"But if it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by...any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward [district], it is a belief against all experience." --Thomas Jefferson

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

1. Parents and the District

One of the biggest factors in the educational success of a child is parental involvement. But how does one get involved and find out what's going on? With the information age, we have a great advantage over previous generations: email, websites, social networking, as well as the standards: word of mouth, newspapers, TV, and radio. The trick is how to get the information out there in a form parents can use to their benefit.

First of all, a very simple option on the district website would allow parents to sign up for updates from the district and to receive emails of the agenda and minutes for school board meetings. Knowing the information is somewhere on the district's site is good. Getting it in your inbox is better. Our local school sends out email updates as well as using the 'robo-caller'. It works great and should be implemented at the district level as well. Making an automated email list is better because it is a proactive invitation to be involved. I would like to promote a more open and inviting relationship between the district and the people they serve. We have a good district; we can make it better.

Another issue is the way the district treats parents with complaints. I once worked for a business with a policy that acknowledged that we would occasionally make mistakes. But, once something became a problem, we would go out of our way to delight the client in how we fixed the problem. Parents are the customers of the district. When the customer takes the time to let you know something isn't quite right, the correct response is to acknowledge and thank the customer for their information. Then, you need to evaluate how you can fix the problem. In short, when you receive a complaint, you have failed: either in meeting expectations, in setting those expectations, or in communicating. Honestly accepting mistakes or other points-of-view enables us to improve our ability to serve others.

The two most public examples in the last few years were Investigations Math and the "America: Republic or Democracy" website link. In both instances, the board took a defensive approach to parental complaints. Their estimation appeared to be only a few, misguided parents were involved. So, rather than acknowledge the validity in the parents' concerns, the district wanted to show there were other parents and teachers who supported the district's positions and these parents were in the minority; those who disagreed with the district on these points weren't supportive of the district. Interestingly, our best friends are often those who are willing to point out our flaws and work with us in spite of them.

Take, as an example, the latest brouhaha over the Democracy or Republic schism. The district admitted the website link was a "serious mistake", but the people who brought it to their attention and the concern that ensued (implied by the link) was dismissed. It is understandable when your best intentions are called into question, you feel defensive. However, a better response from the board would have been to say, based on what was in the article, they can see where parents might have concerns and miscontrued the district's intentions? While the district said the link was a mistake and removed it in a timely manner, the board only committed to review the mission statement after a very energetic crowd showed up to a board meeting to demand change. Had there been a culture of honestly considering input from the public, this situation would never have occurred. One of the best things you can do for a customer is to acknowledge their complaints and comments as valid... and then fix the problem. The fix, in this instance, may not be everything those parents wanted. But, for the district to acknowledge their concerns is a good first step. And for every person who complains, there are many more who have the same concern, but do not come forward.

I would propose taking the district from 'good' to 'better' can't be done unless you are willing to allow for criticism. None of us is perfect, so no organization can be perfect. But through our involvement with others, we learn to acknowledge and improve upon our imperfections. Obviously, issues will arise, but seeing them as opportunities instead of problems, in the end, will yield the better results.

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