Saturday, June 06, 2009

Communication Breakdown Solutions?

Jason wrote:
I think Charlie's post shows the problem of how parents and the school district currently interact. I know I presented counter arguments to several school board members regarding my kids' school (APP elementary), and I was just as ineffective as every other parent trying to save their own schools. The only information the current board seems to give any weight to is that brought to them by the district.

There are a lot of problems with how the District interacts and communicates with the community. So how should it be? What process can we develop that will allow people a meaningful voice in decisions, opportunity to have their input heard and considered, and, as much as anything, have an interactive conversation with District staff about ideas without bogging down the process and preventing any progress?

I think what Tracy Libros did was wonderful, but the scope of her work was too narrow to include ideas like Sand Point or McDonald.

The primary problem I see now is the asynchronous nature of the communication. Only one person speaks at a time. So we can talk to a Board member, but we're not there when they talk to the staff, so we can't respond to the staff's objections to our ideas. We need something interactive. We need a conversation. We need to bring data to it and the staff needs to bring data to it. And it all has to take place in an atmosphere of cooperation and shared purpose.

So let's get some ideas for an improved community engagement practice.


Melissa Westbrook said...

"What an interesting idea. A district ombudsman for parents."

Yes, I think so as well. Charlie thinks it's the Board but as Mary Bass has said often, the Board has no research staff and most of them have no time on their own to do research. (And they don't.)

I think the Alliance might be a good place to start for funding. If we had the Alliance behind it, we might get traction. This person could help the Board get the information/data they need. Far too many times, the Board doesn't get all the data or gets parts of data. If you had someone who knew the district, this would be less likely. (Plus, it would be worth it to pay one very good person rather than wring our hands over the inability to pay the Board members a real salary if they got good data that helped them make better decisions.) This person could really help the Board.

Additionally, as I said before the Seattle Council PTSA has a new position of liaison to the District. Maybe the paid person and that person (Gary Seivert who knows A LOT) could work together to help the Board get the information it needs and, in turn, make that information available to the public.

I know some high schools (maybe some middle and elementaries) have an "Ask the Principal" coffee hour or time. Maybe we could get some of these staff people (not the Superintendent, not Don Kennedy) who actually have the data to have these get-togethers once a month so that you ask them questions. Then, based on their answer, ask another question. Make it dialog about how we got where we are and how we get to where we want to be. And how parents can help.

Also, hats off to Harium. I went to his meeting today and although I was somewhat taken aback that we sit as a group (Brita would have a sign-in and you talked to her alone for 10 minutes or so), there was a real dialog. Harium was very frank in some of his assessments and it was great to hear because I virtually have never heard this from a Board member in a group session.

A young man from Roosevelt came to talk about the LA curriculum and Harium gently explained that some staff had mistakenly done something they shouldn't have (and didn't have the authority to do), namely, start an LA curriculum review. He said there were Board policies about this (and possibly a law; it was a soft-spoken discussion that I missed a little of) and that he had made sure they understood that they overstepped their bounds.

Unbelievable. And he made very good points but he was also clear in some of his thinking on the SAP plan and there was good back and forth. One parent said she had some ideas about the sibling issue and he encouraged her to write to him about and let the Board know. I mentioned his blog as well and she knew about that.

I was very impressed. I wish all the Board members had regular meetings with the public one-on-one. There's a question to ask future Board candidates.

Stu said...

While I don't always agree with Harium, I am always appreciative of his dedication and involvement. When he makes a decision, or states an opinion, or places his vote, I feel as though at least he's listened to the community. He reads his blog, and responds, and he holds meetings . . . he cares about what the parents think and I never feel, for one second, he isn't trying to make things work. Unfortunately, I don't always feel that the other members of the board have that same openness . . . or involvement.

