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AR: Study circles make a difference

Dan Farley, executive director of the Arkansas School Boards Association (ASBA), says he attended too many meetings where people are at polar opposites, and in talking, they shut others out. That's one reason he believes so fervently in study circles, an idea launched in Arkansas in 1998 that uses a different approach to bringing people together to discuss school issues.

Indeed, study circles are credited with helping one district transform community relations that were once tense. The school board initiated the study circles by inviting a representative group of citizens to participate in structured conversations led by a trained facilitator. Initially, the participants met for four weeks, once a week, and in small groups. After the small-group meetings, all participants came together to decide on ideas most workable to improve communication.

According to Farley, "These conversations were the first step in turning things around in that district." The action plan that emerged called for five specific changes, such as televising board meetings on cable TV which happened right away and enhancing school-to-home communication.

Farley is fond of saying that "people support what they help to create," and he routinely promotes study circles as a framework for community engagement. The service is free from ASBA, and about 50 districts have used it. Most study circles revolve around three issues:

  • Student achievement
  • Family involvement
  • Early child care and education

A trained, impartial facilitator leads the groups so that all participants have a voice. Written guides provide a roadmap for discussion. But as Arkansas citizens from all over the state have found, it's still tough work to turn talk into action.

Academic Challenge in Lee County's Fertile Farmland
Lee County, snuggled next to the Mississippi River, is flat delta farmland with soil so rich that it took years for hundreds of sharecroppers to harvest its soybeans, rice, cotton, and milo. But as farming changed, people left. "When I came here 20 years ago, our school district had about 4,000 kids," says community leader Pat Audirsch. "Then it seemed we were losing a hundred kids or so a year."

Today Lee County schools serve slightly more than 1,500 students, most of whom are African American and from low-income families. But the district has been struggling with more than declining enrollment. Classified as "in need of improvement" because of low student performance, the district has searched for ways to raise student achievement and improve parent involvement.

Audirsch is an energetic volunteer chair of the Economic Development Commission, chair of a tourism group, Chamber of Commerce board member, participant in a Hometown Health walking group who was working with others to get the Lee County seat of Marianna certified as a "community of excellence" for economic development. As they were developing a list of community pluses and minuses, it became clear that something needed to be done to address the performance of the county schools. To this end, Audirsch helped organize study circles on student achievement and family involvement.

Recalls Bob Rose, principal of 375-student Anna Strong Middle School, "I told them I had a lot of parent involvement, but always after the fact." When Rose distributed suspension slips, he said parents were eager to talk. But he wanted their involvement before problems arose.

The study circle conversations sparked ideas:

  • Expand the gifted and talented program.
  • Develop clearer disciplinary policies.
  • Help parents deal with homework.

At the final meeting, more than 60 people whittled down their ideas to a handful of favorites, which Audirsch and a couple of parents presented to the superintendent.

Some changes did come about. A program was developed for students to shadow employees in various businesses to help them decide on career possibilities. In 2004, a district-wide gathering featured Keith Jackson, a respected pro football player, who motivated parents to get more involved. Lee County called the program Project Pride as a way of saying that parents make a difference.

When Anna Strong Middle School held its open house, Rose coupled it with a workshop on homework. "The study circle showed us that parents want this kind of help," said Rose. He adds that as a result, reading scores have been rising on the state test.

Study circles: The basics
  • Study circles contain a diverse group of people from the whole community. Broad-based representation can make the difference in success. Cast a wide net with invitations (e.g., bus drivers as well as teachers, youth ministers as well as businesspeople). Make sure to involve students. 
  •  This diverse group of 8-12 people meets together for several two-hour sessions.
  • An impartial facilitator leads the group, using a written discussion guide. The facilitator encourages different opinions and helps the group look at a problem from many viewpoints.
  • Study circles build understanding and explore a range of solutions through dialogue.
    A study circle's final step is making plans for action and change.
  • The topic should be broad enough to allow people's opinions to filter through.
  • Start early. It takes time to do a study group well. Expect to take three to five months just to plan.
  • Have leaders go through a mock study circle first. "If you can feel it, it's easier to see," says Gage-Detherow.
  • Consider training two facilitators for each circle. One serves as the recorder, but is prepared to be the facilitator if the need arises.
  • Adapt to individual community circumstances. "We've learned over the years that we sometimes can't do full-blown study circles because of [participants'] time," notes Farley. "So we adapt to the situation in a given school district."

Meanwhile, the quest continues for parent leadership to keep the changes going. "You do need people to rise up," says Audirsch, "somebody who is trusted by various members of the community."

In the Delta, an area where race and class can permeate every conversation, study circles provide a safe and respectful environment to voice personal perspectives on a topic of mutual concern the schools.

Since the study circles began, Audirsch senses "a calmer attitude in talking to each other. As a community we are not where we need to be, but we are a lot farther along than where we were."

Too touchy-feely? Try it for yourself

Heather Gage-Detherow, director of the Arkansas Study Circles Project (ASCP), acknowledges some people are skeptical at first about the process, thinking it's too touchy-feely. She says, "When participants first walk in, some of them are thinking, 'This is stupid.' When they've bought in, they're thinking, 'Something may happen, and now it's my responsibility.'"

This change comes about by using a defined structure. Generally there are four sessions of small groups (with 10-12 people each) where participants talk about a particular issue following a written discussion guide. A trained facilitator and recorder tease out people's thoughts on the topic. At the end, a large-group forum distills the best ideas and defines what actions are needed to bring change about.

