Changing the Conversation on Education in Connecticut
A 2005 report by Public Agenda on 10 years of public engagement on public education topics in over 70 communities across Connecticut. Supported by the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund, the report serves as a comprehensive case study of how public engagement can work in communities across America and discusses the specific accomplishments in Connecticut.
In the mid 1990′s, research commissioned by the Graustein Memorial Fund in Connecticut and conducted by Public Agenda revealed significant gaps between the general public, community leaders and educators concerning the problems facing Connecticut’s schools. In response, the Fund decided to support a process that would, according to its Executive Director David Nee, “change the conversation about education in Connecticut.” This meant real dialogue between educators and the public, not finger-pointing or traditional, formal public hearings. In 1997, Public Agenda and the Institute for Educational Leadership were asked to help design and implement a statewide public engagement initiative in collaboration with the state’s League of Women Voters, which ultimately became known as the Connecticut Community Conversations Project.
To kick off the project, hundreds of organizations–school districts, parent groups, community-based organizations, etc.–were invited to participate. Initially, eight local sponsors were chosen, covering 17 towns. By design, they were to work as a network to build statewide capacity for civic dialogues on the range of issues facing Connecticut’s schools. Each site received a modest stipend and technical assistance from Public Agenda.
Each site began by holding community conversations on an education topic selected from Public Agenda’s menu of prepared materials and then followed up according to their initial results. While Public Agenda provided the first rounds of training and support for the early rounds of the Connecticut Community Conversations project, eventually Graustein decided to bring the capacity to train in-state, and Public Agenda conducted “train-the-trainer” sessions with League staff, who have managed the state’s training needs ever since.
Since the initial conversations in the eight pilot sites, over 70 cities and towns across the state have participated and the initiative continues to grow. Often, the conversations have led to specific action, as in Stonington where several discussions on the lack of quality child-care centers let to the town reopening several day care centers. In Putnam, school administrators discovered that residents did not feel comfortable coming into the school and responded by opening the new school auditorium for community events, holding a weekly free movie night, and establishing a corps of high-school volunteers to teach basic computer skills to town residents. And some towns, like Bridgeport and Norwalk, have held dozens of community dialogues, creating an ongoing mechanism for connecting the public and the public’s schools on a range of issues.
Download the 44-page report at publicagenda.org.