That said, the single thing that I would like to see the board do is ANSWER A QUESTION! That's really it. When they have a three minute comment period on an issue as important as closing a school, or moving a program, or screwing 2000 kids/families, I would like someone to reply to the comment/question. When they decided to split APP, and members of the community came with reasoned arguments as to why it might not be successful, I wanted to hear a response, a reason why WE were wrong and the staff was right. Instead, we had the sighing and eye-rolling of Director Chow and the let's-move-along attitude of most of the others.

"APP was split from a general education population in the past, why will it work this time? Crickets

"The numbers show that more APP-qualified students from the North end chose not to enroll; how does not moving half the program North increase access?" next please

"In fact, how does access increase if you don't change how kids get into the program. Aren't you just integrating a building to average scores?" zzzzzzz

"Hey, look. Ms. Diaz has prepared a series of graphs and charts, based on your own figures, to show why many of the staff conclusions are, at best, misleading." thank you, good night

Communication implies more than a single voice; I want engagement. The current board relies entirely on a staff that isn't in the schools, working with the students. Teachers, parents, students, principals, volunteers; each has a perspective, a view of what's happening in the trenches. What math program works? How to integrate science, math, music, art? Ask those who do it every day!


PS - I'm really sorry that Director Debell is running unopposed 'cause, if nothings else, opposition forces debate and on-the-record responses.

Josh Hayes said...

I agree with Stu, and a lot of what Melissa says as well. The central problem is that there is no dialog between parents, the board, and the district. There's only speechifying. It doesn't matter how well-informed parents are, how articulate, how forceful, if we can't insist on some kind of response.

There's not even any kind of guarantee that a response will ever be forthcoming! No matter how critical an issue may be, parent input (and, one fears, Board input as well) simply falls off a cliff. The District seems to feel no obligation to ever explain, to ever respond. That's what produces such frustration, this sort of droit de seigneur attitude.

As a proposal, how about requiring written responses to public comments within, say, a week after each Board meeting? This seems to me not at all onerous, nor (WV) disive.

Charlie Mas said...

Should there be some assurance of a response to people who testify before the Board at their legislative meetings?

Should there be some assurance of a response to people who send the Board voice mail, email, or letters?

The Superintendent says that she maintains a database of all of the people who speak before the Board and who from the District responded to their concern. I'd love to see that data base.

Melissa Westbrook said...

I think the Board previous to this one did say, in reviewing Board meeting procedures, that they WOULD answer questions sometime after the meeting (via e-mail or phone). I'll have to look for that document but it was part of the overhaul of Board meetings.

jason said...

During the school closure process, the board didn't even get responses to the questions they posed. We heard time and again from the district that they will answer a question within two weeks and they are never heard from again. Until the board calls the district on this, the district will think they are above having to respond to the little people. I think the whole relationship between the district and the board needs to change. The board has not asserted its power during the couple years I have been watching.

The district also (apparently with the exception of a couple of people) doesn't respond to parent concerns. I know I have sent in emails which never received a response. I have also even had a board member forward a question I asked to a district employee and that also never received an answer. I think this system is completely broken.

Charlie Mas said...

There are two broken elements of the system: one is the staff's failure to to fulfill their commitments, the second is the Board's failure to demand that the staff fulfill their commitments.

Sahila said...

I dont know about any of you, but I've had the experience of being in a situation where there are so many things broken that no amount of tweaking and snipping and rearranging makes any of it better...

Sometimes, the only thing and ultimately the kindest thing to do, is to rip it all apart and start again...

If you want an analogy, think about knitting a jersey, where the pattern you've been given doesnt have the correct instructions for the various sizes and is full of mistakes which you dont know about when you start.

And you're knitting away and you know that something's wrong both with the pattern and the sizing, so you try to fix it yourself, an increase of a few stitches here, a decrease there. You ring customer service for help with the pattern and they acknowledge, yes we've had a few issues with that particular product and give you some extra instructions... and so you keep going, though it still doesnt look right and you cast off and sew it up and it doesnt fit....

And, the only thing to do, if you are adamant about creating a beautiful, useful garment and you dont want to waste the expensive yarn (our kids) you started with, is to undo it all, rip out all the stitching and start again with a new pattern...

