link between the quality of local schools
and the ongoing health and vitality
of the community. Each succeeding
phase looks to the desired goal: an
active community-wide commitment to
increasing student success.
The most important feature of the
formal track is its venue. It takes place
on the community’s turf at the
community’s convenience. This stands in sharp
contrast to the traditional approach to
public engagement, which most often
involves inviting the public to attend
meetings held in the evening at the
school. The response to this approach is
predictable: an audience of the same 12
parents and the one weirdo who comes
to all the meetings. The challenges
facing our schools today demand that
the conversation extends to the entire
community. We must go to them.
The structure of the formal track has
1. Map the community.
To carry our message to the people of
the community on their turf at their
convenience, we must create a map.
Mapping the community’s turf has little
to do with defining physical boundaries.
We’re interested in mapping people,
and we’re generally more interested in
groups than in individuals.
Our goal in mapping is threefold:
First, to identify all the groups that
regularly or periodically gather in the
community; second, to determine when
and where they meet; and third, to
organize the groups into categories. The
number of categories will vary with the
size and complexity of the community,
but typical categories include civic clubs
and organizations, fraternal societies,
professional associations, labor and farm
organizations, ethnic societies, businesses over a certain size, and all local
Mapping is easiest and most
enjoyable when done in a half-day
workshop that includes the entire staff
and a cross-section of community
members. Adding community members
is especially important in those places
where staff members don’t adequately
reflect the district’s diversity.
The group can create a functional
conversation map in under two hours.
I have seen easels placed around the
n We must create a sense of urgency.
We must tell the public why it’s
essential to unfold the full potential of
every child and why our schools must
continue to improve if we are to achieve
n We must help all members of the community understand why it’s in their interest
to have great local schools. Audience
The formal track of the Great Conversation
takes place on the community’s turf
at the community’s convenience.
room holding newsprint pads. Each pad
displays a single category heading, for
example, Civic Clubs. The assembled
mapmakers move from station to
station, adding their ideas to the list. I
have also been in settings where teams
of participants independently create
category lists at their tables. Facilitators
then collect and merge all the lists to
create a master map. No matter how it’s
done, the goal is to produce a comprehensive map of where the people of the
community congregate by tapping the
collective knowledge of all participants.
2. Decide on the message.
The primary objective of the Great
Conversation is to move community
members along a continuum from con-
fusion and suspicion to understanding
and trust, from obstruction and indif-
ference to permission and support. To
realize this objective, the message we
share must contain four basic elements:
members must understand that their
quality of life is directly tied to the
quality of their schools. Community
members will not rally to our aid unless
we help them connect the dots.
3. Develop a script.
Once participants have developed
the message, they need to distill their
thoughts into a written script. Good
scripts provide structure, inspire confidence, and help presenters stay on
message. Using scripts also ensures
that every audience will hear the same
message at approximately the same
There is no perfect script, but the best
are flexible enough to accommodate