Thursday, March 20, 2008

Next stage of student assignment plan approaching

As we near the end of March and the start of April we approach the next stage in the timeline for the new Student Assignment Plan,

I noted the order of the next stage of activity.

April – June 2008
* Continue revisions as needed
* Review of revised proposal by internal stakeholders and ongoing community engagement
* Introduction of new student assignment plan recommendation at School Board meeting (May)
* Public engagement prior to Board action
* School Board action on recommended student assignment plan (June)


I see that the public engagement comes AFTER the introduction of the new student assignment plan recommendation at a School Board meeting in May. That would normally give the public just two weeks or so (the time between the introduction of an action item and the Board vote on the action item) to comment on the new plan. Moreover, the public "engagement" is on a written plan with a number of intricate and inter-related parts. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for a member of the public to make an effective comment on such a plan through the methods of communication available - email and public testimony at a Board meeting. These are both asynchronous monologue techniques and they are both intended only for brief comments. They do not represent authentic engagement.

Although each stage of the timeline makes reference to "ongoing community engagement", until there is some sort of plan before people, there is nothing to engage over, no grist for the mill. Note, for example, that there is no public change intended throughout the January - March stage of the timeline. What community engagement could be expected in the absence of anything to engage over?

It would be a good idea for the District to extend the time between the introduction of the plan to the Board (and the public) and the time for the Board vote. During that extended interval, the District could - and should - host public meetings on the proposal.

These meetings should be conducted like the drop-in meetings we saw in the early stages of the development of the plan. This style of meetings led to real engagement and conversation. The District should NOT conduct one of their notorious facilitated meetings - such as the one conducted at Sealth - which are clearly designed to suppress opposition to the recommended plan rather than gather ideas, concerns, and improvements from the community.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

So do you think the plan is to approve a new assignment plan, then get the technology to implement it?

maureen said...

I really dislike the timing. May-June are peak months for parents involved in their schools: We'll be dealing with camps, plays, auctions, graduations...and if they do sports, aaack! And then summer comes and it's hard to keep momentum and communication going. It would be very helpful to move the communication end up to April (maybe during WASL when absolutely nothing else is allowed to go on).

Melissa Westbrook said...

From attending the Work Session on the Assignment Plan, I came away hearing that Don Kennedy (COO who described the tech problem and why it shouldn't be implemented yet)said to the Board KEEP working on your plan while we get our ducks in a row.

However, I'm not understanding if the Board intends to stick with their stated schedule. I agree with waiting because if it's your kid's assignment gets messed up because of a overload/shutdown of the VAX, you'll be glad they did.

This additional time would afford the Board the luxury of reaching out - multiple ways and multiple times - to all parents and getting their input. It doesn't mean endless meetings but well-thought out, well-timed meetings could really make everyone feel like this was a through process.

I mentioned on Harim's blog that meetings need to be spread out - the district tends to have them over one week, night after night in different places, and call it done. It would be better to have one a week in different regions with a couple on a Saturday morning or afternoon.

There's no reason to rush this unless, of course, the Board feels the need to do it now and implement the high school plan by next spring. Their new tech hire should be able to guide this thinking.

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering to what extent "the District", which could mean any number of individuals, can really effectively conduct the kind of community engagement that Charlie's calling for. They don't have ready outlets for quick parent and community feedback, so they organize forums, which take a lot of work to schedule, publicize and program. In the weeks leading up to a major report, they're working on nailing down the details, not organizing discussions.

"The District" as a body seems to regard the school board as the only real outlet for vetting policy and planning ideas, perhaps because it is there, scheduled, advertised, etc. However, as Charlie points out, that means that "community engagement" outside of board meetings, continues to be defined by district personnel as sharing information, answering questions, "selling" plans or programs through the public relations department, all after the fact, all presented top down, fait accompli. And it is entirely frustrating!

While SPS planning and enrollment manager, Tracy Libros, has been a very available, open, listening presence at many public forums, including district-led, PTSA and CPPS-initiated events, ultimately her job is to craft the detailed plan. Maybe OURS is to engage the community.

CPPS has piloted study groups (on student assignment, the SE initiative, and on middle school education) as a way of recruiting parents and community members into conversations with the district prior to the fait accompli. District staff has been willing, eager even, to come to us when we bring parents and community members to the table.