That's how it is in SPS, in my opinion... and no amount of tweaking will fix it because the system itself is broken and doesnt have either the right tools or data (or even willingness) to change direction, focus and policy...

This country has a proud tradition of revolution.... where's the revolutionary spirit amongst parents and other stakeholders on behalf of our kids?

I've been around less than a year and its been nothing but chaos... I understand from other parents that its always been chaos (to a greater or lesser degree)... why are we thinking about still engaging in a system that wont work? We're now talking about how to fix the communication problem - we're hoping if we can fix that then maybe we'll fix the other problems... I think we hop from one problem to another, get stymied by the system in coming up with solutions and just keep going round and round - like so many white mice on the wheel, which suits the system down to the ground cos then it doesnt have to change.

Evolutionary change to the system wont work here because we are accepting some basically flawed paradigms...

Why arent we coming up with and then implementing a better system?

Sahila said...

Speaking about communication or the lack of!

Hot rumour - construction crews are working on Viewlands right now, with a view to having it ready to open in the Fall...

Rumour comes from someone in SPS...

Can anyone confirm or deny?

Melissa Westbrook said...

The work at Viewlands might be to replace the copper wiring that vandals took last year.

gavroche said...

Interesting about Viewlands. I thought the copper theft happened a while ago. But if the District is replacing it now, I wonder why. Won't it only get stolen again? Unless SPS does indeed have plans for the building.

After reading about Viewlands' history, it seems it was very shortsighted of the District to close it in the first place. The proximity to Carkeek and the salmon creeks was put to great use in the curriculum, and from what I've heard, the program for disabled kids was especially valuable.


(an excerpt here):

"A pilot program started in a resource room with three teachers and an
aide to provide help and enrichment for all handicapped children at the
school. In 1982, Viewlands received about 100 students from the closing
of Oak Lake School, and enrollment grew to 397. The school
remained K–6 through 1988.
In the early 1990s, parents, teachers and staff worked together to
create a strategic plan for the school. This plan set goals for reform and,
over a period of several years, many innovative programs have been initiated
at Viewlands. Results are seen in rising test scores and increased
reading among all students. Parent participation remains an important
ingredient in the success of these programs.
Situated above Carkeek Park, the school is perfectly situated to use
the park’s nature trail, installed behind the school in 1983. Community
volunteers maintain the trail and actively work to improve the quality of
Piper’s Creek and preserve its salmon runs. Viewlands pupils participate
in the planting of native trees and shrubs.
Viewlands is also one of the schools participating in the Salmon in
the Classroom program. Students raise chum salmon in the classroom
and release them into Piper’s Creek. Each November students walk
over to view the returning salmon swim up the creek."

gavroche said...

Stu said: "APP was split from a general education population in the past, why will it work this time? Crickets

"The numbers show that more APP-qualified students from the North end chose not to enroll; how does not moving half the program North increase access?" next please

"In fact, how does access increase if you don't change how kids get into the program. Aren't you just integrating a building to average scores?" zzzzzzz

"Hey, look. Ms. Diaz has prepared a series of graphs and charts, based on your own figures, to show why many of the staff conclusions are, at best, misleading." thank you, good night



PS - I'm really sorry that Director Debell is running unopposed 'cause, if nothings else, opposition forces debate and on-the-record responses.

I agree with you, Stu. What's more, in 2009-10 Lowell is slated to be as or more full than it was this year, now that the District is filling the post-split building right back up with gen ed/ALO. (current estimates: 303-APP; 114-ALO; 45-SPED; 39-K).Pretty ridiculous when we remember that one of the alleged reasons given for the split was that Lowell was too crowded! And Thurgood Marshall sounds like it's going to be challenging fire codes with its projected numbers too. (220-APP; 200-ALO; 24 SPED)

History indicates that the District has a habit of using the AP program to prop up underenrolled South-end schools. See what it says here about the lead-up to APP being placed in Garfield in 1979: So the District's treatment of highly gifted kids as useful commodities is apparently nothing new. (WASL boycott anyone?)

fyi, I believe anyone can still run against DeBell -- or any of the others -- as a write-in candidate. (Please correct me if I'm wrong on this, Charlie & Melissa.)

