An End to the Blame Game

This is an article by Martha McCoy and Amy Malick which was published in the December 2003 journal of the National Assocation of Secondary School Principals. The Madison Partners in Special Education are very interested in using this as a tool to engage the MMSD school board, staff and various parent groups in productive dialogue. The link follows below and the entire article is an extended entry.

An end to the blame game
A healthy school needs an active, informed community, but talking about problems can degenerate into fingerpointing and blame. Study circles can help communities create the schools they need.
Imagine walking into a room and seeing parents, teachers, students, and neighbors from different backgrounds and ethnic groups sitting in a circle talking about parent involvement, expectations, and testing. Parents you’ve rarely seen at school are speaking up. Some are talking through an interpreter. Teachers are listening and contributing their ideas. Everyone pays close attention to the students. The conversation is lively and respectful. The trust is obvious.
Sound far-fetched? It’s not. Schools across the country are creating productive conversations that routinely and meaningfully involve the community in all its diversity. They are using a process called “study circles” to bring together educators, students, and average citizens from different backgrounds to talk in small groups about what matters to them in education, what challenges face the educational system, and what the community can do to address those challenges in productive ways.
Study circles are part of a larger program that has easy-to-use, fair-minded discussion materials and trained facilitators who reflect the community’s diversity. Each circle comprises a small, diverse group of 8-12 people who meet for four 2-hour sessions. A facilitator leads the sessions and helps manage the discussion but does not teach the group about the issue or take sides. To help group members respect one another and get results, the circle sets its own ground rules. Starting with their personal stories, members of the circle consider an issue from many points of view. Next, group members talk about how they want things to be. Finally, they make plans for action and change. The purpose of the program is to move a community to action when the study circles conclude.
Why Study Circles?
People have different ideas and views about education problems, and they disagree about the causes. Finding solutions to these complex problems is hard and takes many different groups working together, which can be a challenge. Communication and trust frequently break down between people and groups from different backgrounds and sectors. Solutions that make sense for one person or group may not meet the needs of others. And there are usually lots of people on the sidelines who are not invited into problem solving or who don’t know how to join in. By using study circles, school communities can talk about difficult or divisive issues, find common ground, and take action.
That’s what happened in New Hampshire, where the Violence Prevention Committee at Portsmouth Middle School was worried about an increase in “subtle nastiness” between students. The committee decided to focus on preventing the escalation of the bullying behavior and organized study circles. Once a week for a month, 200 sixth-grade students met in small groups with 75 community leaders, parents, and business people to discuss student behavior issues. “Adults in the community, especially seniors, expressed surprise about how so many youth had meaningful things to say,” said Jim Noucas, an attorney who participated in the circles. “The sixth-graders also were surprised that adults would even listen to what they had to say. People left with a positive perception, not only of the kids, but of the schools.”
Karen Kleinz, associate director of the National School Public Relations Association, said that the accountability movement requires a different kind of involvement than traditional programs have delivered: “The public is no longer willing to just take our word on things. People want to know about all sides of an issue, and they will seek out their own facts to support what they believe to be true.” But with endless demands on their time and creativity, most principals need help establishing and strengthening community connections. Kathy Morledge, associate director of the Arkansas School Board Association and former principal, said the entire community needs to understand the problems. “That’s where I see study circles helping-getting everyone on a level playing field and from there, as a group, consider what kinds of action we can work on together.”
How It Works
Study circles work because people, often for the first time, have the opportunity to converse about what matters to them-and to feel that someone is listening. They’re able to claim their “space,” learn and hear what other people are saying, and put it in a relevant context. “People come to the table with fixed ideas about things, and by listening to other points of view, you see them becoming more open to other perspectives, or at least an understanding of where someone else is coming from,” said Dan Parley, executive director of the Arkansas School Boards Association, which promotes study circles across the state.
Get Broad-Based, Large-Scale Participation
Study circle programs are more effective when they have a diverse range of voices in each group. To involve people who reflect the makeup of the community, start by building a coalition of organizations that represent different parts of the community. Leaders from those organizations can recruit people from their networks to participate in the project. It is particularly beneficial to enlist grassroots organizations, such as neighborhood associations, businesses, religious institutions, and clubs.
“If you have a slanted perspective, if your circle is all school promoters or all naysayers, it’s not going to work,” said Ray Pellegrini, executive director of the Vermont Principals Association. “It’s only going to be credible if you’re hearing all the voices. If you’re talking about school climate, you can’t have a room full of people who think school is wonderful. You’ve got to have all points of view.”
Successful efforts to recruit from a broad base in Montgomery County (MD) Public Schools led to a promising outcome at a community forum concluding the project: As the forum began, Bach Van Nguyen stood at the podium to speak to the 140 people in the audience. Nguyen, who works in a kitchen factory, had participated in a special study circle for Vietnamese refugees who did not feel ready to talk with others. In broken English, he said, “I felt very lonely and lost when I went to my son’s school.”
