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Five Steps for Meaningful Community Forums

Updated: Jan 7, 2023

Welcome to #BeyondTheMean! Check out this post to see what this blog is all about.

Hearing from your community is an important part of the continuous school improvement process. Community forums, open ended surveys, and even casual conversations with parents at the drop-off line can provide vital information for school leadership teams – but only if the information is processed correctly. In this post, I will provide five steps for hosting community feedback that will guide continuous school improvement efforts.

Step One: Build a Culture of Inclusion

Okay – so step one is really like 100 little steps that could be a whole series of posts on its own but hear me out. Before you can solicit meaningful community feedback, school leaders must take time to build a welcoming culture of inclusion. Stakeholders from across your community should feel welcome in the school environment and should feel comfortable having meaningful conversations with school staff.

If your school has never hosted a community forum before, the first one will likely be lack-luster. You may have very low attendance and your participants may be unwilling to candidly speak about their experiences. That is to be expected. Trust must be established, and the community must be able to sense that you mean business. There is no better time than now to get started! Open the doors and let the people speak.

Step Two: Solicit Feedback

Once you have engaged your community and established a meaningful culture of inclusion you are ready to solicit feedback from your stakeholders. Feedback can come in many forms. One common form of feedback is the community forum. Open the gym and invite your community to come hear about the good work underway at your school. Then, give them time to speak their own minds. For those who cannot attend, another useful tool for soliciting feedback is to give a short, open ended survey where community members can write their thoughts out and explain their points of view anonymously.

Regardless of what steps you take to solicit feedback, you must ensure that you hearing from all parts of your community. One common mistake is to assume that people don’t have anything to say if they don’t show up to your forum or take your survey. All of your stakeholders have a voice and an opinion. You must consider who is coming to the table and who you may have missed. Make an effort to reach out to those populations who don’t participate and specifically invite them to provide feedback.

Step Three: Document the Feedback

As you solicit feedback from your various stakeholders you should take care to document exactly what they are saying. This is easier now than ever! Simply record your sessions and then feed the recordings into a transcription service. There are dozens of free services that allow you to do this with very little effort. Your transcripts become data that can be strategically analyzed.

The documentation process is important because it assures that you truly hear what is being said. It is common for decision makers to default to the loudest or angriest voice in the room; however, that voice may not represent the entire range of stakeholders in your building. By reviewing transcripts after the fact, you can hear the feedback again without the emotional overlay. This allows you to truly see the nuanced discussions being had at your events.

Step Four: Analyze the Data

Having secured transcripts from your events, it is time to analyze your data. Despite what some may tell you, qualitative data is data! It is worth your time to view your forum transcripts as data sets to be analyzed. Qualitative data such as this is analyzed using coding methods. In short, coding methods are those in which the data analyst sorts comments into piles and then tries to make sense of them. There are two main types of analysis that are beneficial for community form transcripts: thematic coding and sentiment analysis.

To thematically code your data, start by sorting your transcripts out into distinct comments. I like to then move the comments into a spreadsheet where each comment is on its own row. Next, re-read the transcript with your team and write the theme of each statement down the side of the transcript (or in the next column of your spreadsheet). Finally, sort your comments by themes and spend some time trying to understand what each theme really means in regard to your continuous improvement planning.

In sentiment analysis, you again start by sorting your transcript into distinct comments, but this time you want to consider the mood of the comment. This is really helpful if the theme of your forum is a specific policy decision. The angriest voices are the loudest, and those are the ones you will remember. With sentiment analysis, you will be able to see more clearly the full range of emotions from a meeting.

Step Five: Make a Decision

Finally, once you have received all this feedback you have to use it! Really try to listen to what your stakeholders are telling you and transparently respond to them by allowing their feedback to inform your continuous improvement planning. This, in turn, loops you back to Step One: Building an Inclusive Culture. Once your community sees that you truly care about what they have to say, they will be more willing to say stuff in the future. Each community forum event will become richer and richer.

I hope these five simple steps will help you think about how you can make the best use of your community forum events. Remember, community feedback isn’t a formality. It is a vital part of the continuous school improvement process. Good luck on your journey friends and let me know if I can help.

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