Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Public Relations Campaign for Seattle Schools?

I was on the Dave Ross show on KIRO from 9 to 10 am this morning talking about Seattle schools. It was an interesting experience. I got woken up at 7:15 this morning with a phone call inviting me to come in and talk about the issues facing our city's schools.

As part of that conversation, Dave suggested that parents get together, raise money, and do a public relations campaign on behalf of the Seattle School District, communicating why we stay in Seattle and in the public schools, and telling the stories of the fabulous teachers and programs that are available.

I wonder if this is something that either Communities and Parents for Public Schools (CPPS) or Alliance for Education would take on. And would it make a difference?


Roy Smith said...

Or, an even crazier idea, why isn't Seattle Public Schools itself doing effective public relations?

Over the short run, I doubt any PR will make much difference. But effective PR should be more concerned with long-term results than short-term attitudes anyway. And SPS and/or friends of the district should be doing the long-term PR.

And while we're at it, it would be useful if the Seattle Times would report anything except the worse news with the worst spin about SPS. I think Charlie may be right - they sure are working hard to poison the search process before it gets off the ground by writing long and vociferously about how dysfunctional the community and the school board are and about how awful a job Superintendent of SPS is.

Anonymous said...

I think the Times is trying to get the new super a big raise before she/he starts working. But, they can be all that wrong when looking at our city as a whole. we are so mired in trying to appease eveyone we end up not getting anything accomplished.

Anonymous said...

Sen. McAuliffe's comments in today's newspaper pieces should be taken to heart by angry mobs who call themselves "parents" and by "School Boards" made up of self-interested over-weaned brats. I ;ike Mayor Bloomberg's tactic in NYC where schools are beginning to come back to life since "school boards' and parent-involvement altogether has been deleted. Parents -- particularly narrow "technology" types who know little of history nor of spirit are NOT trained educators, have narrow educations (if any) themselves and set a mighty raucous example for children.

Anonymous said...

I caught most of the segment on the radio - you did a great job and it was fun to listen to the couple callers (I wish there were more). I especially sypathized with the caller from Bellevue who moved there because she couldn't be guaranteed a spot at the school closest to the house in Seattle because the way the system is right now - I think it is ridiculous that you can't be guaranteed a spot at your reference school when you buy a new house.

I thought the marketing idea by parents was an interesting idea if you could get the volunteers to fundraise and pull it off on top of their already packed schedule - could you sell the benefit parents would receive by marketing more people in the district? I think my daughter’s school is marketed by word of mouth and good tours. I know another school in the cluster who did amazing tours and marketing of their tours….in other words, if the school is good the parents talk and naturally market the families considering private school to at least take a look at public – then they go on the tour and the tour has to sell the school.

I know I am extremely discouraged by all this negative publicity. I LOVE my daughter's school and have no complaints right now other than having to constantly be nervous that something within the district is going to happen which will negatively impact her school in the future - that nervousness stems from all the politics and negative press. I have a really bad feeling about the operations levy....

Anonymous said...

School choice has been in the district for going on 10 years now. it cost the district about 25M in transportation cost each year to allow students to enroll at any school in the district. the enrollment period ends in Feb so if one were to purchase a house after that date the child might not get enrolled in their neighborhood school. they do have any number of choices but that isnt always what the parent wants. if this school board wanted to do something worthwhile they would tackle the school choice in favor of neighborhood school system, which might save the district the money needed to not close schools, at least for a while.

Beth Bakeman said...

The School Board is beginning to tackle the school choice system. Discussions have already started and changes will be implemented in the 2008-2009 school year. The changes will include limiting choice, limiting transportation, and (probably) either getting rid of the reference area concept or changing it significantly.

The Board work session I attended on this topic was very interesting and, suprisingly, there seemed to be much agreement among Board issues about the goals of these changes.

Anonymous said...

What is the inherent virtue of neighborhood schools? I don't see it, and apparently neither do a lot of people in Seattle who choose to enroll their children at a school OTHER than their neighborhood school. Either these people mean their children harm, or they delusionally believe that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, or, perhaps, they are loving, involved families making good choices for their children. I suggest it is the last of these.

All of Seattle's schools have, for the past six or more years, been going through a process called "school transformation" whereby each school finds its niche and identity, whereby each school finds its own way of serving students.

This process only makes sense if families are free to select a school based on knowledge of the school's programs and culture and based on an intimate knowledge of their child's academic, social, and emotional needs. That makes a lot more sense than having the District match children with schools based on a knowledge of zip codes.

