We connected with Dr. Lance Gibbon to learn about his highly successful community partnership and engagement strategies in this three-part interview series. Dr. Gibbon is a thought leader in this area with a strong 30-year track record of success in multiple school districts. Dr. Gibbon’s efforts have resulted in increased community engagement, support and pride in local schools, and successful passage of school district ballot measures. In this segment, we wanted to get Dr. Gibbon’s insights on measuring success and adapting to changing needs through community engagement.
What advice would you offer districts hosting community engagement events and want to be sure that they are actually relevant and engaging to the community?
The first thing I would say is to attend as many other community events as you can. Being there firsthand is a great way to gauge what type of interaction the community appreciates. Fundraisers for other groups serving children and families are a good place to begin. What do people seem to like about the event? What complaints do they have? Also, what topics are people talking about? You’ll learn a lot by interacting with community members at those events and watching how things go.
The second piece is to really be involved with other community organizations that serve or work with families. That means serving on boards, either as a leader or having individuals in your organization serve on local boards, so you’re regularly interacting and connecting with people and leaders in the community. The conversations you have can really inform the design of the community engagement plan for your district.
Third, one of the most important pieces overall is just listening. That can happen in a number of different settings. That might be in the groups I just mentioned, but it's also at school events, following social media groups, or even just going to the store. What are people talking about? What’s the latest buzz? This can help you gauge community needs and uncover questions people have about the schools. The more you know what’s going on the better you make sure your events and activities are relevant and really meeting the community’s needs.
It seems like it would be important to gauge what’s working and what’s not. How do you measure the success of your community engagement efforts?
Well, there’s a variety of ways. One, of course, is just direct feedback on the events. I always like to conclude the events with some survey or feedback tool. Tell us how we’re doing and what you appreciated. That can either happen at the event or it might be something where you email a follow-up survey. But that direct feedback is a great place to begin.
Next, I think it’s important to monitor attendance and participation. Are you seeing people coming out for these events and activities or not? Is there a segment of your population you were hoping to reach? Did they come? If it’s a repeat event, it helps to track participation over time. Certainly, if you’ve started something and attendance starts to wane, that might tell you that it’s time for a change.
Social media is another good gauge. Look at the comments and views and reactions to photos or videos or information that you put out about the different things that are going on. How are people responding to your community engagement efforts? Posting lots of photos or videos also increases interaction after the event and can generate more interest for whatever you’re hosting next.
I think word-on-the-street is also a really valuable indicator. Just listening to what people are saying about the schools. If you hear a community member that normally doesn’t have any connection with the school say, “Boy, it looks like there are great things going on in our schools” or “I’m so proud of our kids,” and they’re able to share some details, you know those engagement efforts are working.
Another thing that we look at, of course, is community support for district initiatives and ballot measures. When you go to the community to ask for their support through bonds and levies, what kind of response are you getting? What are your passing rates over time? Is there some kind of organized opposition? What you’re voter turnout like? This is a huge topic on its own, but all of these are engagement indicators.
Ultimately, what really matters is, are all of these things coming together to benefit students? That’s the bottom line and I think that’s an important question to answer. That can show up in a lot of different ways. What services and what supports do we have in place because of these efforts that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise? What outcomes are we seeing for the students as a result of that? If the community is engaged, but it's not helping you serve kids, it’s time to rethink your approach.
Can you share a couple of examples of true community partnerships you helped build, and what made them successful?
You bet. Let me start by saying I have a broad definition of what constitutes a community partner. From my perspective, it’s any group or individual outside the district that supports our work with kids. Coming from a community that served a Naval air station, the Navy was a vital partner. That showed up in a lot of different ways. One was our volunteer or Navy partners program. Each squadron basically adopted a school and had a liaison that met with the principal each month to figure out how they could provide volunteer support. The Navy also offered tours, hosted events, and participated in demonstrations at school activities - even occasionally landing their search and rescue helicopter at a school. The kids loved that!
It was a really powerful relationship with the Navy and it was definitely a win-win. It required support from the base commanding officer since they would release some of their sailors to help provide volunteer support or need to approve the use of their equipment. Some of the sailors were parents or already had connections with the schools and this was a great way for them to be involved.
I’ve also done work in building partnerships with local churches. Many of them share the same goal of serving kids and families and we can do great things working together. Some churches would “adopt” a school. One in particular attended monthly partnership meetings with the principal, their PTSA president, and Navy liaison. As a team, they would identify together what the needs were in that school, and then figure out who was best positioned or how they might work together to meet that particular need.
At this one school, some of the students couldn’t afford to get new shoes. The church sponsored a shoe drive and was able to provide brand-new shoes for the students in all different sizes so that they had them in the office. If a student needed new shoes, they could just provide them right on the spot. That was so impactful and just one of many examples of what they were able to accomplish as a team of community groups coming together to serve as one school.
Just because a community engagement strategy worked in the past, doesn't mean it will continue working. How do you adapt your community engagement strategies to meet the changing needs of the community over time?
That’s really important because some of those strategies are not going to continue to work. There are a few things that are important to think about. As I mentioned earlier, you’ve got to keep asking for and monitoring feedback. If you see a drop in participation or some lack of involvement, ask “why” and make sure that you understand what’s happening and what you can do differently to continue to engage that part of the community.
You also have to be careful to not stop things that people really appreciate. Some events become traditions and people keep coming back. We used to invite individuals that have retired from the school district for a special breakfast prepared by culinary arts students, student entertainment, and updates on what’s happening in the district. We always made sure to share lots of pictures. That was a go-to annual event for retirees and brought in a crowd year after year.
Sometimes a drop in interest for an event was because we were doing a good job of reaching an audience in other ways. They may be less interested in attending an event to learn more because they’re already getting their needs met through some other engagement opportunity or tool. Sometimes people think it's just going to be a repeat of something they’ve already seen. In that case, rebranding or mixing up the format can help.
I know since the pandemic, virtual events have become much more popular and convenient. There are so many great new tools like Be.Live that can help you easily host professional and interactive events. Zoom, Google or Teams work great, too. I think many families prefer virtual opportunities because of their work schedules or transportation issues or just because they prefer to check it out from the comfort of their own home. No matter what, multiple options and multiple formats will help you reach your broadest audience and connect them with what’s happening in your schools.
About Dr. Lance Gibbon
Dr. Lance Gibbon has been serving a diverse range of students, staff, and families for three decades in the Puget Sound area. Cultivating connections and enhancing team building through creative strategies and community partnerships, Dr. Gibbon exemplifies servant leadership. He fosters positive, inclusive learning environments for students, educators, and staff members alike.
Lance Gibbon supports many organizations, including Rotary Club, Kiwanis Club, and Big Brothers Big Sisters. He has been honored with awards from Empower Youth Network, the Washington School Public Relations Association, Best of Whidbey, and EarthGen (formerly Washington Green Schools).