It is much easier to get folks to react to the done deal than to contribute to what could be. However, I agree with Charlie that it is vitally important to keep doing just that. I think CPPS can be that community engagement catalyst, but we we need the manpower. Who will join me?

Stephanie Jones, CPPS

Charlie Mas said...

I think that the District, in the person of Tracy Libros, did an EXCEPTIONALLY GOOD JOB of conducting EXACTLY the right kind of community engagement on the new Student Assignment Plan in the early developing stages.

She provided all kinds of data, she responded thoughtfully to emails, and she hosted a number of open discussions that featured - gasp! - open discussion. As if that wasn't enough, she did it all with an easy, non-confrontational style which didn't belie any sense of a pre-conceived outcome. There wasn't a whiff of fait accompli anywhere in the room.

Did it work? I think so. You don't hear anyone fighting about it, do you? Instead, there is widespread buy-in to the adopted framework. This process yielded the Southeast Initiative (although not the disastrous accountability element).

The whole time she was doing this, I was completely delighted and amazed. All I could think was "See! Isn't this wonderful for everyone! And it wasn't hard at all."

I'm sure that everyone who participated praised it as a model for all future community engagement. It is a model which, sadly, has not been emulated.

Perhaps the District needs a Community Engagement department to handle these types of assignments and to provide expertise to schools and departments on their community engagement efforts.

I am discouraged by a recent trend by the staff to try to outsource community engagement to the Board. See for reference the number of Board Action Items in which the community engagement cited is Board meetings and Board hearings. The timeline on the student assignement plan puts the burden for the community engagement for the next stage - the most critical elements - on to the Board. It's not the Board's job, nor is the Board resourced to fulfill that role.

A number of other community engagement efforts have been oursourced to vendors (architectal firms in the case of Facilities projects) or to outside providers, such as Pyramid Communications. I'm not happy about that either as these trends either, as the outside vendors have no vested interest in good community engagement. I can't say that I would feel much better to see the work outsourced to an outside non-profit such as CPPS. It's nothing personal; it's simply a question of accountability.

Anonymous said...

Stephanie again.

Well, I see your point, Charlie, and I don't think that I would want CPPS to be an outsourcing arm of the district, either. We (CPPS) share your concerns with the use of vendors, communications consultants, etc. in the name of community engagement, when in fact what is going on is still "selling" completed plans to whoever will listen.

When I said that maybe community engagement is ours to do, I meant that ultimately, there is a role for active, interested parents and community members to bring friends, neighbors, and colleagues to the table to "roll up our sleeves," generate new ideas, and include district representatives in our loop, instead of waiting to be included in theirs. When we raise enough voices, we are heard. Right now, I am involved with CPPS BECAUSE it is an organization actively trying to catalyze that kind of parent involvement for advocacy, which is not to say that improved district-initiated community engagement isn't also important. We need to continue to work for our rightful place in SPS conversations from both sides.

Charlie Mas said...

Stephanie, now there's an intriguing idea. Instead of waiting for the district to invite us to a facilitated forum, we invite them to a conversation.

Would they accept? I think they would.

How many people would we need to make it worthwhile? Probably no more than a dozen as an absolute minimum, although it would be brilliant if we got hundreds. Yes, it would be difficult to have conversations with that many, but it is a problem I would love to have.

This could become a solution to any number of areas needing conversation. Need a conversation on the Southeast Initiative? Ask for one, promote it, and produce it.

It would be brilliant if CPPS could undertake something like that. These conversations could be entirely ad hoc on whatever hot button issue needs a conversation whenever an issue needs a conversation. Three times in April and then not again until twice in August. Or they could be scheduled for each month with a different topic announced two or three weeks in advance.

I'm really liking this idea. Whoever puts together something like that would be doing the district and the community a great service.

I expect that some of these conversations would be uncomfortable for the invited guests. Could you imagine Don Kennedy in a real conversation about Denny-Sealth or the Superintendent in a real conversation about accountability? A conversation they couldn't escape with a platitude or a slogan - one in which people asked follow up questions and sought specifics? Yikes!

On the other hand, if the district staff person had the answers and the answers made sense, they could be tremendously persuasive. They could get the buy-in they need (whether they know they need it or not). The district often has a good story to tell, they just need a venue in which to tell it.

I wish the district could host these conversations, but I don't believe they have the necessary credibility. They aren't seen as unbiased.