To return to neighborhood schools would also require a reversal of the school transformation process. No more John Stanford International School - every school must be standardized to meet the needs of whatever student is compelled to attend. No more autism inclusion programs. No more International Baccalaureate programs in high schools. No more distinctive programs of any kind. In the name of equitable access to academic opportunities, no school may offer anything different than any other school.

Whom does that serve?

What, exactly, is the cost of school choice? Is it the transportation? The state pays for about half of that and we can introduce a sliding fee scale to help pay for the rest. High school students can be issued a METRO pass, so their transportation costs will be the same regardless of their school choice. The district restricts transportation services to regions and clusters with the exception of alternative schools, special education and magnet programs.

When you consider all of the costs and benefits of school choice, I think it is a net positive for everyone.

Remember, if neighborhood schools were so great, people would be choosing them.

Anonymous said...

For me personally, I don't have anything against school choice and have a great deal of friends whose children go to schools other than their neighborhood school.

My issue is more that I live 2 blocks away from a school. When we looked at houses we chose this one with one benefit being we could walk to school. I researched all the schools and felt this school was a great fit for our family. Even though I knew it would be highly unlikely that we would not get in the school 2 blocks away from our house, the fact that there was no guarantee and of course I started hearing all the stories of people who didn't get in this school who lived close in the past....having to fill out an application and list at least 2 other schools - I felt I shouldn't have to go through that process....people should at least be guaranteed a spot in their "reference school" and people who move within that reference area should be made a spot in that school. People should feel free to move to another country for a couple years for their job/the experience it would bring their family without having to worry that their child won't get back into their school when they move back.

That is the part I don't like.

Anonymous said...

Take a moment and think about it.

Guaranteeing your child a seat in your reference school would require the school to hold that seat empty for your child while your child was at another school - public, private, home, or international. The District would have to build 43% more school space to hold empty for the 30% of Seattle children not currently enrolled in Seattle public schools - just in case they might suddenly decide to show up.

Try to remember that the District is trying to close down on excess capacity.

And why do they need to build these vast empty spaces? To satisfy your need for certainty in what is an inherently uncertain world. The chance that a child living two blocks away from the school might not come out near the top of the tie-breakers is absurdly slim. Too slim to cause any action or influence any decision on your part. Do you buy a lot of lottery tickets?

Let's remember that not everyone shares your fetish for certainty. It is not always a good thing - not when the certain or probable outcome is bad.

Finally, I am genuinely awestruck at the enormous sense of entitlement that leads you to believe that not only should the school hold a seat empty for your child, but that your child should somehow be magically enrolled in the school without subjecting you to the tedious ordeal of *gasp* filling out a form.

Johnny Calcagno said...

I agree with Charlie's arguments about the costs and benefits of the choice system. The actual yearly net non-reimbursed cost to the district for transportation is closer to $8 million, not $25 million, and much of that is legally mandated.

Another point that gets glossed over on this issue is the fact that Seattle is by most accounts an intensely segregated city. If we got rid of choice, does anyone really think that all neighborhood schools would have equal resources?

Does anyone think they do now? And might this unequal access to resources have a wee bit to do with school performance?

Anonymous said...

I cannot believe how rude your comments are Charlie - you didn't have to write it out so rudely - I have an arguement, but you've twisted my thoughts so much and judged my personality so much based on a few comments that I'm not even going to bother - I like this blog because it is a good place to discuss - not insult.

Maybe I was wrong.

Johnny Calcagno said...

Actually, I don't think it would be particularly costly to the District - and could possibly capture a little affluent family market share - by letting kids take one year leaves of absence from their elementary schools. I can't see more than one or two families a year per school doing this, and the good will of maintaining a seat for such kids outweighs the fairly negligble costs to the district. They wouldn't even have to keep the seat empty; the returning child would just be first on the waiting list.

I'm speaking from experience on this one. If we leave TOPS for more than 20 days to travel during my wife's sabbatical from teaching, we lose our seat with very little chance of getting back in. Too bad for us, given the friends and community we have built up over the last three years.

The larger point is that there are ways that the District could show flexility and support for families that would begin to reverse the ill-will generated by the clumsy closure process.

Anonymous said...