Participating in study circles had changed that, he said. He now understood what to do to help his children. He had developed relationships with people who could help him when needed. Nguyen looked out to the crowd and said, “Study circles was like a bridge to my children’s education…If you see me coming across, I hope you will reach out your hand and help.” The next speaker, Delric East, a Black father who had recently lost his job, stood up, walked to the podium, and grabbed Nguyen’s hand. The two stood hand-inhand while East told his own story.
Engage the Unengaged
To involve hard-to-reach parents and community members, imagine yourself in the place of people who are the least likely to participate and devise strategies to overcome the barriers to participation. In Kansas City, KS, organizers have used a combination of creative recruitment strategies for study circles. Organizers ran public service announcements on the radio and television and in newspapers. They arranged interviews with the press and put up billboards throughout the community asking, “Do you want to talk about our schools?” Most of these approaches gave study circles name recognition in the community, but what really reached those who were typically disconnected from the schools was the personal, one-on-one outreach of trusted neighborhood-based leaders. The more site-based and grassroots the approach, the more effective it was.
Because many people-particularly in the Black community-did not trust the schools and felt disconnected, the United Way was chosen to convene a group of staff members from a participating foundation, clergy from area churches, business people, educators, and community members. “This group recognized that before planning other initiatives, they had to address the trust issue through a public discourse,” said study circle organizer Brandi Fisher. Bilingual coordinators were recruited and some study circles were conducted in Spanish.
Some elderly neighbors who participated in study circles recalled days when members of their community were more engaged. They spoke about neighbors looking after one another, about parents being more involved with their children’s schools, and about teachers living in the neighborhoods where they taught. In their spare time, these neighbors “adopted” an elementary school in a public housing project near them and started a tutoring program there.
Provide Structure
Limiting the group size to 8-12 people enables everyone to contribute. To ensure that the discussion feels safe and builds trust, each group has an impartial and well-trained facilitator and participants set their own ground rules. Groups meet several times: a first session to focus on their experiences and concerns, two sessions to focus on the decision facing the district, and a final session to help the decide how each group member can contribute to school success. Groups should be given basic information about the schools and the situation, plus a fair and candid restatement of the main arguments about what should be done to establish a framework for the sessions.
Empower Everyone
Participants need to know that their participation will make a real difference in how the schools are working. People want their ideas to be heard and to have the chance to put ideas into motion. Dan Parley, executive director of the Arkansas School Boards Association, described a district north of Little Rock that was experiencing a rift between the board of education and the teacher’s union. Community residents considered ways to handle this rift in study circles held across the community-in churches, community buildings, and low-rent housing complexes.
Community members offered several recommendations, three of which were implemented within the next few weeks. Because of school responsiveness, residents saw an improvement in communications between the parents and the individual schools their children attended. The district created a newsletter for community members and began to televise board of education meetings on the local cable access channel. The community members could see that the schools were taking their input seriously and acting on it.
Ask for Support
At the beginning of the program, school leaders should be clear that they want more than just recommendations. Community members should be encouraged to think about what they can do as individuals, as members of new or existing organizations or action groups, and as a community. A large-group meeting held at the conclusion of the small-group discussions can be a venue to hear the ideas generated by the small groups and a place where citizens and administrators can join or create action groups to work on some of those ideas. Clearly there are some policy changes that can only be enacted by school leaders, but on every issue there are a host of things individual citizens can do, as well as many projects that can be undertaken by a combination of citizens, public employees, and community organizations.
Consider the Barriers
Advance planning will go a long way toward eliminating barriers to a successful program. Morledge said to expect and plan for challenges as you:
* Recruit teachers, parents, and community members.
* Find times appropriate and convenient to all participants. Right after school is the best time for teachers and staff members, but that time may not work for parents and community members. One way to overcome this barrier is to provide food and babysitting services for teachers and parents with young children.
* Find locations where people feel comfortable, particularly people who haven’t had good school experiences.
* Identify the issues and develop or adapt materials.
School-community connections are an essential part of creating schools where all students can flourish. True community collaboration produces schools that use resources effectively and creatively and that value a diversity of perspectives. Unfortunately, most informal community conversations about the schools degenerate into blame. The spiral of negativity helps ensure that people will stay on the sidelines. Understandably, educators fear being attacked and community members fear that they will not be heard.
Study circles are not about blaming but about finding ways to work together to strengthen the schools. Because participants get to know one another better, they take stock of their schools in a way that is honest and respectful, rather than accusatory. When people understand that the process is fair to everyone and that there are opportunities for constructive disagreement, they are more willing to participate and the process is more likely to achieve real outcomes for the schools. People respond to having an opportunity to participate in a process that is positive and centers on finding solutions and solving problems. Finally, they develop action ideas and take shared responsibility for being part of the solution.
Martha L. McCoy is the executive director for the Study Circles Resource Center in Pomfret, CT. Amy L. Malick ( is the communications director and Matt Leighninger is a senior associate with the center.
Copyright National Association of Secondary School Principals Dec 2003
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