The Growing Ring of Study Circles

Small, informal groups gather to discuss social issues from education to race.

IN her office at the Maine Council of Churches, associate director Sally Campbell has stuck 55 red tacks on a map of the state, from Portland all the way up to the far northern town of Presque Isle.

The tacks represent study circles - small discussion groups that meet to talk about a social or political issue in a democratic way. In Maine, 55 study circles of between seven and 15 people are gathering each week for four weeks Jan. 24 to Feb. 17 in meeting houses, schools, and libraries. They're exploring a hot-button issue: education reform.

The study circles are the result of a collaboration between the Maine Council of Churches and a communications company that includes several area newspapers and a television station. The church organization originated the idea as a way to foster dialogue on a complex, divisive topic. The print media saw it as an opportunity to get readers more engaged in the community and thus potentially increase their readership.

``We thought by bringing people together to talk about education reform, and simultaneously providing them with lots of good in-depth reporting, that we could create some momentum for reform and get people involved at a grass-roots level to finally make a difference,'' says Lou Ureneck, editor of the Portland Press Herald and the city's Sunday paper, the Maine Sunday Telegram.

Across the United States, study circles are gaining momentum, says Martha McCoy, program director of the Study Circle Resources Center (SCRC) in Pomfret, Conn., one of several US organizations that develop and organize study circles.

SCRC has seen interest increase as a result of study circles it helped coordinate in Lima, Ohio. Lima, a city of 46,000, has a minority population of 25 percent. Though the city was not experiencing heightened racial tension, the mayor's office, Ohio State University, and the city's Clergy Task Force last year decided to organize study circles on race relations. Several hundred people participated, and the city is now initiating a second round of discussion groups.

``In Lima, once groups started getting together, people just wanted to keep meeting and meeting,'' Ms. McCoy says. ``They felt they had developed a sense of community they hadn't had before.''

About 10 cities around the country have called Lima to inquire about the program. Several cities, including New Orleans; Washington, D.C.; Nashville, Tenn.; and Grand Rapids, Mich., have enlisted the SCRC's help to put together similar round tables.

Study circles usually meet for two hours each week for several weeks. They are directed by leaders whose role is to aid a lively but focused discussion. Although the issue is often broad, such as race relations or crime and punishment, it is broken up into subtopics.

Under the umbrella of education reform, for example, Maine residents are considering the role of the state's schools to prepare students for employment, citizenship, lifelong learning, and traditional basics.

Each Sunday, the Maine Sunday Telegram publishes material supporting the topic of the study circle for that week. After the round tables end Feb. 17, it will print a wrap-up piece on how people reacted to the project. News channel 13, a CBS affiliate, will air a special program featuring state education officials. Maine Public Radio is also following the project.

``The minimum result of study circles should be a change of some kind even if only a change in attitude,'' Ms. Campbell says, explaining that often people have a hard time understanding that study circles don't have an agenda. ``Many people demand to know what specifically this is going to accomplish.... It's a way for people to share perspectives and make that preliminary to doing something.''

A growing number of newspapers, like those in Maine, are sponsoring study circles as a way to help readers connect to the paper and to their communities, McCoy says. Two years ago, the Minneapolis Star Tribune invited its readers to participate in study circles on different topics each month. So far, about 4,000 people have responded. Feedback from the conversations is printed in a monthly feature called ``Minnesota's talking.'' Study circles are not new. The earliest models were perhaps town meetings, when colonists debated and resolved public issues. In the 1870s, the Chautauqua Circle in New York sponsored ``home study circles,'' which attracted 700,000 participants by 1915.

In the early 1900s, Sweden used study circles to educate its citizens. The tradition has continued; today millions of Swedes each year take part in study circles. The late Prime Minister Olof Palme even described the country as a study-circle democracy.

Campbell, whose organization has initiated study circles on different topics here since the Gulf war, says: ``We're committed to [study circles] because ... this is the kind of antidote that will counteract some of the pluralistic tendencies in society that make people break into camps. Here everybody comes to the table as an equal citizen.''

The Maine education-reform study circles have drawn teachers, mothers, professionals, retired individuals, unemployed people, and others. ``If you think that people all over the state are talking about this, that's exciting. Something good has to come out of it,'' says Ruth Curley, a mother participating in one of the Portland meetings.

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