These posts are the opinions of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of A+ Colorado.


Engagement Like Spinning Plates

By Landon Mascareñaz

DPS is promising more community engagement than ever before. Yet, by spinning this many plates at the same time, they create potential for overloading their ability to process the information and underwhelming community members with their inability to act on feedback or commitments.  

Last week, over 100 education advocates attended our launch event for our two new Denver reports, a forum with past and present Board members.  A remarkably honest and open conversation, the discussion brought me back to what I love about working in the Denver education community: calls to reject false dichotomies, focusing on honesty, ignoring divisiveness in our rhetoric along with pivots away from “reform” vs “status quo” rhetoric towards a more pragmatic third way.  

Like many education observers, I was initially heartened by the news that Denver Public Schools was embarking on a community listening initiative over the next year.  It could be a great first step towards the building of a new strategic plan, a revised compact with the families of Denver and potentially a vehicle to lift up our students.

However, my initial (and usual) pollyanna-ish assumptions disappeared quickly when I asked the panel a question from the crowd.  “Will this strategic engagement process lead to a new Denver Plan?”

Board members offered that they are still early in the process, so aren’t sure yet what the outcome of the engagement will be. They suggested that the engagement would probably revalidate the current plan. They offered that the current school board members were ready to lead this charge.  

The panel and media buzz around the announcement suggested something big and important to us forward here in Denver.  So, what exactly will it look like?

DPS should be commended for building circles of engagement and communication with stakeholders and the community. They should be applauded even more when they attempt do so authentically, proactively and with full effort at transparency. The Denver Plan 2020 is a great example: an engagement process that met with thousands of people, achieved time-bound and clear outcomes that produced a strong guiding document.

Open or listening engagement processes are high risk, high reward ventures. They can be transformative when the district is truly seeking to empower communities around decisions or illuminate new blind spots. They can also be disastrous when the plan is already set (“Tell us what you want…except we already know what you need”).  This can lead to serious organizational capacity drain and loss of public trust in future engagements. Sometimes they have “Waiting For Godot” syndrome: no one wants to leave because at any minute the engagement could translate into what everyone hopes for, yet folks are anguished because it’s unclear when it will end.  Panelists last week spoke to the importance of setting honest and open expectations with the community members they hope to engage, but that clarity must first come from the Board and district as they set out on this journey.

So even if one gives the Board and DPS the benefit of the doubt that they will align on a clear purpose or timeline before they launch, there is a larger challenge for them to consider: the amount of engagement they are currently involved in beyond this new, massive effort.

Imagine a plate spinner with big and small plates already in the air. And they just keep adding and adding more plates.  The momentum increases, the skill required approaches expert levels and a brief gust of wind or distraction could knock it all over.

Not only are they launching the largest process in years, they are doing it while simultaneously running multiple other long-term open processes. As of my count, DPS currently has the Strengthening Neighborhoods Task Force Part 2, an Equity Roundtable (of which I am a participant), an African-American Roundtable, Latino Roundtable, African-American Task Force and the Far Northeast Commission.  Oh, and let’s not forget important principal hiring processes at big name high schools. These are all essential efforts and I’m honored to participate in them, as are others involved.  The question is not whether or not DPS should engage. The question is rather: are these too many spinning plates?

It’s a ever-present and realistic danger in often honest and robust attempts to build open systems responsive to community input. Yet by spinning this many plates at the same time, public leaders create potential for overloading their ability to process the information and underwhelming community members with their inability to act on feedback or commitments.  

 

The spinner can’t move in any direction because the act of balancing requires so much effort that the focus isn’t on moving forward…it’s staying still and not tumbling over.  

All of these engagement processes take significant DPS staff capacity and focus (folks who have never worked inside the district will always be surprised by the amount of hours and days involved for “simple” meetings). Numerous teams dedicate time to provide content for the meetings. They all require strong facilitation and translation to ensure all families have access. All involve immense political effort and focused staff commitment to respond to the process. Failure to deliver well on any of these dooms the process and potential future efforts to engage the public, so the stakes are always high.

On the other side, processes demand a ton from the families and communities who participate. It requires valuable time and energy among busy people.  It sometimes asks them to approach DPS with new trust given previously challenging experiences.  Individuals often must decode acronyms they’ve never heard before to figure out how to support the hopes and dreams of their child.

We should all applaud DPS for their efforts to more systemically and thoughtfully engage communities. At the event last week, Dr. Nate Easley encouraged us all to be constructive – that instead of being dismissive with a “but” we need to say “and” to DPS as they embark on this effort – to both help them articulate the outcome of the process and on how they can turn some of their other efforts to action.  So therefore, a few ideas “and” ideas, shared with the best intent:

  • Act on processes. DPS should attempt to more publicly “act” at least on the first phase of some of their open processes.  How has it acted on and honored the commitments of the African-American task force and therefore the Bailey Report? This is important for the public to know before starting another process. DPS’ letter to Far Northeast families is a great recent example of this
  • Get clear on ownership. DPS should make it clear who is running various processes (both internally and externally).  A tremendous amount of energy goes on both internally and externally with people not really clear who is leading what process (Board, Public Affairs, CELT, FACE, etc.). Sharing ownership is important yet DPS should know that organizations or community members who want to help partner or shape the process instead get lost in the bureaucracy just trying to get involved. On the other hand, with increased clarity, partners can be brought in to build up the capacity of the process.
  • Consider external sponsors.  A solution to this capacity problem would be to hand over a processes to an external group (not just facilitation responsibilities, which always sounds like a good idea but actually can be more challenging, but real ownership). It requires reservoirs of trust both ways, but if scoped well, the external group can reduce the capacity burden, bridge to the community and find new ways to engage folks.
  • Be realistic about support and alignment. If the Board and senior leadership desire this level of engagement then it should prioritize support (i.e. hiring, budgets, time) even more in this area. Staffing up in corresponding teams should take priority, as should the time they spend coordinating amongst themselves. But with support comes accountability: these teams must be held to alignment on planning, outcomes and sharing resources.
  • Shift processes to implementation. DPS should announce clearly how it plans to shift work on some of their more policy-focused processes (i.e. Strengthening Neighborhoods Part 2) and turn them into real action…and soon. This will open up capacity to focus on other efforts by building momentum showcasing that processes lead to action.  Some processes could ideate forever and there needs to be clear demarcation around shifting to oversight. 
  • Get sharp (and sharper) on purpose. This is the most important for the moment at hand: DPS and the Board should decide quickly and publicly what the purpose, outcome and timeline is for the new district wide engagement.  A+ Colorado and other groups hope it leads to a new and revamped strategic direction and tangible plan for the district. For me, I hope it gets done well in advance of the next school board election, so work can get moving before silly season starts.

I still believe that the new engagement processes can lead to that revised compact with the families of Denver through making an important pivot alongside families. But there is work to be done to ensure this promise. DPS and Board members should reflect seriously about the capacity required to do this level of engagement well and plan accordingly.

But until then, we might be spinning too many plates.