The approach has evolved from the mid-1990s, when a coalition called Arkansas Friends for Better Schools asked community members to talk to each other in small groups about what they wanted from their public schools. When Friends for Better Schools folded, Farley asked his state board if ASBA could take the organization and its concept under ASBA's wing.

They did, setting up a separate 501(c)(3) foundation to train facilitators and help communities with study circles. A couple of statewide programs have since used the concept to focus attention and media coverage on education issues.

One such ambitious statewide program funded by the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation was called "Speak Up, Arkansas! on Taxes." Held in November 2004 in partnership with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, the ASCP called on citizens in 20 communities to share their experiences and perspectives on taxes. A trained facilitator led each study circle, and a fact-based Citizens Guide to Arkansas Taxes helped participants better understand the services supported by taxes, including schools.

"It really is our right and responsibility to be involved in public discussion, "says Gage-Detherow, "and for public leaders and others to get involved and understand what schools are under, and how they can help."

Yet it's sometimes slow going to get people to use and trust the study circle process. "When they do, they discover there can be civil dialogue," says Farley. Thus ASBA and ASCP help communities by giving them the tools to organize inclusive, diverse, face-to-face dialogue that leads to positive action.

Farley has since emphasized training local school board members in the study circle concept. At ASBA's Leadership Academy, about 20 boards have gone through the intensive three-day workshop including a mock study circle. Gage-Detherow says she routinely gets calls now seeking advice on public engagement.

High school reform in Little Rock

In 2001, Little Rock's residents weighed in on high school reform by responding to the question, "What do you want high school education to look like in the 21st century?"

Diane Vibhaker, coordinator of the effort, recalls the intensive work to get participation from a range of local stakeholders. Lunchtime meetings were held at private athletic clubs, while churches and the downtown library opened their doors at night. The organizers succeeded in attracting a motivated and diverse group. Forty-three percent of the participants were black, three percent Hispanic, and 50 percent white. In all there were 16 circles at 12 sites.

When they all came together at the end for the large group "action" forum, participants realized that no matter which neighborhood they lived in, they all wanted more rigorous education, a friendly environment, and better communication with the city's five high schools.

Linda Austin, the school district's grants coordinator, says that as a result, the district generated more involvement in pre-AP and AP (advanced placement) courses, more dual enrollments in high school and university classes, and more emphasis on communication and on small learning communities. Ninth-graders got a better transition into high school, for instance, with more hands-on help in managing time and organizing their workload. Still in development are some ideas for "schools within schools."

Promoting the study circle concept

Gage-Detherow has been busy promoting the benefits of study circles so that board members see the time invested in them does pay off. "With everything a school district is under, convincing them it's a good idea can be a challenge," she acknowledges.

"There is a lot of power when people talk to each other in civil conversation," she says. "By having this form of dialogue, you offer a tool for school board members to help make that happen."

Kathy McFetridge, a school board member in Springdale, is gearing up for a study circle on the standardized benchmark tests students take. Talking about test scores may be hard, she acknowledges, "I can imagine if someone came into my job and was looking over my shoulder at what I do." McFetridge is proud of both principals and PTA leaders for opening up to these conversations.

Springdale, tucked in Arkansas' northwest corner, will host 11 gatherings. This area home to Tyson Foods and Wal-Mart corporate headquarters is booming. The scenic countryside still has a small-town charm, but people are pouring in, many of them Hispanic, so some of the study circles will be in Spanish.

McFetridge will attend three of the gatherings. A study circle proponent from years past, she sees their benefit in "focusing the community on school improvement." After 14 years on the board, she says with conviction, "Any time the community can come into the schools, it can have an impact."

Lessons learned
    Heather Gage-Detherow, ASCP director, generally follows these steps in helping a community organize a study circle:
  • No matter who first makes the request (a community member, board member, superintendent, or staff), the superintendent and school board must fully buy in to the idea.
  • Hold an orientation meeting in the community, including a mock study circle. "Sometimes people start grumpy…all this ‘touchy-feely' stuff," says Gage-Detherow, "then at the end, it's fascinating to see the transformation. For many, it is the first time they've really been heard."
  • Find a "committed organizer" and form a work group to organize and publicize the study circles. "What we suggest is finding the informal leader," advises Gage-Detherow. "Look at the crowd of parents at pick-up time. Who are people listening to? Grab THAT person."
  • Hold a five-hour organizing clinic to work on recruitment, logistics, and invitations. A couple of weeks before the study circles start, the ASCP staff conducts facilitator and recorder training.
  • Meeting in a comfortable setting (e.g., a school), small groups gather several times to discuss a critical issue facing the community, school district, or school. Participants get a chance to find common ground for solutions and action.
  • If multiple study circles are held, a large-group meeting (action forum) can reach overall consensus on actions needed.
    Try to capture the momentum by setting up a committee to carry the action forward.

Related content

AR: Study circles as a framework for community involvement

AR: Rallying support for higher taxes in Malvern


Heather Gage Detherow
Director, Arkansas Study Circles Project
Arkansas School Boards Association
Director of Public Information
808 Dr. MLK Jr. Drive
Little Rock, AR 72202
Phone: (501) 372-1415
Email: heather@arsba.org 

Posted: December 16, 2005

©2005 Center for Public Education

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