Having supportive parents speak out for Seattle Public Schools is a great idea -- but any effective pr campaign must be well-organized, and so it would be a splendid idea if the pr professionals paid by the district (and therefore us) organized it. Also, as is frequently pointed out, the late great John Stanford was undeniably an incredible spokesperson for the district -- regardless of any view you have/had of his potential shortcomings, if you saw him in action, you can't deny that. Neither Joe O nor Raj had/has an ounce of charisma. If the district hires a dynamic, energetic leader -and- some creative, talented PR folks (I understand they've got some openings in that area), what's -right- about the district can get some attention as well as what's wrong.

Anonymous said...

If you think school closures are a mess, wait until the Board tries to redo the school placement policy. Right now, parents of affected schools are crying out. When reference areas (or whatever becomes of them) are redrawn, families from every school are going to be affected. And moan. Predictable access to a school would be a huge benefit to this district, even at the cost of limiting (some) choice and riling people up for a year of redrawing attendance boundaries. I remember there was something about this in an earlier blog entry here. If a program is popular (John Stanford) REPLICATE IT for gosh sakes in 3-4 geographically diverse areas in the city. (Do you people out there realize that John Stanford isn't even an official alternative program. If you don't live in Wallingford, forget about getting in. Now THERE'S real diversity.) Anyhow, same for Pathfinder. Same for the Alt 1 and 2 and etc. Leave those as all city or at least wider-area draws. Put a K-8 in each cluster. Limit those enrollments to that cluster. (Save on transportation.) Then close the weak neighborhood schools. Parents will travel a little farther to a wider-neighborhood school, if it's truly strong and if they still have some good alternative school options for non-traditional students. This is a way to circle back and make school closures defensible. Of course, everyone would have to "give" a little to make it work. And alt school parents seem to be one of the least likely bodies of parents to do so. I've also seen this particular case mentioned here before: TOPS. Talk about slimming the program down to only central district enrollment, with the intent to replicate the K-8, heavy parent involvement program in a couple other locations in the district, and watch the political parents start screaming. But that's another comment thread.

Anonymous said...

Jen -

I'm with you. The reply to your post was needlessly rude and patronizing.

Regarding your thoughts about school proximity: I don't think anyone is owed a "guarantee" of placement at a particular school , but kids who live within a certain walking distance of the school building should be given some kind of extra consideration, perhaps in the form of an early application process or "legacy" points along the lines of those that many college admission offices routinely give to the children of alumni.

Anonymous said...

With regard to the previous post, it should be any school, including an alternative one, if people want to think of it as a neighborhood school. SPS says that students cannot be forced to go to alternative schools. But it doesn't promise entrance to students who live next door or a couple blocks away who do want to attend.That is reallydumb and relates to the comment three back about how badthe reference issue will be.

Johnny Calcagno said...

Just for the record, one alternative school - TOPS - does give priority to neighborhood students by setting aside 20% of Kindergarten seats (after siblings and ESL) to be allocated based on distance. That means that kids living near the school have a very good chance of getting in. In fact they have at least two ways of getting in, by distance, and by lottery.

Although at first the TOPS community was opposed to this set-aside, the school site council has recently signed an agreement with the neighborhood to lock in this set-aside for the foreseeable future. It doesn't satisfy everyone (in the neighborhood and in the school), but it is an example of a public school community being willing to "give a little" in the words of a previous comment.

I still don't understand though, given the desperate need for positive news for the District, why successful schools like Pathfinder, TOPS should be messed with at all. Leave the good schools alone, and replicate what is popular.

Anonymous said...

On Roy Smith's question as to why SPS isn't doing effective public relations - there are essentially two people at the district doing that work, and not only is that just a fraction of their total work load, one (Peter Daniels) had his last day this week and the other (Patti Spencer-Watkins) is on some kind of leave.

They are as embattled by the public and the funding crisis as the superintendent and the board, and I wouldn't be surprised if they've had enough, too.

As the central staff has taken cuts over the last several years to balance the budget (in lieu of the school closures we won't let them make), there is no capacity there for luxuries like public relations and marketing.

It would be great if CPPS took on this work - it is part of their mission statement to attract families to public schools. www.cppsofseattle.org

Anonymous said...

PS - I agree with Jen and John D. At least from here, it looked like an earnest observation was met with scorn and sarcasm - pretty hard to read.

Anonymous said...

Leslie here -

From pieces and threads I've followed over choice/assignment/reference areas, appears that the Board has been asking for months/over a year for review of assignment policies/strategies in other cities, particularly Boston -
for naught. The issue of technological capacity for reviewing assignments and modeling apparently doesn't appear to be in place or even feasible with our present IT structure?