Not easy, but it can be done. Aside from his vote against the discredited Discovering math text, what great, courageous positions and votes has he taken on the Board? He marched/voted in lockstep on the disastrous poorly thought-out "Capacity (mis)Management Plan" in January, and Goodloe-Johnson's pay increase and contract extension last year. Is it true that last week, after voicing some reasonable dissent about math consumables and the District's lack of follow through on Singapore Math, instead of showing his dissent by voting NO, he abstained? !

If DeBell thinks he can coast now and ignore common sense or parental input, it might be worth recruiting someone to challenge him as a write-in. Are you in DeBell's district?

Charlie Mas said...

I had this long-held fantasy in which a Board member, during the discussion of an action item, asks a question of a knowledgable community member instead of a staff person. Can you imagine if, during a discussion of transportation service standards, a Board member asked someone who had testified "How long is your child's bus trip?" or "What streets does your child have to cross to reach their stop?"

Not only would it represent a huge step forward in community engagement, it would be really helpful. It's just one step away from having a member of the community actively join the debate.

Stu said...


I've always had the other fantasy. The one where a parent gets up for the 3-minute comment, looks directly at Director Chow, and asks a specific technical question and then just stares at her for 3 minutes waiting for an answer. Director DeBell then says "thank you" and the next person gets up.

"Director Chow. Could you please answer the previous speaker's question?"

Three minutes later . . . next parent, same thing.

In my fantasy, the entire evening is taken up with parents asking a single question and then waiting for a response. If a response finally comes, the next question is asked and, regardless of how many 3-minute periods it takes, no one says anything else until the specific question is answered.


(This could work, of course, with any Director. I always choose Chow 'cause she REALLY looks like she doesn't want to be there . . . which, of course, after the next election, she won't.)

Charlie Mas said...

So where is the rule that says that Board members can't respond to testimony? I haven't seen it. There is no such rule.

The speaker would, in effect, be ceding their time to the Board member, which probably isn't a good idea.

Would it be enough for Board members to use their comment time to respond to testimony?

Would it be enough if each person who testified could be assured of a response from the Board?

Sahila said...

I have a suggestion....

Why dont we try moving to an empty centre circle of leadership and communication in the District, and perhaps use indigenous communication and decision-making processes?

Empty centre circles are used in communities working towards human and environmental sustainability... the idea is that there is no hierarchical leadership... every member of the community participates in the dialogue and decisions are made by concensus... the dialogue continues until a solution that everyone agrees fully with, will buy into and help implement...

We have a form of that operating at AS#1, though we have difficulties getting full community involvement, which issue is a hangover from the time when the school went through a principal change and subsequent movement in direction towards the more mainstream....

Indigenous peoples' often have communication and decision making circles, where the whole community participates and each person has a voice that carries as much weight as any other person in the community... talking sticks are often used to help maintain structure and space in the dialogue...

Why cant we try these strategies in the district?

large groups - and some organisations and companies - are using them around the world to explore a better way to foster change...

Dorothy said...

"I had this long-held fantasy in which a Board member, during the discussion of an action item, asks a question of a knowledgable community member instead of a staff person."

Didn't this happen once? I seem to recall hearing about it, but maybe this was just a dream. That once an APP question came up and Jane Fellner was in the audience so they asked her. Did that actually happen?

Charlie Mas said...

It has happened that a knowledgeable audience member has shouted out the answer.

I have a vague (possibly false) memory similar to Dorothy's about Jane Fellner answering a question, but it may be that she spoke at that meeting in some official capacity and was essentially continuing in that role when she answered the question.

I have spoken to the Board as a member of an Advisory Committee and have been able to interact with them in that role, but never just as a member of the audience.