Blog: The Educated Reporter

School Reform: Building a Movement From the Ground Up

The big blue bus making its way around New York City attracted the attention of parents and policymakers. The vehicle, which pulled into neighborhoods to gather community feedback, was a part of the A+NYC initiative’s grassroots efforts to shape public school policy during the 2013 mayoral election.

The initiative included a coalition of community groups that held citywide forums, conducted a robust social media campaign and created a portfolio of school research – all key ingredients of effective education reform, experts say.

Education initiatives typically last longer and are more effective with grassroots involvement, according to panelists discussing the issue at EWA’s National Seminar at Vanderbilt University in May.

Some of the most successful school improvement efforts first build community ownership, said Warren Simmons, executive director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.

Parents, civic leaders and students must take active leadership roles in explaining and rolling out new plans, he said. Reform isn’t just a technical endeavor, but rather a political, social and cultural one, he said.

“Groups of people have to believe in reform,” Simmons said. “Systems have to make adaptations with policies and practices that support a reform.”

Traditionally, reform in most urban districts involved hiring a superintendent every few years to be the “savior CEO” to spur change, Simmons said. But those efforts often are uprooted with new administration.

The A+NYC initiative is an example of a successful grassroots effort, Simmons said. New York mayor Bill de Blasio has embraced some of the organizations suggestions such as expanding early education and arts programs, using a multi-faceted school accountability system, and relying on data to inform policy decisions.

Effective school reform also involves partnering with community agencies to build a network of support, said Bob Brown of the American Federation of Teachers.

Brown has led a community-based school turnaround effort in West Virginia called Reconnecting McDowell, which began in 2011. The McDowell County school system has struggled along with the community which has high dropout, teen pregnancy and unemployment rates. Previously, the state’s board of education had taken over the low-performing district for about a decade, but test scores hadn’t improved, Brown said.

Reconnecting McDowell, a nonprofit, sought partners from the business, labor, government and faith-based communities.

“I’ve spoken at more churches than many evangelists have in McDowell County,” Brown said jokingly.

The group held town hall meetings, participated in the county fair, and attended parent-teacher-association meetings to garner input, donations and other support. They discussed drug use, troubling literacy rates and poverty in the community at large.

“You have to start dealing with the root cause of the issues that we’re dealing with in the schools,” he said.

Reporters covering such districts shouldn’t look at schools in insolation, but consider the larger community challenges and successes, too.

To that end, the McDowell organization also worked with political leaders on legislation for an Innovation Zone that allowed more flexible rules on school hours and structure, hiring practices and education policies. The plan had to be developed by the community and the school employees to gain the legislators’ approval.

Panel moderator Linda Shaw of the Seattle Times asked the panelists about community efforts to detail change in their school districts.  Simmons responded that sometimes the community opposes a process, not necessarily a “best practice.” That could happen when people don’t understand the rationale behind a change or because there are better ways to roll out new policies, he said.

Brown said getting more community buy-in from the beginning would help limit pushback.

Among the words of advice from the panelists for community building efforts, and for the journalists covering such initiatives:

  • The media can help inform the public about new initiatives and what’s at stake. Reporters should seek out a diversity of voices on education initiatives because that helps shape public opinion and raise awareness.
  • It can be difficult to get every community member on the same page, so focusing on a few specific and common goals is a good starting point. 
  • Inevitably, communities and schools evolve – that’s the nature of reform. As a result, discussions should be ongoing and the plans flexible. 


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