Healthy Schools Need Active Communities
Helping school boards stay focused on their priority: our children
By Carrie Douglass & Ethan Ashley
If there’s one thing the majority of parents in the United States can get behind, it’s that schools’ first priority is preparing students for future success and careers in a culturally diverse world. Recently, however, national political fights have sown new divisions among parents and communities, making it increasingly difficult to remain focused on that shared purpose.
School boards must be encouraged to uphold their mandate, even in a polarized social climate where conflict makes it hard to be productive. Fortunately, when community members engage with school boards in meaningful ways that keep board members focused on the primary goals for students and families, they find that they agree on more than they think. They find, in other words, that collaboration is an effective way to steer their schools in a balanced direction.
There are ways you can help school boards prioritize serving their community and ensuring that all children receive the best education possible. It is, after all, a complex task — and one that requires input from parents and students to be done well.
As important as it is for members of the community to make their voices heard, it is equally important for those voices to be used effectively. School Board Partners has outlined practical steps to engage with school boards — regardless of the board’s political leanings — to meet this moment and chart a brighter path forward for all students.
School board members have a challenging job, but there are ways that you can make sure that your voice is heard and resonates with school board members.
1. Know what your school board can (and can’t) do
It’s important to know what power school boards actually have. If you’re upset about, say, the hiring process for a new principal, don’t look to the school board for help — that will likely be on the superintendent. School boards do, however, hire and evaluate the superintendent. They also set district goals, approve the budget, pass and monitor Board policy, engage with the public, and advocate on behalf of the district at the state level. Making your ask relevant to the purview of the school board will make it more likely to be heard and acted upon — so be sure to research ahead of time which levers Board members can actually pull.
2. Even in moments of disagreement, be respectful
Whether you agree or disagree with a particular member or even the whole board, be respectful to them and say thank you. Your perspective is more likely to have an impact if you express it in a kind and understanding way. School board members, even those who may agree with you, will tune out disrespectful comments from the public — it’s what any of us would do.
3. Always make students the center of your comments
At the end of the day, school board members should be putting the needs of students first. That’s what they will respond to. Always remember to center students in your engagements with school board members, especially if you can relate specific experiences that speak to your more general comments.
Engaging with different school boards requires different approaches
Some boards are more liberal than others, some are politically split, and others take a hard line against equity measures. Depending on the makeup of your school board, you may consider adapting the language you use.
If your school board is in favor of equitable practices and policies, be sure to thank and encourage them — defending education isn’t easy. You can also respectfully remind anti-equity board members that they are in the minority, and that there is still work to be done so that all students receive a quality education.
If the Board is opposed to equity measures, it’s easy to think that your oppositional voice won’t be heard. That’s not true — it’s important that they hear your perspective.
Focus on your personal experiences, while always centering students, in order to add a humanizing element to your advocacy. Remember that the goal is to call for an end to book bans, prevent further damage to the public education system, and advocate for equitable practices and policies in your district.
Politically divided boards are perhaps where your voice can have the biggest impact. Take from both kinds of boards described above: encourage members who favor equitable policies while using your personal experiences to advocate for an end to regressive policies.
You can also propose specific, proactive actions for the Boards to take in defense of students, such as mental health resources in schools and a more personalized education for disabled students.
Here’s a helpful list of do’s and don’ts to simplify the guidance above for talking about educational equity at school board meetings:
The support of active community members is critical to helping school boards stay focused on students during these tough times. All of us — Board members included — can use a reminder that we’re united by much more than divides us.
School board members play an important and under-appreciated role in their communities: to make critical decisions about education that impact countless children and families. You can help them in their job by voicing your opinions and supporting those members who are standing up for public education. Without better support and advocacy, good people will not step up, stay, or lead with courage and impact.
Ethan Ashley and Carrie Douglass are co-founders and co-CEOs of School Board Partners, a national nonprofit that connects, inspires and supports diverse school board members to lead with courage, competence and impact. Ashley has served two terms as board president of the Orleans Parish School Board in New Orleans. Douglass has been elected twice to the Bend-La Pine School Board in Oregon, and served as board chair through the first 15 months of the pandemic.