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The first rule of book club: Engage your community

How many book clubs have you joined in your lifetime? One? Three? Ten?

Up until now, my experience with these get-togethers has been limited to a dozen people sitting in a friend’s living room, bandying about half-baked metaphors in a sad attempt to discern meaning from the latest Franzen novel.

I thought I knew everything I needed to know about book clubs. Then, late last week, I read an article out of Fayette, Ky., about the superintendent there. Emmanuel (Manny) Caulk recently founded a book club to engage students in a conversation about school reform.

As part of the project, high school students in six different classes across two schools were assigned The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, Amanda Ripley’s chronicle of three students in top-performing American high schools.

After students read the book, Caulk met with them to talk about what they learned and to ask for suggestions about how to improve the student experience in Fayette.

Some suggestions were practical—implement a peer-tutoring program, for instance. Students also suggested ways to innovate the U.S. education system, and suggested what roles they might play in that process.

“My students felt empowered by the experience,” high school teacher Wendy Turner told the Lexington Herald-Leader. “To have the superintendent come in and sit with them and listen to them… giving students voice creates a sense of confidence in them.”

An uphill battle
Giving Fayette County students a stronger voice in their educations is something Caulk has been working toward since he took over as superintendent last year. With nearly 22,000 students in the district living in poverty and the Kentucky Department of Education on the verge of taking over several low-performing schools, Caulk knew he had to make improvements—and fast.

He also knew that a true turnaround requires input and buy-in from the entire school community, students included.

In a message to parents, Caulk wrote this: “As we work together to help every student fulfill his or her unlimited potential, I believe it is critical for our community to talk openly about ways to improve our education system.”

Beyond the books
The student book club is just one of several ways that Caulk and his administration have set out to engage the community about the need for change.

When he took office, Caulk held a series of listening sessions with parents and other community members to understand the challenges they face. He also collected data through community surveys and promoted continued use of a new online tool to listen and respond to student, parent, teacher, and community feedback.

The district has plenty of work still to do, but almost everyone seems to agree: empowering students and families to engage in conversations about the future of their schools is a step in the right direction.

What do you do to invite different voices to the table? In what ways is your community invested in the success of your district? Tell us in the comments.