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AR: Study circles as a framework for community involvement

Study circles in local communities can address preschool in Arkansas, or how athletics affect high schools in Vermont. What the study circles have in common is “facilitated dialogue that leads to change.”

By using a trained facilitator who elicits ideas from all participants, study circles can lay the groundwork for community involvement at many levels. The change can come in an individual who sees the problem or the community differently, a collective action such as a new collaboration between senior citizens and schools, or a school board policy change. Any complex problem like the achievement gap needs solutions at many levels.

The Arkansas Study Circles Project, located at the Arkansas School Boards Association, is modeled after the work done by the Study Circles Resource Center (SCRC) in Pomfret, Connecticut. Sarah Campbell, SCRC senior program director, says one reason study circles are effective is that they combine the best practices of community organization with small group discussion and dialogue. “You can exchange information in a safe and respectful atmosphere,” she says. The model has been operating since the early 1990s, although “We’ve learned and adapted since then.”

Study circle experts explain that the process requires time. Several sessions—four is ideal—give community members time to gain a deeper understanding of others’ perspectives, and ideally find common ground.

Study circles also help build broader community awareness and support for local public schools. For instance a few years ago, North Little Rock schools used the study circle process to help the school board develop its strategic plan. “We wanted feedback from the community on what we could do better,” says board member Teresa Burl. “It was interesting to hear what people recalled from their public school experience,” Burl says, “especially those from the segregated era.”
One thing participants told the board was they wanted more communication with the community. Board meetings were soon televised, the website was expanded. Burl says, “We also recognized we needed to promote our successes more, like IB (the first school in the state to have the prestigious International Baccalaureate program).” Burl felt the study circles, held all over the district from church fellowship halls to libraries and schools, helped “tie the community more closely to our schools.”

In general, the study circle concept works well as a framework for broad public issues like the ones North Little Rock discussed. However, Campbell adds that circles may not be suitable when a topic is narrowly defined or technical, such as the best approach to teaching math.

Using study circles as the framework for community engagement brings two key benefits:

• The more the public can be involved, the better the solutions.
• With more buy-in, good decisions are more likely to have a long life.

Campbell helped Arkansas launch its study circle efforts years ago and is impressed by how the ASBA trains its school board members today, since it builds local capacity to solve problems. “Showing board members how to do public dialogue helps keep them from running into a firestorm [on issues],” she believes. Using study circles as a framework for community engagement can help school boards identify community priorities and important policy issues, and strengthen the bond between school boards and their communities—one of the basic responsibilities of any school board.

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Posted: Dec. 16, 2005

© 2005 Center for Public Education

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