I moderated our fourth "teleforum" last night with the community. We have done three of these in the past on budget matters, but this was the first on one specific topic--the operation of small elementary schools. Albemarle County Public Schools is considering whether to close three very small elementary schools (< 200 students) and build one new school near the existing Walton Middle School. No decision has been made, and this was the next step in soliciting input from the community. Superintendent Pam Moran will make a recommendation to the School Board this summer.
Our telephone forum vendor, Broadnet, called our list of about 28,000 households (community members, parents, and staff). At the peak of the call we had about 325 people on the line participating. This was a smaller participation rate than our budget forums, but school consolidation is a topic that I recognize will only be of interest to a smaller group.
We broke the 90 minute call into four segments related to small schools: background information; achievement; community; and operational matters.
A podcast of the call will be posted later today and you can learn all about the school division's master planning process on our website. Thanks to everyone that participated!
5/19/09 * Daily Progress [full story] Town hall participants tepid on closing 3 county schools
Hundreds of Albemarle County residents took part in a telephone town hall Monday night that weighed the fate of three small elementary schools, with the vast majority of callers opposed to the possibility of the schools’ closure.
“The small schools are very important to our community,” said a caller identifying himself as Michael. “They’re important to our fabric and I think we should keep them.”
School Board members Diantha McKeel
& Brian Wheeler prepare to start the Town Hall Meeting (click to enlarge)
Albemarle County Public Schools held its first ever Tele Town Hall meeting this evening. Our goal was to reach 24,000 households in the community and get as many participants as possible engaged in a one-hour telephone town meeting about the school budget. I served as the moderator and was joined by School Board member Diantha McKeel, Superintendent Pam Moran, Assistant Superintendent Bruce Benson, and Jackson Zimmerman, our Executive Director of Fiscal Services. We got great behind the scenes support from Christy, Jennifer and Robert as they made sure the technology worked and callers got into line with their questions.
As you can see in the above photo, we had lots of water, papers, a speaker phone and a big screen that allowed us to see the progress of the town meeting. I used the laptop computer to ask survey questions of the audience and to place listeners on the conference call to ask our team questions.
Were you on the call? Did you think the telephone town hall was effective? I'd be interested in your feedback.
We will get a final analysis of the number of people who were reached and participated, but the information in front of me as moderator said we had a peak of 750 people active on the call. If people were not home, they were left a voicemail message. While we were competing with a Virginia-Virginia Tech basketball game and a number of important school events, that participation rate ensured we had a steady stream of questions from the audience.
Early in the call we asked the audience about who they were, and here were the answers:
Parents of Albemarle County students = 42%
Employees of Albemarle County = 8%
Community members = 50%
I am pleased we had so many community members involved. That was one of the key audiences the School Board wanted to reach. I am not surprised by the low rate of employees on the call. One factor of course is that many of our staff do not live in the County, often because they cannot afford to do so. The list of phone numbers we could get was for registered voters in Albemarle, so that limited the audience in that way.
I cannot remember how many questions we had, but I am guessing 20-25. Several things really set this apart from our typical public hearings on the budget. For one, a WHOLE LOT more people participated. Second, there was a broad variety to the questions. Third, it was a two-way communications format between school leaders and the community (at public hearings we don't immediately respond to the audience comments). Fourth, we came to YOU, the community, which I know is a lot more convenient than trucking out to a public meeting.
The community didn't hold back and posed a number of smart and challenging questions to the panel. The feedback and questions we received will help shape the School Board's focus in additional budget work sessions this month.
Preliminary data from the other survey questions I gave the audience were as follows:
Is the Telephone Town Hall an effective way for us to communicate with you?
Yes - 94%
No - 6%
Do you agree with the School Division's commitment to be competitive in our market for teacher salaries?
Yes - 88%
No - 12%
A podcast of the entire town hall meeting will be available on the school division's website later this week and I'll add a link here.
For 2008, I have added some new features to my online constituent calendar. You can now subscribe separately to my new calendar alerts and receive a weekly message with a complete list of upcoming School Board meetings and agendas. Plus, I include important community events and all my school-related meetings.
