By: Bill Fulton Issue: Education & Workforce Development Section: Inspiration
The Civic Canopy Uses Dialogue to Make a Difference
As the backdrop for the 2008 Democratic National Convention, Colorado stood out as a symbol of “the New West” that blends a deeply rooted individualism with a growing spirit of collaboration. The independent streak runs deep in Colorado’s traditions, and nowhere is it more apparent than in the constitutionally protected local control over its schools. But even though local control still prevails throughout the state, Colorado is steadily moving toward a more collaborative approach to making decisions and solving problems related to education. The Civic Canopy, with its network of partners dedicated to fostering dialogue and collaboration, is helping to shape that model for Colorado.
A Statewide Collaborative Approach to Education Reform
In 2007, amidst a flurry of national reports decrying the state of public education, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, Jr. convened a P-20 Education Coordinating Council to help guide the state’s future educational policy. Gov. Ritter’s P-20 Council set out to tackle one of Colorado’s greatest challenges: ensuring that a seamless education system from pre-school to grad-school is preparing our young people for the demands of the 21st Century.
Comprising a group of 40 representatives from education, community, government, business and non-profit partners, the P-20 Council was clear in its goals to produce tangible results in short order. Still, it was mindful of the need to engage Colorado citizens in an open discussion about the goals of public education and to collaborate with non-traditional partners to form a more cohesive educational system. Following the lead of the Colorado General Assembly, community organizations, and local foundations, the P-20 Council helped launch a statewide dialogue entitled Conversation 2007. To help facilitate these discussions, they turned to the Civic Canopy.
The Civic Canopy is an innovative non-profit organization that strengthens civil society through dialogue and collaboration around pressing civic challenges. Led by Executive Director Bill Fulton, the Canopy became the natural partner to lead this bipartisan, statewide discussion about how to develop a cohesive educational system. The Canopy helped facilitate over 30 local dialogues with more than 40 legislators and other policy makers across Colorado, developing a shared set of goals for public education in Colorado and strategies to reach them. These goals, ranked by priority, included:
Help all students achieve their maximum potential Develop critical and creative thinkers Ensure a basic proficiency in skills and facts Ensure all students are prepared for post-secondary options (vocational or college) Develop responsible citizens Inspire lifelong learners Educate the whole child Produce globally competitive workers and economically viable adults Teach ethics/character Teach global awareness
Though reaching consensus on the goals came fairly quickly in the opening rounds of the discussions, as the conversation turned to strategies, longstanding stalemates emerged.
Teachers bemoaned the lack of support from parents. Parents blamed schools for low standards and poor communication. Community members wanted more accountability from districts, and districts decried the lack of funding for schools. Clearly, it was time for a new conversation.
The Civic Canopy helped surface and reframe many of the assumptions that people brought with them in order to create a shared sense of support and accountability. Instead of placing blame, what was needed was shared responsibility and mutual accountability. As stakeholders spoke honestly of their needs and their commitments, they came to understand that only when each group had the support they needed could they be held properly accountable. A compelling new model for education emerged from these collaborative efforts, based on a recognition of the reciprocal relationships among students, educators, families, and community. This approach moves away from the more traditional question, “How well are educators preparing students to succeed?” toward more creative questions: “What does each group (Students, Educators, Families, Community) need to fulfill its role in educating our young people? What is each group’s responsibility?” To illustrate the interdependence of these relationships, a few examples from the conversations help to make the point:
Educators are more willing to individualize learning when students take more responsibility for their own learning.
Communities are more willing to increase funding when schools show evidence of students meeting learning goals.
Families are better able to support their children when they feel welcomed into the schools, and are clear on how to help their students meet the standards.
The insights gleaned from Conversation 2007 informed the P-20 Council’s work, and the network of partners engaged in the process remain committed to seeing their visions become a reality in Colorado. As the P-20 Council continues to design a new educational blueprint for Colorado, the Conversation 2007 participants stand ready to help build the foundation for it across the state.
Collaboration and the Neighborhood School
While the state policy discussions provide an important arena for educational change, nowhere is the need for collaboration greater than at the neighborhood school. For all the progress we’ve made in the 50 years since Brown v. Board of Education, in cities across the country lines of race, class, and language still segregate children into educational haves and have-nots.
Cory Elementary and Merrill Middle School in Denver typify this challenge. Though they have long shared a common 17-acre campus in a central Denver neighborhood, until recently the two schools remained worlds apart. Cory is a historically high achieving, predominantly white school with a more affluent population while Merrill’s student body consists primarily of students of color, many of whom speak English as a second language, and a high percentage of families on free-and-reduced lunch - a common proxy for families living in poverty. Few students from Cory enrolled at Merrill, leaving Merrill nearly half empty and on the list of schools potentially facing closure.
Parents and school leaders mobilized to change this pattern. They received a planning grant to help create a new approach to develop an educational campus with a neighborhood focus that was academically rigorous and met the needs of diverse learners. They also wanted seamless integration of the programs and expectations between the schools. As the parents and teachers of these schools would soon demonstrate, a shared vision and a commitment to collaboration can create bonds strong enough to bridge any divides. But that bridge had a long distance to span. The process of envisioning how the campus might be reconfigured raised both hopes and anxieties. Should it be a K-12 campus? K-8? Would there be room for all the students in the neighborhood if it proved successful? How could a single school meet such diverse needs? The Civic Canopy assisted in the process by facilitating conversations filled with often polarized viewpoints, applying proven models of consensus building and community engagement. The tensions, anxiety, and rumors spreading by email were at times fierce in the weeks leading up to the decisions, as all the surrounding schools feared potential negative impacts from the new plans. Articles in local papers fueled both interest and concern.
After a pivotal meeting that drew nearly 250 people to decide the broad framework for the school, the momentum began building for how to bring all the partners together to form a much broader community coalition in support of the schools. One by one, parents began to commit to “being the change they wished to see.” Rather than waiting for the district to “fix” Merrill, they committed to sending their children there and digging in to help bring about that change. In the end, the final proposal garnered support or strong support from 90% of the community that engaged in the process.
Colorado’s Civic Canopy: Creating a Culture of Collaboration
By using dialogue to turn diversity into the fuel for creative growth, and by fostering collaboration that helps align self-interest with the common good, groups can thrive in ways that none thought possible.
Colorado is fortunate to have strong collaborative leadership from the school house to the statehouse. But equally important are the growing networks of partners interested in making a difference - on their block, in their town, or across the region. The Civic Canopy has become an important vehicle for fostering this type of civic engagement.
As the examples above attest, the Civic Canopy’s unique role as both facilitator and “network steward,” has helped to bring the many players together to increase their collective impact. The literature on the power of such networks - in health care, education, business, and service provision - is mounting, and points to a central theme that distributed knowledge and leadership seems to abide by the same powerful principles that make ecosystems thrive. By using dialogue to turn diversity into the fuel for creative growth, and by fostering collaboration that helps align self-interest with the common good, groups can thrive in ways that none thought possible.
That is, our core principles of dialogue, collaboration, and results (civic health) have tangible, bottom-line impacts on virtually any field to which they are applied. The importance of collaborative engagement through dialogue is becoming evident - not just in the bolder aspirations of improving civil society, but in the more practical terms of achieving targeted and measurable results in our local schools and across our state educational systems.