How to Engage Your Local Community to Assure a Successful School Program

Over the past 20 years, Heery International has been on the front lines of nearly 200 school construction programs serving as the program manager for projects across the United States. The program manager's role is often viewed as the overseer of a school district's architecture, engineering and construction of classrooms, buildings, fields and other physical improvements that help create a better learning environment for our children generations to come.

But Heery's relationship with a school district starts long before the first shovel hits the ground. We work in partnership with school districts and their school board members to create community engagement that fosters inclusion among all the stakeholders who are impacted by the projects. Community engagement is critical to building consensus and solicits feedback so everyone has a clear understanding of how tax dollars or SPLOST revenue are being spent.

For example, at the Houston Independent School District where work continues on the $1.9B 2012 Bond Program, every project has a Project Advisory Team (PAT) that meets monthly during each phase of planning, design and construction.  The PAT members are hand-selected by the Principal at each school and includes teachers, administrators, coaches, parents, neighbors, community members and, in some cases, students.  The PAT helps establish the goals of every project, sets the program of requirements for the design and is a key communication vehicle to inform all stakeholders of project activities.  In addition, there are community-wide meetings held at certain key points during the projects where all community members are informed of progress and can provide input in project activities.

Community engagement is occurring around us, near us, with us and through us, on a daily basis.  It can be defined as a vehicle to enhance interaction with stakeholders for the purpose of obtaining insight, solicit feedback and build consensus.With that in mind, any school district needs to start any planning for large scale school improvements with a community engagement program that is as comprehensive and complete as any architectural design or master plan.  And since not everyone in the process will be engaged at the same time or the same way, here are some tips from our team and our partners that we hope will breed successful programs in your communities

  • Make it easy to participate: Often times, districts might be viewed as taking an "ivory tower" approach in the decision making process, leading stakeholders will challenge the program. It becomes essential to use various media tools, both advertising and public relations, to get the word out to your audience seeking input from the community.  And planning public forums for community input, be mindful of where you choose to hold the forums at locations that are convenient to the intended audience.
  • Be a leader: When leading any meetings to gather input from the community, be a good listener, but at the same time know how to direct a meeting so that the audience feels as though you have guided the forum in a meaningful direction with results.
  • Identify and Nurture Power Users: Within every community there are always a group of people become the trusted advisors. They might be clergy, union leaders, elected officials or a number of other influencers. Seek out these leaders and do what it takes to communicate with transparency to gain their trust that you have their interests at heart.
  • Welcome Participants: Announcing public meetings or any other opportunity to participate in the planning process must be communicated in a comprehensive way. Make sure that when sending invitations, you use all the communications resources available to you, including email, notes sent home with students, even places of worship.
  • Interact with the Community: Inclusion and demographic diversity can only be achieved through smart planning for community events. For example, instead of having an event at a school auditorium, hold a meeting in the living room of a student home, hosted by the school superintendent. And when those meetings take place, use whatever means at your disposal to seek participation at the meetings. That might include collecting comment cards, or encouraging social media to solicit feedback.
  • Engage Existing Communities: When gathering information, it is easy to fall back on the same group of influencers who are normally engaged in the process, such as parents, teachers, administrators and students. But a successful program will also make efforts to reach out to business partners and neighborhoods that might be impacted by a school program but are not part of the school community on a daily basis.
  • Seek Unbiased and Factual Information: School leaders enter into this process with a game plan, but they must be careful not to influence the process when gathering information from the community. If it appears that dialogue is shut down, it can create a negative view of the entire school project and derail the best intentions.
  • Reward Contributors: School programs are heavily influenced by a community of committed volunteers who devote themselves to their schools and their children.  These volunteers rarely receive any "thank you" for their hard work, which is why it is important to make sure that you reward them by serving food at your events, holding receptions, and even awarding key volunteer leaders with tokens of appreciation like gift cards.
  • Be Timely Updating Participants: Once information is collected, the community relies on the school leadership for follow-up information. Providing timely updates demonstrates to the community that school leadership is considering the community's input. As with all the other facets of the planning process, these updates should be communicated using various online, offline and in-person tools so no one feels left out of the process.

Taking these careful approaches to community engagement may not guarantee a successful outcome, but it will help school boards have a clear view of the opportunities and challenges that they need to address when completing capital improvement programs.

David Waggoner, serves as Heery International's vice president and area manager for Texas, is chair of the Board of Directors for the Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI), an international organization whose membership is involved in and committed to improving the places where children learn.

Eric Wilson is a senior associate with Heery International, specializing in construction management, program management and design-build business in the Southeast. Wilson is a former member of Atlanta Public Schools' Board of Education.