Preparing citizens for public office

In 2016, Elisa Hoffman was three years into her four-year term with the Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) Board of Education when she noticed a “surge in people interested in running for public office.”


On the heels of a heated presidential election, Americans all across the political spectrum were eager to become more engaged citizens, and the role of public office was in the limelight.


Hoffman began wondering what it might look like to help others take the next step and expand their impact. More specifically, in the realm of education, what might it look like to help shape effective Board members for America’s public school districts?


While there’s no shortage of tools and resources for running a campaign, Hoffman notes, what about resources preparing people for public office?


She wondered: “Is there anyone making sure people know how to govern?”


Thanks to People’s Liberty, Hoffman has been given the chance to investigate this question more fully. This past year, she was awarded the 2018 People’s Liberty Haile Fellowship, which grants mid-career leaders a sum of $100,000 to explore and develop solutions to community challenges in Greater Cincinnati over the course of a year.


Hoffman’s project is called the School Board School, a training program that prepares engaged citizens to become effective School Board members and community advocates.


Currently, a cohort of 10 local participants — representing a diversity of ages, backgrounds, professions, and neighborhoods — is preparing to graduate from the pilot program in February. The vast majority will not run for the Board. At least not right away.


Rather than providing a fast track to public office, the School Board School encourages participants to first understand and articulate their “why,” even as it evolves, Hoffman says. “Why do you want to do this work? What is your vision for the impact you are hoping to make, and what seat are you going to do that from?”


Through interactive sessions, readings, podcasts, and field trips, class members learn what it means to lead a public body, adopt a coalition-building mindset, articulate a “vision for impact,” and navigate the CPS system.


The program will enter its final stretch with an Impact Fair on January 17th, where outgoing graduates and the community at large can connect with a full range of local organizations and avenues for making an impact.

 

Understanding the system, “recognizing your personal power”

Chanda Davis is one who was deeply effected by the 2016 presidential election. It sparked a new level of concern and engagement, which she describes as her catalyst: the point at which she began to suspect that “voting wasn’t enough.”


As a senior engineer at P&G, she fully appreciates the importance of knowing how systems work. Understanding the mechanisms and processes by which issues get “discovered and resolved” is something Davis thrives on.


So as the School Board School connected the dots of CPS, Davis was excited to see that, technically, “If you’re a parent with a concern, it’s very easy to get on the Board agenda, find out how that issue impacts others … and make your voice heard.”


It was encouraging to note that — contrary to what national politics and trending headlines might suggest — not everything is broken.


“It wasn’t a let-down to peek behind the curtain [of the school system],” Davis confides. Here on the local level, she saw highly capable people everywhere, both in governance and administration.


Davis also saw collaboration and camaraderie in an environment where she expected to find competition and rivalry. The reality of coalition-building and like-mindedness —“everyone is striving toward student achievement” — dispelled myths and disarmed suspicions about the inherent nature of public office.


Rather than saying “let me go fix this,” Davis now prefers to ask: “How can we evolve, elevate, accelerate … and build upon an already solid foundation?”


Whether she runs for office or not, she is eager to see CPS build in ways that improve the community feedback loop, bolster accountability, and ensure safe, inclusive environments for all kids. And she wants to help others see that “being involved is more accessible than you think.”



Understanding your vision; “discerning your impact”

As a staff member at Public Allies Cincinnati, Jasmine Coaston spends her days building into “intentionally diverse cohorts” of AmeriCorps Allies who hone their leadership skills while serving a Cincinnati neighborhood through a local nonprofit.


While attending the United State of Women Summit last year with Public Allies, she began to think more seriously about public office after hearing Michelle Obama speak on gender disparities in public leadership.


Coaston entered School Board School shortly thereafter, and she says it has built her confidence and “reaffirmed [her] passion for education and its role in our community.”


Over the course of the program, she also became more acutely aware of what she calls her “social justice orientation.”


As she says, it seemed that while the intersection between student achievement and other identity markers such as race, age, and class was integral to her mindset, it was not necessarily on the radar for others.


This made her realize the degree to which “being in it all the time” through Public Allies shaped her vision. And, as a CPS parent, she is now eager to explore how the vision for social justice and equity translates to “parents as stakeholders” in the local school system.


There might well be an equity policy, Coaston says, “but how does that really look for parent engagement?”


She is not yet certain what her own involvement will look like moving forward, but she credits School Board School for equipping her to self-determine how she wants to make her impact.


Whether you engage through direct service, grassroots activism, or public policy, each form of involvement is integral to the whole, she adds. “We need each of these pieces.”

 

Getting oriented to governance and policy

In 2016, Heather Couch graduated from Xavier to begin her work as a school counselor in the Greater Cincinnati area. Her passion for “meeting the needs of the whole child” has led her to wear many hats, from serving on committees to writing a book for first-year school counselors.


Like many other cohort members, she currently serves on the Local School Decision-Making Committee (LSDMC) for two neighborhood schools. Up until now, her involvement in education has been primarily on-the-ground and administrative. She says the School Board School helped clarify the role of governing and how it differs from administration.


Once she grasped how the CPS governing body works, she wasted no time applying the lesson. She studied the Board agenda, saw what was coming up for review, built a case for updating school counselor evaluations, presented it before the appropriate Board committee, and saw her resolution go through.


She says the School Board School helped confirm her interest in governance and prepared her to pursue her vision through policy and public office.

 

Championing collaboration; mobilizing everyone

Tim’m West’s passion for advancing inclusive, caring, and safe environments has been a constant throughout his ever-evolving career as an educator, youth advocate, and hip hop artist.


Originally from Cincinnati, West has lived everywhere from the Deep South to the West Coast before returning to the Queen City in 2017 and settling in Northside.


He has thrown himself into education on a neighborhood scale while also continuing to direct Teach For America’s LGBTQ Community Initiative, which pulls him to every corner of the country. Having worked in education and school reform in a wide variety of school districts, he's seen his fair share of innovation, but notes that collaboration can be harder to come by.


The School Board School has been a breath of fresh air, highlighting the importance of coalition-building, and facilitating interactions with current Board members where, he says, you get to learn what motivates and inspires them and observe how people work together.


It is encouraging, West notes, how many people can rally around a shared vision for schools to be better for everybody. This vision can mobilize anyone within a given community.


West firmly believes in making “an investment in your community school even if you’re not a parent.” Each school relies on a variety of stakeholders, contributors, and community partners.

 

School Board School moving forward

Other school districts are already expressing an eagerness to adopt the School Board School model, but Hoffman says it could use at least one more year of refining and growth in a small, focused environment. She hopes that within a couple years, the program will be ready to expand beyond CPS.


For now, the focus is on the upcoming Impact Fair, where Hoffman looks forward to seeing School Board School and the community at large explore the various ways to get involved, whether it’s through volunteering, coaching, tutoring, joining a board, or running for office.


It’s for anyone who asks: “How can my skills and my time be used to improve outcomes for kids?”


The School Board School Impact Fair takes place on January 17th, from 6–7 p.m., at People’s Liberty. See event for registration and a list of organizations that will be attending.

Read more articles by Sarah Dupee.

Sarah Dupee is a freelance writer, teacher, translator, and musician with a background in French and Francophone Studies.
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