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Here’s how decisions about schools are usually made: The same insiders call the shots behind closed doors, year after year. They make judgments about families and children based on limited data, rarely speaking to anyone directly. They write “strategic plans” that no one reads. Or, worse, they let politics prevail.

These bad habits result in schools that don’t match the needs or wants of the students, families and communities they serve. Bad leadership habits create divisions and breed distrust. They are the reason that waves of politically motivated policies and initiatives keep pounding schools but never effect real change.

As top education officials in Kentucky and Burlington, Vermont, we said: enough.

We began exploring new ways to shape schools with families and communities through our superintendents’ network, the Deeper Learning Dozen. We agreed that our school systems, in two entirely different parts of the country, needed to completely overhaul the way education is imagined and assembled, in ways we knew would mean taking big risks and upsetting entrenched practices.

Along the way, we found a huge appetite among our school families and communities to be directly engaged in the decision-making process; in both Burlington and Kentucky, they pushed hard to give far more people significant influence in shaping what we do. We aimed to reach across our divides to create real understanding.

In Vermont’s Burlington School District in mid-2020, we found an unmet desire among families to be seen and for schools to address the full needs of students.

We realized there was a need for an entirely different way to involve the community in crafting the district’s five-year strategic plan.

With the support of the Center for Innovation in Education (C!E), we assembled a coalition of residents — some who were appointed, some who applied and some who were invited from under-represented subgroups — which ultimately included families, students, school staff, community members and a school commissioner.

The coalition conducted more than 75 in-depth interviews with residents before synthesizing themes and building a strategic plan aligned to Burlington’s core needs and desires.

Bad leadership habits create divisions and breed distrust. They are the reason that waves of politically motivated policies and initiatives keep pounding schools but never effect real change.

As a result, the plan’s first priority became supporting belonging and well-being for students, families and staff — something requested over and over in the interviews.

The interviews also reflected support for deeper learning opportunities in which students feel challenged, empowered and engaged; more restorative approaches to discipline, which focus on community-building; and efforts to make each school a place where every child is valued.

The strategic plan in Burlington now includes mutual commitments and new metrics to help achieve and track all of these aspirations in the years ahead. A new committee will oversee the plan, including some original coalition members who will ensure that what was said gets done.

In Kentucky, as in so many places, major constituencies — students, teachers, parents, activists, others — feel dissatisfied and ignored. They perceive a small number of powerful people making major decisions in isolated settings, driven by their own priorities — not those of everyday families.

In the wake of the pandemic and social unrest related to the murders of George Floyd and Kentucky’s Breonna Taylor, the need to really listen to our families and communities has perhaps never been greater.

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Through a commissioner’s virtual listening tour, we gathered input on our education systems from thousands of Kentuckians. We then worked with C!E to support a statewide coalition of more than 50 teachers, students, families and community members from every region in the state to identify the themes in what we heard.

We learned that Kentuckians want the experiences students have in school to align more closely with the realities of the world awaiting them after graduation. Literacy and math are important, but so are deep, rich and meaningful experiences that many Kentuckians feel have been crowded out by the push to raise test scores. Moreover, Kentuckians want school to be a place where kids feel safe, surrounded by people who care about them.

These insights profoundly shifted our efforts and became the foundation for a new vision for education in Kentucky that prioritizes these goals. The state has since established another diverse council of Kentuckians to advise the department on fulfilling these promises, including a new network of districts enacting this vision in ways that make sense locally.

Already, Kentucky is rethinking major systems like state assessment and accountability, and realigning how money is spent to support the kinds of project-based, deeper-learning opportunities our families say they want.

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We hope to inspire other jurisdictions to follow similar paths, recognizing that strategies must be tailored to local needs, values and sensitivities.

Change on this scale is never easy, and national partisan issues may distract from or compete with locally driven work. But the right path is one shaped hand in hand with the communities we serve. By listening and directly engaging with students, families and community members, we are building trust as leaders to act on their behalf — and to deliver on an agenda that’s not ours alone, but theirs.

Jason E. Glass is Kentucky’s commissioner of Education. Tom Flanagan is superintendent of the Burlington (Vermont) School District.

This story about community involvement in school decisions was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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