By Forest Crigler, Lauren Amos, and Steven Malick, Region 2 Comprehensive Center
In a series of posts, we explore how the U.S. Department of Education’s Region 2 Comprehensive Center (R2CC) aimed to create the five conditions of collective impact in partnership with state education agencies (SEAs) and their stakeholders in Connecticut, New York, and Rhode Island. Our first post focuses on how the R2CC helped facilitate the first condition of collective impact, Common Agenda, while working with the New York State Department of Education (NYSED) on delivering school reopening guidance for the 2020–2021 school year.
SEAs routinely face challenges such as competing priorities, siloed decision-making, and staff turnover. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these challenges and presented new challenges as SEAs navigated safely reopening P–12 schools and institutions of higher education (IHEs) for the 2020–2021 school year. In New York, the size of the state and the diverse needs of its communities and geographic regions amplified these challenges. In May 2020, NYSED requested assistance from the R2CC to address the safe reopening of schools. This post examines how the R2CC used the sustainable conditions of collective impact as the basis for this work and illustrates the importance of forming a Common Agenda with stakeholders, a principle that focuses on co-constructing a common understanding of a problem and the solutions and a plan to overcome that problem.
To enable a consistent yet context-specific approach to reopening schools statewide, the New York State Board of Regents requested that NYSED develop formal guidance that reflects diverse stakeholder perspectives. With limited experience coordinating large-scale virtual stakeholder engagement meetings, NYSED’s Offices of P-12 Education and Higher Education requested support from the R2CC to use a virtual platform to solicit diverse stakeholder perspectives to inform the development of a reopening vision and guidance. Four key outcomes motivated efforts by the R2CC and its partner, the Regional Education Laboratory Northeast & Islands (REL-NEI), to help facilitate meetings and collect feedback:
- A shared vision for safely reopening schools
- A common appreciation for the key school closure and reopening challenges differentially affecting stakeholders
- A common understanding of the trade-offs associated with different reopening strategies
- Formal guidance for educators and administrators in schools and IHEs for safely reopening
The R2CC supported all aspects of meeting design and delivery for a series of virtual regional task force meetings to enable stakeholders to collaboratively discuss a vision for reopening. Using an approach that emphasized collaboration and relationship building among SEA staff and other stakeholders, the R2CC helped develop meeting materials, trained staff to facilitate discussions during breakout sessions, and managed all technical aspects of using the Zoom platform during the meetings.
NYSED held six task force meetings in June and July 2020 that included more than 1,600 stakeholders. The scale of this engagement was large, as shown below, and included representatives from local education agencies (LEAs); nonprofit organizations, such as the Council on Children and Families; regional education agencies (the Boards of Cooperative Educational Services of New York State); and IHEs, such as the City University of New York. The R2CC also connected experts from its network of technical assistance partners, such as the Center to Improve Social and Emotional Learning and School Safety, whose Executive Director provided opening remarks about student and adult wellbeing.
Each task force meeting provided space for regional representatives to share their perspectives and propose solutions to challenges, while fostering a collective approach toward developing reopening guidance. In collaboration with the R2CC, the REL-NEI documented stakeholder feedback and summarized it in a high-level report to inform the reopening guidance. When NYSED subsequently released the final guidance document in July 2020, it cited the “invaluable” input of task force participants.
The task force meetings modeled a replicable process for creating a Common Agenda that engages stakeholders remotely, transparently, and within a tight time frame. The R2CC’s facilitation of the effort built NYSED’s capacity to:
- Facilitate cross-office and cross-department coordination and communication within NYSED. The regional meetings engaged several departments within NYSED’s Offices of P-12 Education and Higher Education. Staff from multiple offices (such as the Offices of Curriculum & Instruction, Early Learning, and Special Education) served as meeting facilitators and note-takers, which encouraged teamwork and allowed for easier information sharing. The expansive collaboration allowed for multiple offices to convene simultaneously and leveraged the department’s utilization of shared resources.
- Engage a widely representative group of stakeholders to inform policy decisions in a timely manner. The regional task force meetings included multiple departments within NYSED, leaders from the Boards of Cooperative Educational Services, staff from districts in each of the 62 New York counties, representatives from 10 nonprofit entities, the City University of New York, the New York State Department of Health, and staff from a federally funded technical assistance center. Through engaging with an expansive group of stakeholders, NYSED was able to gather statewide input to inform policy as well as strengthening existing partnerships and developing new connections it can apply to other initiatives.
- Enhance the responsiveness of NYSED guidance by including a broader set of stakeholder voices. By working together to help create a comprehensive guidance document, the R2CC facilitated communication and furthered relationship building between NYSED and various stakeholder groups. NYSED viewed this effort as a model that could be replicated elsewhere to collect timely feedback (such as from private schools) to address statewide challenges through building a collaborative solution.