Tuesday, April 14, 2009

San Diego- Part two

Another session I attended in San Diego: "We Need to Talk: Three Years of Difficult Conversations about Race, Class and Money." Board members from Burlington, Vermont talked about their experience trying to address a problem of two low-achieving, poor, primarily black schools in the inner city.The question was posed by the Supt: "Is it okay to have two low-achieving, high poverty schools that, despite double the financial investment of other elementary schools, continue to fail?"

The solution: demographic balancing of schools to ensure better outcomes for all children (based on extensive research)
The push-back: considerable! People didn't want their children forced to "mix". Ugly racism quickly surfaced.
The ultimate outcome: After 3 years of consultation and deliberation, the two schools were transformed into magnet schools (one with arts programming, one with environmentalism/sustainability programming). Parents from other areas, backgrounds and races, chose to send their childrent to the magnet schools and the demographic balance was achieved. All members of the board were re-elected, public support is high for the District and everyone lived to tell the tale! Academic achievement scores will be monitored over the next few years, results are expected to climb.

The Lessons Learned:
1-Community engagement is difficult and requires careful consideration, especially when change is needed.
2- Start with several plans so people can't simple be "against".
3- Open microphone hearings do not encourage everyone to be heard. Instead, they encourage an "us vs. them" environment, where people vent rather than problem-solve. Sitting together around small tables, with a facilitator, in mixed groups works better. Specific questions that guide the conversation include: What questions do you have about the change? What are the benefits? The drawbacks? What do you like/dislike? What will it mean to you and your family? What might it mean to the community?
4- Be strategic about who will take the heat. (Expect angry responses from some, even with all your best efforts.)
5-Forewarn politicians, press, teachers, active parents, et. through informal meetings. Acknowledge their importance and answer their questions.
6-Appointing outsiders to help move District forward when things get stuck. Board will still decide, but a credible, balanced committe of outsiders can seek ideas/recommendations.
7- Take the message out, repeatedly, to many audiences, with a short 15-minute presentation. Use the presentation to start the conversation.
8-Blogs may only encourage venting and anonymous postings. Consider the use of inter-active blogs carefully.
9- Use multiple forms of communication- newsletters, postcards, bus-stand ads, press releases, cable TV, other agencies... to reach the broadest possible base.
10- Allowing all opinions to be expressed, even ones that are deemed unacceptable, will ultimately provoke a counter-response. (In the case of Burlington, racist attitudes provoked anti-racist sentiment to be expressed.)
11-Ask appropriate questions of the public. Don't ask questions that imply that those being consulted are the decision-makers. Questions should check for understanding of the community's values, but ultimately, it is the Board that will decide and the ethical responsibility lies with the Board.
12- Publish all responses. Full transparency gives the process credibility and creates trust. Do not tally the responses. Acknowledge that it may not be the populist vote that decides, but rather, all voices are acknowledged and considered.
13- Don't invest in economic segregation- invest to end it. There are significant social consequences of raising children in (any kind of) a bubble.

The bottom line: "If a school isn't good enough for your kids, it isn't good enough for anyone's kids. Fix it."

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