Your District Needs an Advisory Panel (Here's Why) Your District Needs an Advisory Panel (Here's Why)

Your District Needs an Advisory Panel (Here's Why)

Erin Werra Erin Werra Edtech Thought Leader
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Advice: we love to give it, but don’t always love to hear it.

That is, unless you’re a K12 school district administrator. Then you might have the opposite problem: you’re looking for input from your audience, but no one is speaking up. Or you hear advice after the fact, leading to that could’ve, should’ve, would’ve feeling. If you’re wondering how to get proactive about getting community feedback, try setting up an advisory panel.

What is an advisory panel?

School districts have a few different branches of leadership, including the administrator team and the school board. An advisory panel is a little different in that stakeholders can come from different facets of the district—administrators, teachers, staff, parents, even students can participate.


What kinds of advisory panels exist?

While advisory panels can be either long-term or temporary, there are a few things that are off-limits. Policy decisions are left up to elected school boards. Administrators make leadership decisions based on those policies. An advisory panel may be a good fit for other decisions influenced by community stakeholders.

Topics may be as broad or specific as you’d like. For example, superintendent Dr. Robert Nolting of Consolidated High School District 230 in Illinois describes three ongoing advisory panels within the district: one for educational and curriculum input, one for student services, and one for building and finance decisions. These ongoing panels are in addition to temporary ones for specific goals. In CHSD 230’s case, panels include community members, board members, teacher representatives, and administrative representatives. 


Why set up an advisory panel?

“As we’re making decisions, we want to make sure we get a balanced perspective of how that impacts people,” explained Dr. Nolting. “We’ve definitely tailored our plans based on these committees. Often they validate the direction we’re going, but they also allow us to modify plans.”

Advisory panels ensure decisions are made that closely fit the needs of stakeholders in all areas of the district, and they provide an opportunity to gather fresh opinions from a variety of people. They offer a way to engage with your community and show parents their voices are being heard. 

Recruitment can be tricky, particularly coming out of a long period of isolation. It may depend on the panel’s goals and the willingness of families to step up. Diversity and inclusion are important—demographics of the panel should closely mirror those of the community, including different ages, races, genders, and family structures. 

“We need parents to attend,” Dr. Nolting emphasized. “The discussion is very different. Without parent involvement, we’re not getting the input we need.”

Facilitators or chairs of the panel are responsible for setting the expectations for panelists, keeping the panel focused on its goals and the mission of the district at large. They must report the findings to the board and other leaders. 


Potential pitfalls of an advisory panel

Dr. Nolting described one of the challenges his district has navigated: bogging down communication with industry jargon and vernacular that educators are naturally familiar with, but can be a communication struggle for parents and community members who aren’t typically immersed in education language.

“It’s not that people don’t understand, but they do get lost in it,” Dr. Nolting explained. Instead, make it clear to the audience what you’re talking about in plain terms—and what their role is in the conversation. Without clarifying to the panel you’re actively looking for advice, the panel can steer into accepting information instead of offering critique and looking for ways to improve.

“Make it obvious for people to know what to give input on,” suggested Dr. Nolting. Clear onboarding allows panelists to feel free to speak. 

Another hint is to offer a clear, but unburdened agenda. It’s important to list what participants can expect, but an overloaded agenda may stifle discussion. Panelists feel time is at a premium, and they may not be as forthcoming as they try to respect everyone’s precious time.


What do panelists take away?

In short, that intangible feeling they’re contributing to their greater community. Dr. Nolting also pointed out the value for the parents of high school students: opportunities to be involved and engage often taper off after students graduate elementary school, so advisory panel opportunities can be great for parents of older kids.

Dr. Nolting summed up the value of advisory panels for K12 school districts. “The lesson learned is, if you don’t have stakeholder engagement opportunities, many times you’re going to run into problems down the road or culture issues in the community, including a disconnect with parents.”

Great advice and parent engagement: advisory panels are a win/win for K12 school districts.


Follow-up resource: How to be a better listener

Sharpen your skills in Listening Is a Superpower.


Erin Werra Erin Werra Edtech Thought Leader
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