Carey Harris had a question on her mind. As executive director of A+ Schools, an advocacy organization working to improve Pittsburgh’s public schools, she and her organization were asking: How can we increase our impact?

A concerned foundation community founded A+ Schools a decade earlier when a mayoral commission had decried the quality of education in the city’s public schools, citing alarmingly low math and reading achievement scores, along with a lack of support for poor-performing students.  Carey worked with A+ Schools from the beginning, initially serving as co-director until she became the executive director in 2007.

A Watchdog for Public Education

Given these conditions, A+ Schools set out to play a watchdog role—to monitor the district’s progress and commit the public to high expectations for the public school system—expecting that greater transparency would lead to increased accountability and improvements. Volunteer observers trained by A+ Schools regularly interviewed school staff and collected data on school conditions. Others attended school board meetings as observers to watch for and encourage strong school board governance. A+ Schools then highlighted these opportunities for improvement for the press and released a report annually on the state of education in Pittsburgh.

But after nearly a decade, the rate of improvement in many of Pittsburgh’s most vulnerable schools remained painfully slow. Teacher turnover was high, and support and professional development for teachers was very weak. As in many US cities, these problems were worse in Pittsburgh’s low-income neighborhoods with high concentrations of African American students, where schools had fewer class offerings, inadequate supplies, greater teacher turnover, higher counselor caseloads, more student needs, and lower expectations. And in these neighborhoods, only about half of African Americans who entered high school ended up graduating; even fewer were ready for the first year of college or a career.

Grassroots Organization

Alarmed by the continuing problems, A+ Schools was looking for new approaches. One promising opportunity came when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which made a significant investment in Pittsburgh Public Schools’ teacher effectiveness work, provided A+ Schools with a substantial grant for grassroots organization. With this support, A+ Schools hired organizers who began to work in the city’s lowest-income communities, meeting with people one-on-one and in groups and going door to door.

Around that time, our firm, Wellspring Consulting, began working with A+ Schools to develop a strategic plan, with the goal of determining how to induce greater change in the city’s schools and use grassroots organizing to increase its impact.

As a key part of this work, we spoke with a number of advocacy and organizing groups around the country, and heard something important: Effective grassroots organizing groups do not see themselves as separate from the community they are organizing. The elevation of the community’s voice is their sole purpose.

But A+ Schools had neither arisen from nor focused on a specific community in this way. In the years since its founding, it had assembled an impressive board of directors, comprised of educational experts, city officials, faith leaders, nonprofit executives, and funders. In addition, the organization’s board and staff had broad racial, ethnic, and social diversity; it represented many different communities and constituents across Pittsburgh.

But A+ Schools faced challenges when considering how to blend its existing watchdog role with the role of grassroots organizer in Pittsburgh’s poorest neighborhoods, where the children and families were predominantly African American. While it focused on the needs of people in these neighborhoods, it was not “of” those neighborhoods. It believed that it could be more effective by not only elevating the voices of low-income neighborhood residents, but also by representing the views of other constituents who cared about the quality and equity of education in Pittsburgh’s schools.

A Community Engagement Model

It turned out that a number of other organizations were tackling similar scenarios using a community engagement model. With this model, large numbers of people across multiple communities all provide ideas on how to address a particular issue, then develop the ideas into recommendations that have a broad base of support across the entire community.

The Mobile Area Education Fund (MAEF) in Mobile, Ala., is a great example. In response to disturbingly low graduation rates in its community, MAEF established a goal of 80 percent graduation by 2020. Neighborhood, church, business, and nonprofit leaders agreed to host more than 100 meetings, during which they collected suggestions from thousands of citizens on how to achieve this goal.

Different task forces developed plans and enacted changes, each addressing a different theme that emerged during the meetings. MAEF tracked and reported these changes, and notably, over a five-year period, the number of schools achieving Adequate Yearly Progress (or AYA, a measure of educational effectiveness) grew from 27 to 85 of 90 district schools.

The community engagement model is particularly effective in situations where: 1) an organization seeks to advocate for the needs of a group but is not wholly “of” that group; b) the changes sought require engagement and buy-in from many different community constituencies; and 3) there are existing leaders and organizations in place that can help mobilize efforts within different constituencies. All of these conditions existed in Pittsburgh.

In reflecting on these findings, A+ Schools decided to adopt this model as a complement to its watchdog role. It established a focusing theme called “great teaching,” and now holds meetings with many different constituent groups to generate issues for collective action. It helps members of different communities organize to work on teaching and learning environment issues in local schools, and will track results on improvement in school climate and practices, student outcomes, and the distribution of “highly effective” teachers.

As a part of developing greater clarity about its approach, A+ Schools also decided to take stronger stands on issues. Before, when performing a watchdog role, it saw its primary task as reporting on the facts to encourage others to take a stand and induce change. But with the engagement and backing from a host of constituencies, it had a new ability to speak out on issues such as racial equity and push for changes that would improve educational quality for students in Pittsburgh’s low-income neighborhoods.

This diagram provides a comparison between the three different models for advocacy discussed in this article.

Harris said, “Through this community engagement, our partners and the parent groups feel closer to us and our work. We’ve received additional funding to pay for new staff positions, and we’ve been able to move more of our funding to multi-year commitments. Clarifying our purpose and strategy has made fundraising a lot easier.”

A+ Schools has used the community engagement model to present its objectives with greater clarity and purpose, build its base of support across the city, and become a stronger agent of change.