This in IT land?

I do believe the folks at the Stanford Center are well meaning and overwhelmed but this appears to be an example of the Board's requesting information and not getting it from the staff - yet is getting brickbats from the media as spineless and non-performing.

Why can't these two pieces be addressed so we have some ideas what the future would look like or will choice/transportation/assignment piece - seemingly done without regard to closures process also be doomed?

As for P.R. agree that CPPS, SEA and perhaps PTSA leadership can "take meetings" with the editorial boards, particularly at the Times just like the business community and comment about some good things and involvement going on out here in
parent/kid/teacher front lines land.

E.g, did you all know there is an Arts presentation tonight at Nathan Hale w/ Carla and Raj until today?

Is there anywhere in the Times/P.I. or even a calendar on the SPS website that lists the extraordinary music/drama, etc. programs offered at our schools - investments of thousands of hours of time, effort and real opportunities for our kids and affordable for our families?

A simple calendar - that doesn't seem too much to ask. . . .

Anonymous said...

Jen, John D, and Mary have convinced me that I was unduly harsh and dismissive to Jen and her earnest observation. I will try harder to see her perspective.

Jen, please tell us how you believe that your child should be enrolled at the neighborhood school without the need for you to complete a form and please tell us, so that we don't twist your thoughts so misjudge your personality, why you feel you "shouldn't have to go through that process". That was unclear to me.

Jen, do you see that in order to guarantee children a seat at their neighborhood school it would be necessary to hold that seat empty for them? Was I unclear about that? In light of this knowledge, do you still want the district to maintain that excess capacity for the purpose of extending and maintaining that guarantee?

Jen, what risk did you perceive that your child might not gain access to the school two blocks away? The proximity tie-breaker would surely put your child near the top of the list. Even if you didn't want to rely on that strong probability, what would be the cost of completing the enrollment form and learning whether your child got the assignment or not? I fear that I cannot see the downside of filling out the form and taking the chance. Please explain it to me.

As for the difference between discussion and insult, I will acknowledge that it was wrong of me to assign motivations to you. That was pure conjecture on my part and therefore unsupportable. I am sorry. Please correct my presumption about your motivations.

I hope that you will extend me the same courtesy and not make presumptions about my motivations.

I also hope that you will engage in the opportunity for discussion that this blog presents and make your point. Alternatively, I would hope that you would acknowledge the expense of extending the seat guarantee and acknowledge the impracticality of automatically enrolling students without a form.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for recognizing that your comments could have been hurtful.

I did not mind filling out the forms - that was not what I meant. What I meant was that we moved 2 blocks from a school with the plan to send our children there because there were some things specific to the school that were very important to us that the other schools in our cluster (though still good schools) did not have and meet the specific needs of our oldest child. I always assumed it would not be a problem to get in the school due to our location. Then I started hearing the stories...one was of a family that lived across the street from a school that did not get in that school. I started hearing more and more of these stories. Even our daughters physical therapist, who works for SPS said that her daughter did not get into Ballard high school when they lived just down the street from it and that distance didn't play apart in tie breaker - just living in reference area. I tried to look up this information and couldn't get clarity. As for the form, I didn't mind the physcial filling out of the form, it was more having to put down other schools on the form incase we didn't get in - it was very frustrating for me as a parent.

I support choice based on the way Seattle Schools is set up now with each school having its own identities, but I know the majority of my friends who tried to get into schools outside their "reference school" were waitlisted and never got in....., maybe it's just our cluster because the schools are so popular.

Part of me does miss the old days where you moved to a house and knew what school you were going to based on where you lived period. Most districts do that still. While I understand that before "my children's school time" Seattle schools went through a huge transformation to become what it is today, it is still, being new to the school system, hard to understand.

The woman I was referring to that called into the radio yesterday moved to Bellevue instead of Seattle so she wouldn't move to a neighborhood and apply after the deadline based on when they moved and end up having to send her children outside the neighborhood to a less popular school. In the North and East (due to SSD flight and development) they are having issues with schools being too crowded, but they make space and then build new schools or in some cases redraw lines to accommodate. This is how it was where I grew up too.

So I'm not sure if I answered your question, but it's not that I feel "entitled", I just am a little old school and am used to the old system of moving to a house and knowing where your child is going to school based on where you live unless you choose alternative or private or homeschooling.

