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Study Circles
Help Gather Input,
Solve Problems

Too often parents and community members are reluctant to attend school meetings or forums because they feel their voices will not be heard. But a process called study circles draws more and different people into the discussion and decision-making process. Included: Tips for starting a study circle program.

Every school and community has them -- the people who attend all the PTA or school board meetings or community forums. While their input often is valuable, most administrators realize these active citizens represent only a few of the many voices and views in their communities. But traditional approaches to involve a greater variety of people in school affairs -- sending notices home, making phone calls -- are not always effective.

Some district and schools have been able to diversify and expand their community input with a very grass-roots form of democracy called study circles. During the study-circle process, people meet in small groups with a facilitator to discuss an issue, formulate an action plan, and then present their ideas to a decision-making body.

The idea is to tie public engagement to other public processes to enact change, said Amy Malik, director of communication for Everyday-Democracy: Ideas & Tools for Community Change (formerly the Study Circles Resource Center).


Since the resource center was founded in 1989 by the Paul J. Aicher Foundation, a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, the center has helped more than 550 communities run study circles.

Its an effort to ensure diverse perspectives are represented in the public decision-making process, Malik said. Its an inexpensive way to get diverse views involved. This helps people re-think the issue and decide on the best approach.

Schools or districts have used study circles to address issues such as the achievement gap, building projects, racism, and bullying, according to Malik.

Jim Noucas, co-chairman of the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, community group Portsmouth Listens, said the community has employed study circles for school issues including redistricting, bullying, and whether to renovate the middle school or build a new one. One school decided to form a study circle with sixth graders to discuss what a safe and respectful school should look like.

Among the advantages of the study circle system is that it involves more and different people in school and community affairs and fosters new relationships, Noucas said.

Its getting people together on a level playing field. At a traditional public hearing, there is no interaction. The school board does not respond to speakers. When you get people together in small groups, they all can contribute and create a marketplace of ideas.

Its getting people together on a level playing field, Noucas told Education World. At a traditional public hearing, there is no interaction. The school board does not respond to speakers. When you get people together in small groups, they all can contribute and create a marketplace of ideas.

John Landesman, director of the Division of Family and Community Partnerships for Montgomery (Maryland) County Public Schools (MCPS), agreed. Part of Landesmans job includes overseeing a district-wide study circles program. Study circles are a better reflection of the community, Landesman told Education World. We often get people who havent participated in anything before.

Principals, staff members, and parents cite making connections among people as one of the most important benefits of study circles. Most schools [in the district] have no racial or ethnic majority, said Landesman, adding that the district has about 200 schools. Its harder to build relationships. This is an important step in helping to build relationships. The staff also has developed greater insight into how race and ethnicity affect schools.

In one school, parents involved in school activities were paired with new parents before school started, to answer questions from new families and invite them to attend the schools open house. They had so many more parents than normal attend the open house and the people were more racially and ethnically diverse, Landesman noted.


In another example of the power of study circles, the Portsmouth board of education this year was deciding whether to build a new middle school in a new location or renovate the existing 75-year-old building, which is located downtown, said Noucas. Strong feelings surfaced in the community on both sides of the issue, so study circles were formed that included some members of the city council.

The school board had been leaning toward building a new school, but after the study circles gave their reports supporting renovating the existing school, the board changed its mind within 24 hours, Noucas said.

Study circles also have inspired changes in MCPS, where study circles meet continuously. Most of the study circles are focusing on how race and ethnicity affect student achievement and parent involvement, according to Landesman. Initially, the charge was to look at the achievement gap, he said. Then we realized there already were a lot of initiatives to look at the achievement gap.

Middle-school students in a study circle brought up a discipline issue they felt was unfair to African-American students, said Landesman. Based on the input from the study circles, the staff changed the policy.

Participants in other study circles talked about why some parents didnt feel comfortable coming to school. Later, we tried to match people from different backgrounds, Landesman said.

That study-circle process helped to rejuvenate the PTA at one school. A PTA existed, but no one showed up for meetings except for the PTA president and the principal, he said. There were six days between the last study circle and the last PTA meeting of the year. Sixty-five people showed up to that last PTA meeting. They were able to figure out why a lot of parents didnt come, Landesman noted. They contacted people within the group.


Redistricting also became a hot topic in Portsmouth, according to Noucas. The districts three elementary schools did not all have the same facilities and equipment. One school is more modern while in another students were attending class in converted closets, he said. So study circles were formed at all three schools to allow more people to get involved in the discussion.

Study circles are a better reflection of the community. We often get people who havent participated in anything before.

We ended up bringing people together out of it, Noucas said. We were able to build a plan because people felt they were involved in the process.

As part of the study circle experience, members of the circles toured all three elementary schools, were introduced to the principals, and were able to meet residents from other areas of town.

