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:
We’re continuing to look for more ways to highlight what your local government does and promoting access, information and transparency.
In Huntsville, we’re looking for your input…
We want to make it a park that all residents can buy into.
We’ve talked to the stakeholders…Now it’s time to get the community’s input.
“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.
David, this is a great post. I would suspect that many of the readers of this blog have been waiting for a post like this. In my short time as a resident of Huntsville I am amazed at the responsiveness of city government. I am amazed that they care what I think and what I need. With every question or request or suggestion, I have been responded to promptly and respectfully.
Here is my question- why are we waiting? Why are we waiting for leadership and communication and visioning from the current administration and board?
My time in Huntsville has been short. But I know that there is a vibrant, intelligent, caring and committed cadre of citizens that is trying to call for change. Why not take leadership and start that change? Why not gather ourselves together and envision a school system that cares about children, truly includes all students in all levels of education, truly involves parents in the policy making and dreaming of our futures? Why not develop policies and garner public support for them? Why not identify candidates for the school board- candidates that are committed to the full involvement of our citizenry? Why not develop a “white paper” that identifies what is good about the Digital 1:1 and what needs to be improved? Why not develop recommendations for the future? Why not give that to the US Department of Education as a model? Why not identify all the stakeholders- parents, students, homeowners, voters, teachers, administrators…why not pull together a vision of what Huntsville City Schools can be now and in the future.
I am up for it- I think there is energy and support to create positive change. I think if enough people commit to a process change will happen. I think we need to continue writing and talking and thinking, but we also need to start acting, dreaming together and putting in place our future and our children’s future.
@momandmorefor3: I like your attitude. I try very hard to remember that if I have a complaint to voice, then it is my job to offer a positive suggestion for solution and be willing to lead or at least take part in the effort to correct the problem. I think your idea is wonderful and I would be quite willing to help,
Thanks! I think there are so many positive things that we can do!
Why not take leadership and start that change? Why not gather ourselves together and envision a school system that cares about children, truly includes all students in all levels of education, truly involves parents in the policy making and dreaming of our futures?
Some do and are taking leadership and calling for change, however those people are minimized, marginalized, criticized, ostracized, retaliated against, and in some cases criminalized for their efforts.
Why not develop policies and garner public support for them? Why not identify candidates for the school board- candidates that are committed to the full involvement of our citizenry?
The powers that be don’t support School board-candidates that are committed to the full involvement of our citizenry who will develop policies that are in the best interest of ALL students, because that goes against their goal to privatize the public school system so they won’t have to provide equal access to a quality public education to ALL students, just the ones they deem worthy.
Why not develop a “white paper” that identifies what is good about the Digital 1:1 and what needs to be improved? Why not develop recommendations for the future? Why not give that to the US Department of Education as a model? Why not identify all the stakeholders- parents, students, homeowners, voters, teachers, administrators…why not pull together a vision of what Huntsville City Schools can be now and in the future.
Because that would be to much like right. HCS used to be one of the best examples of public education in the state. ALL the schools were considered GOOD schools. ALL the teachers/principals and support personnel were excellent. ALL the students were learning, regardless of their race, gender, address, or parents income. What happened to that school system? The migration of those who could to south of Governors Drive, the county and Madison to the detriment of those who were left behind.
During the quarter of a century in which I worked in the Huntsville City School System, many of us frequently observed that “The essential qualities of a school system and its members should be high ethics, top-quality organizational skills, and extensive communication with everyone involved.”
We lamented that those seemed to be, and still seem to be, the qualities most lacking in the management of Huntsville City Schools–although there are individuals who demonstrate those qualities.
Momandmorefor3 and Ms. B –
I truly believe in what (David has written) is being advocated…. and keeping things positive.
I believe, in particular, parents of special education students (on more occasions than I care to remember in the last 14 years) have abided by that philosophy and only resorted to other means when they found keeping that optimistic attitude was used to their disadvantage, …preventing their student from receiving an appropriate education. I believe the group of special education parent(s) that met with Ed Richardson, district school board, supt, special edu director in Spring 2011 did so in good faith. Unfortunately, I do not believe the latter did the same with the former. There is a history here in the HCS and it keeps repeating itself (a history that only individuals directly involved can understand).
Re: HCS district communications —
I emailed my school board rep 9/10/12 and asked him:
“How many schools have you visited in the last 3 weeks?
What did you see?
What did you learn?
What is working?
What needs improvement?
Was your visit announced or unannounced?
Do you respond to your emails through this website?
How many individuals track and view this email?”
The response I received:
“Is there a particular concern we can help you with?”
School Board Rep.
Perhaps I am cautiously optimistic about genuine collaboration taking place between the district supt., board members, certain dept. directors, certain principals, certain PTAs, teachers, parents, and students.
It is unfortunate that I bring this up, however,…. the Broad Supt Training program should take note of the diviseness that has occurred not only in this district but also Wake County, NC. Wake’s Broad Supt. “was” a retired General and he left the district in disarray. One of the main issues….COMMUNICATION
I would love to see/imagine the communication David S. has written about taking place in this district.
I think it begins with TRUST.
It’s kind of hard to trust people who operate behind closed doors, lie to you and refuse to address issues/criticism/concerns in public or in writing.
I will be as positive as the school systems allows me to be. :}
Your comparison to the Wake County, NC school system is on point, the Broad Supt. and Board of Education took a world class school system and left it in disarray. Once of the main issues….re segregation. Fortunately the taxpayers fought back and the students won.
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