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CO: Community engagement, Colorado style

Pioneering Community Engagement in Pueblo, Colo., School District 30

School District 30 in Pueblo, Colorado, was the first district that the Colorado Association of School Boards (CASB)advised on community engagement.

Collaborating on community services in Sheridan 

With some help from the Colorado Association of School Boards (CASB) and its own twist on community conversations, the Sheridan, Colo. school board launched a partnership with its city council.

After starting with safety, focus of community engagement in Garfield, Colo., school district expanded

After the Columbine High School shootings in 1999, the school board of Garfield Re-2 District in western Colorado called on the Colorado Association of School Boards (CASB's) Associate Executive Director Jane Urschel to help with a study circle on safety.


Teenage pregnancy, closed schools, and gaps in student achievement can be touchy subjects, but with support from the Colorado Association of School Boards (CASB), several Colorado school districts have tackled them head on, directly inviting citizens to meet and talk.

This approach to community engagement has enticed hundreds of Colorado citizens to become more involved with resolving issues and supporting public schools.

"We commend districts that work on public engagement," said Jane Urschel, CASB associate executive director and a familiar face in helping local Colorado districts with community engagement. "It is risky to do it, but even riskier if you don't."

A school board can identify an issue on which it wants input, or ask a group representing a cross-section of the community to identify its particular education-related concerns. CASB staff helps the board organize structured group sessions to capture community insights on the issue.

CASB staff explain that while the process is structured, there is no cookie cutter approach: the needs determine the number and size of the groups and the frequency with which they meet.

Sometimes groups take the form of "study circles"—a series of small groups of citizens meet in homes, churches, community centers, businesses, and schools to discuss and weigh the costs and consequences for several choices associated with a particular issue. Sometimes a similar conversation takes place on a larger scale at a community-wide gathering. Sometimes the process might incorporate both approaches.

The goal

The goal of the process is to encourage thoughtful public deliberation. This approach helps school boards hear all of the "voices" in the community and make more informed choices, Urschel said.

CASB's service evolved from the National Issues Forum Institute’s model "study circles"—a way of for engaging communities in deliberative discussions about important issues. The process encourages a group to explore points of view on a given issue and work through them in a structured way.

CASB's Urschel and Jennifer Reeve, CASB’s director of communications, are community engagement veterans, dating back to the mid-1990s when they attended a National Issues Forum sponsored by the Kettering Foundation. Once back in Colorado,  Urschel and Reeve continued exploring the idea of engaging communities about issues. "Having been on the school board in Jefferson County, I thought, 'I'd give anything if the public could listen in on us—or us listen in on the public,'" said Urschel. And Reeve remembered thinking, "Yes! That's where we will really make a difference."

Evolution of strategy

From the first efforts of Urschel and Reeve, the idea has evolved. Urschel observed, "The community is better served if we do an up-front analysis of how to solve problems—as opposed to importing a set process." Reeve said, "Lately, we have been going to a district and doing a one- or two-day training, give them some ideas, help them develop their own plan."

The CASB team's services might range from an informal consultation to any, or any combination of, the following: tailoring a community engagement plan to a district's needs, helping a board frame an issue, conducting training, identifying stakeholders, or convening groups.

While community engagement can take many forms, Reeve said in an ideal world, boards would stay focused on big issues in student achievement, and in the course of regular decision-making, they and top administrators would be asking, "How are we going to involve the community?"

Getting the community engagement mindset ingrained takes sustained effort by those on the front line in a local district. "We want to get [community engagement] self-perpetuating," says Urschel. Success in public engagement, she said, would be "seeking public deliberation as a habit, a way of doing business"—not when you’re facing a crisis.

For more information, visit the Colorado School Boards Association web site.

Lessons Learned
  •  Ask board members to identify people and groups who should get invitations to the community conversation. 
  •  Advertise for volunteers in many ways and places. 
    Encourage principals and teachers to make personal contact to boost participation.
  • Brainstorm the guest list. Make sure to fill “holes” where representation is not coming through.
  • Ask board members to do extensive follow-up, especially with personal calls, so invitations and RSVPs actually result in people attending. 
    Be sure to include students, and not just the leaders.
  • Place people in groups so that not everybody already knows everybody else. 
    Plan for specific follow-up on how you will share the results with participants.
  • Make sure participants have a sense of "what happens next."  If there are tangible results (policies, activities, budget, people’s accomplishments) that emerge from the community engagement, publicize them.


Jane Urschel, Ph.D.
Associate Executive Director
Colorado Association of School Boards
1200 Grant Street
Denver, Colorado 80203-2306
(30... or (80...

Jennifer Reeve
Director of Communications
(30... or (80...

Posted: Aug. 30, 2006

©2006 Center for Public Education

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