They realized these parents [from other parts of town] were the same as they are, said Noucas of the participants. They realized, They care about their kids as much as we do. We realized if we can identify common ground, we can work together to resolve our differences.

Community members decided after the study circles that they needed a bond to renovate one of the schools.

Currently MCPS has about ten active study circles meeting at different schools. Each study circle has about 15 people and meets for two hours each week for six weeks.

Landesman developed an outreach program, and he and his staff members help schools recruit people for study circles. I tell them [principals] to give out flyers -- I ask principals for names of 40-to-60 parents who normally wouldnt come to an event. The principal sends out letters, than we follow-up with phone calls.

His department also recruited and trained facilitators. We probably trained about 100 facilitators who go through a minimum of 14 hours of training. Two facilitators are assigned to each study circle.

They are not there to act as teachers -- they are there to help ensure people are comfortable and that the conversation is productive and stays on topic, Landesman told Education World. They keep the conversation deep enough and make sure it doesnt get out of hand.

Many of the groups are bilingual -- most Spanish and English -- and there is one that is English and Vietnamese, he said. A few study circles are just for Spanish-speakers, and those focus on increasing the involvement of Latino parents in the schools.

Most of the action steps are taken at the school level, he added.

At the same time, Landesman and his staff look at trends from the study circles reports, and bring those ideas to school board members and department heads so they can use the information in decision-making.

Tips for Successful Study Circles

The idea for study circles, small group discussions aided by a facilitator, originated in Sweden, and has been used in the U.S. since the Chautauqua movement of the late 19th century, said Amy Malik, director of communication for the Study Circles Resource Center. A study circle has multiple benefits for users and the community, she said.

It helps people weigh-in on priorities. It also helps them take responsibility for their priorities, according to Malik. This also helps people identify how government works.

Malik provided some tips for successful study circles:

  • Frame the issue so you know youll draw a broad range of people.

  • Include people in study circles who reflect the diversity of the community, as well as those who can affect change. To be broad enough to promote change, a study circle has to be broad enough to include decision-makers.

  • Decide on the goals and who needs to achieve them. You might need someone from the school district and school board as well, she said. Decide who needs to be involved.

  • Explore the problem -- for example, if the issue is student achievement, present data about the issue to the group.

  • Look at different approaches to the problem -- find out how other communities are dealing with this same issue.

  • Decide what is important to work on and narrow the groups focus to three priorities.

  • Get everyone together so you can choose what to do.

  • Many of the schools use study circles to help shape their school improvement plans. These study circles usually include staff members and some parents, Landesman said. High school study circles include students, parents, teachers, and administrators; at the middle-school level, it is up the administration to decide whether or not they want students to participate.

    For many of the study-circle participants, it is the first time they have taken part in any school activity. They really feel comfortable and feel that people are interested in what they have to say, Landesman said.


    Reaping the benefits of study circles, though, requires a lot of preparation. Getting the process up and running can take as long as six months, said Malik.

    While the discussions are important, the goal of the groups work is to make recommendations. Sometimes people fixate on the dialogue part, but they have to look to make change, she said.

    To begin, community members form a working group or steering committee of people from between five and 15 community organizations. If the study circles are going to discuss an education issue, the steering committee might include people from different areas of the education system (such as teaching, administration, the board of education, and building employees) as well as other sectors of the community -- such as municipal government, community organizations, and business.

    Another 100 or so community groups can be represented in a larger working group called the organizing coalition. The steering committee needs to decide on the issue that needs to be addressed, find resources to review it, and seek out a variety of people to participate.

    Often study circles come into play during or after a controversial issue, Malik noted, and tensions in a community could be running high.

    You need to frame the issue so you know youll draw a broad range of people, she said. You also need to find people who are speaking to each other.

    The steering committee then might recruit people for a trial study circle and, after that, start inviting people to join other circles.

    In the first meeting of a study circle, people share information about themselves and the nature of their approach to issues, so people feel comfortable and build trust. At the very least, people develop new relationships from within the group, Malik said. They do personal sharing about the issue and get to know each other.


    Convincing staff members to try study circles also can take some work. MCPS adopted the program after the superintendent offered some people training in the process. The superintendent saw some people at the study-circle training that hed never seen before and decided this was an important activity to try, said Landesman.

    When we started, we really had to knock on doors to get principals to do this, he added.

    Practitioners, though, think the effort is worth it. The study circles worked so well for school issues in Portsmouth that they are being used to get the communitys input on the citys master plan.

    When you get the interaction, you get a marketplace of ideas and the cream rises to the top, Noucas said.


    Leaders First Must Change Themselves
    This series of articles, "Leeading Through Learning," was written by Dennis Sparks, emeritus executive director of the National Staff Development Council (NSDC).

    Article by Ellen Delisio
    Education World®
    Copyright © 2009 Education World

    Originally published 11/26/2007
    Last updated 12/01/2009