Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from my good friend David S. Imagine what it would be like to have a school system that actually listened.
I was recently browsing AL.com and ran across an article discussing Huntsville’s plans for renovation of John Hunt park. Many of the ideas the city proposed were fabulous and would create new opportunities for visitors to the John Hunt park area. Naturally, the $100MM cost is something that would have to be carefully considered and managed, but I appreciate the mayor in particular for being up front about the idea. I’m even more impressed with the mayor’s consideration for the input of the citizens he means to represent through a website called Imagine Huntsville.
When you hear from the city government, you hear things like:
“transparency”, “your input”, “buy into”, “stakeholders”. . . all words and phrases that connote cooperation with the community.
The city seeks input from its citizens helping them be better stewards of our resources. In planning for John Hunt park, the city has already collected a growing list of citizen comments for changes and improvements. The city has made use of a blog for citizens to provide their comments and has promised that these suggestions will help shape the eventual renovation of the park. This allows “the best ideas bubble up to the top.”
I’ve noticed more than once that the city has made use of modern media to engage the citizens of Huntsville in the planning and shaping of community events, venues, park and spaces. In 2011, a city-led survey polled citizens to see what retail establishments and restaurants they wanted to see brought to our community. When making plans for improvements to the downtown area of Huntsville, the city used a similar approach to seek ideas from citizens.
You see, when an organization, be it a city government or a local school system, endeavors to make changes to things that their constituents care about, it behooves the leaders of these organizations to seek buy-in from their constituents. This makes the results of their efforts more of a blessing than a curse. The City of Huntsville has gotten this message.
I really appreciate the efforts of the city and the mayor in this regard. Modern tools like Facebook, email, blogs, and YouTube can serve a city immensely when properly used. The city’s examples reminded me just how poor of a job Huntsville City Schools has done engaging the community in similar activities relating to school operation. Our mayor has used technology to engage the community in important decision-making and our school leaders should learn from this.
Imagine Huntsville City Schools:
After seeing the great efforts our city government has made to engage the community in planning, it is very disappointing to see how the city school system has in many ways rejected the idea of engaging the community. It has been reported that after receiving pushback from the school superintendent, the board removed a “communication” element from the superintendent’s review criteria. This is surprising when you consider that one item under the section of “duties” in the contract between the school board and the superintendent states:
(x) Visiting the schools and other interaction and communication with the public to promote the well-being and educational goals and objectives of the system within the community;
“…communication with the public…”
Most people will tell you that communication is an exchange between two people or groups. The inclusion of the word “with” further emphasizes this. The superintendent isn’t to communicate to the public, but is to communicate with the public. Nevertheless, when communication is de-emphasized by our superintendent and our board during performance evaluation, you will have to hold your breath for a very, very long time before community engagement techniques like those employed by the city are used by the school system.
If you’re trying to determine the best course of action, it would serve you well to first realize that you may not have all the best ideas. A leader solicits good ideas from all stakeholders and based on that information leads us down the best path. Choose not to solicit ideas? If that’s your approach, then something as simple as picking the name for a new school becomes a problem.
From a community perspective, there have been too many communication missteps by this school system to count, including:
- The segregation of special education students
- The merging of elementary and middle schools
- The funding cuts for special education personnel
- The digital 1:1 initiative
Recently, the school system facilitated a private meeting between a senior adviser to the US Department of Education and PTA presidents to discuss the digital 1:1 initiative, leaving many to wonder why such a high-profile and contentious issue would be discussed behind closed doors. Parents, teachers, and students across the school system have offered much criticism of the digital 1:1 initiative which has largely fallen on deaf ears and gone unanswered. Communication on this issue and many others has been woefully inadequate and buy-in from stakeholders certainly hasn’t been obtained, or sought. The current status quo results in:
- Students who aren’t listened to
- Teachers afraid to speak
- Parents who are ignored
Really “communication” should be a primary goal of everyone in the school system, not removed altogether. The City of Huntsville got that message years ago. It’s way past time for the Huntsville City Schools to do the same.
Editor’s Note: One reader in particular has taken it upon herself to write to Mr. Robbins to express concerns over the digital initiative. He has responded that he would like to set up a conference call to discuss these matters with our community. As more details come to light, I will be sharing them here.