenders of education in their communities, but also to reflect the needs and interests of the community through local public education. Developing civic engagement for school boards should be taken seriously. By effectively representing the public and encouraging citizen participation, school boards foster a commitment to public education and to the community.

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Lena Eisenstein
Lena Eisenstein is a former Manager at Diligent. Her expertise in mission-driven organizations, including nonprofits, school boards and local governments, centers on how technology and modern governance best practices empower leaders at these organizations to serve their communities with efficiency and purpose.