I never intended for a school to hold spots. I do know that my daughter's school did add an extra class for just one year 2 years ago because of anticipated one year growth in the Kindergarten class so everyone in the reference area could get in - I really appreciate that they did that.

Sorry for rambling - I don't have answers, I was more just venting at how confusing and intimidating the system is.

Anonymous said...

I think part of the problem here is that Jen, like a lot of people, have been the recipients of bad information.

1) There are a lot of urban legends that are going around and a number of them simply are not true.

2) The District does a TERRIBLE job of communicating the assignment process to people, so there is no good information to push out the bad.

3) The enrollment office does screw up occassionally. These matters can be quickly and easily resolved.

4) People don't know the method for resolving these little mix-ups, and they sometimes act out inappropriately.

5) The District does a TERRIBLE job of communicating the correct and effective process for resolving these glitches.

The consequences are that students don't get the assignments that they should get, that people voice a lot of dissatisfaction with the District, that people leave the District, and unnecessary doubts are created for folks like Jen and others who are new to the District.

First off, there are no high school regions or clusters. No such thing. Assuming that the family submitted their enrollment form ON TIME, a big presumption, there is no way that anyone living across the street from Ballard High School would not get it as their first choice for assignment because distance is the second tie-breaker after siblings. Although there are no high school reference areas, why wouldn't someone living "just down the street from the school" be in the reference area for the school?

Second, when the enrollment office makes a mistake, and they sometimes do, there is an appeal process for correcting those mistakes. Just contact the enrollment office and talk to them like a human being. There may be some forms to fill out but it shouldn't be onerous (just kidding, Jen).

As to the requirement that you list alternatives to your first choice for assignment, I suggest that you not read too much into that. Just name a couple of extremely popular schools far from your home and there will be no risk that your child will be assigned to them. Montlake and McGilvra are good choices for most folks, Wedgwood and Lafayette work pretty well for the rest.

I agree that people like to say that you can request assignment to any school in the district, but that doesn't mean that you'll get it. It's a big promise, but the reality is that you can get your kid into any school in the district, so long as the school is totally unpopular.

Anonymous said...

P.S. Thank your for accepting my apology.

Roy Smith said...

Responding to Mary Sullivan's response about public relations:

I think that the current mess that SPS is experiencing is proof that a certain minimal level of public relations is not a "luxury". As Charlie Mas has pointed out repeatedly (both in this thread and in others), SPS generally does a poor job of communicating policies, particularly in areas that hit home with parents and students. This communication is the most basic kind of public relations, and it isn't being done, or at least not done well enough.

Smaller and less complex school districts in less diverse communities may be able to do without effective public relations, but Seattle Public Schools has a level of complexity that makes public relations an important part of maintaining public confidence. That PR (among many other thigns) has not been done, and we are now witness to the consequential loss of public confidence.

Anonymous said...

PR may be a mess because Peter Daniels either quit or is on vacation and Pattie Spenser is on medical leave.

Beth Bakeman said...

Peter Daniels did quit. His last day was last Friday, I believe. But PR has been a mess for a long time. I don't think his departure explains the whole problem.

Anonymous said...

All right, I'm going to gore a sacred cow here. Why should sibling preference be the number one factor for enrollment? Just curious, because from where I'm sitting as the mother of an only child, that doesn't seem too equitable to me.

Anonymous said...

The obvious answer is how much more managable things are if the kids go to the same school, but that is a benefit to the family - not to the student.

The Student-Centered answer is that family engagement is a significant factor in student achievement and it is easier for the family to engage the school if they do not have to share their commitment with another building.

Anonymous said...

As a public relations professional, it is my considered opinion that, apart from the Sanford years, doing PR for the Seattle School District has always been a monumental challenge.

I don't think it's going out too far on a limb to say that if your board meeting degenerates into a riot, your communication strategy, if such even exists, has been a failure. But I'm not sure the superhuman PR person exists who could have herded the cats on this issue and brought all parties together on a rational plan that could be widely accepted and clearly communicated.

The district certainly does need some long-term PR. The next person(s) to take the gig, however, have one heck of a short-term mess to overcome. Before I would consider applying, I think I'd wait around to see who the next super will be.

Anonymous said...

There is a new Capital Projects Community Liaison at SPS. Her qualifications indicate that she will come up to speed quickly and be the 'missing link' at least between SPS Facilities and the community.

Beth Bakeman said...

Who is she? And what are her qualifications?