My constituent website will always have the complete calendar too, but by signing up for these new alerts, the information will come directly to you. This way you will be informed about all the upcoming opportunities to engage the School Board and to provide public feedback on school matters.
If you use a "feed reader" for your blogs, there is also an RSS feed for the calendar.
Just visit the calendar and click on the SUBSCRIBE button at the top right to sign-up for the new alerts.
In fact, at tonight's School Board meeting, we will be passing our 2006-07 budget (leaders in Richmond, please go to school on that) and it will include significant investments in our new Community Engagement department which was started this year. The Community Engagement office is working on initiatives in the following areas:
Equity and Diversity
Community/service learning initiatives for students
School-community relations and engagement in our strategic plan
Career and business partnerships
So back to the new white paper... Ironically, when you get to the PR Association's press release, you have to send them an e-mail asking for the 38 page white paper. I'll save you the trouble because the automatic e-mail reply gives you the "secret" link: https://www.nspra.org/WhitePaper.pdf
Some conclusions highlighted in their press release:
"The white paper, How Strong Communication Contributes to Student and School Success: Parent and Family Involvement, compiled and reviewed research investigating the links between school communication and the resulting parental and community involvement crucial to student achievement. A number of performance issues, the white paper reports, are linked to school communication and involvement, including:"
Higher grade point averages and scores on standardized tests.
More classes passed.
Higher enrollment in more challenging academic classes.
Improved behavior at home and at school.
Other key findings highlighted in the compiled study include:
"Parents and principals cite lack of time as the most common barrier to increased involvement, but research identifies lack of planning for partnerships and lack of mutual understanding as the two greatest barriers to effective family involvement."
Based on my quick review of the white paper and footnotes, it looks like they have compiled and reviewed original research by others, but it is helpful to pull this together in a document and action plan. Albemarle County's recent focus groups, strategic planning, and communications initiatives have put us on a path that matches up well with the direction recommended in this report. Now we need to deliver.
"Communication is the foundation of effective partnerships. To build effective partnerships with families and the community that will enhance student achievement, schools must first talk to — and listen to — parents, community groups, business leaders and others with a stake in student learning. Any strategy must accommodate the diverse language, cultural needs, lifestyles and schedules of all parties. This means the school often must take the initiative in reaching out to its community and parents. Successful partnerships require sustained mutual collaboration and support — from school staffs and from families at home, at school and in the community. It requires a school environment that welcomes its partners and encourages them to raise questions and voice their concerns, as well as to participate appropriately in decision-making."
Six years ago today the Daily Progress sent me a cease and desist order because I was emailing articles off their website to people concerned about the funding of public education.
Apparently when I sent Peter Savodnik's April 6, 2000 article reporting on the Board of Supervisors public hearing on the budget, that was the last straw. His article read in part:
"The crowd, which filled the second-floor auditorium and spilled over into the aisles and balcony, was split about fifty-fifty between those for and against the tax increase. Supervisors offered no comments during the hearing, which lasted more than four hours and included at least 75 speakers. County officials called the turnout 'unprecedented.'"
The 2000-2001 Albemarle County budget was approved that year with a 4 cent increase in the real estate tax rate (from 72 to 76 cents). I am pleased to say the Board of Supervisors has been a strong supporter of public education every year since.
Last night, the Board of Supervisors held a similar public hearing on the budget, and what a contrast from the tax battle of six years ago. Jessica Kitchin has the full story here. Her article starts as follows:
"The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors faced only two challenges to its proposed budget Wednesday night as the supervisors breezed through a public hearing that didn’t even fill the few dozen seats in front of them."
I never got the inside story from Daily Progress Editor Wayne Mogielnicki as to why I was being singled out. I was not making any money on the emails and I certainly wasn't hurting their newspaper sales.
It was at a time when the Daily Progress website had no online archive of articles. If you didn't cut and paste them immediately, they were gone. Google was just out of BETA testing. Waldo Jaquith hadn't launched cvillenews.com. We were in a major information black hole and I was one parent trying to share news and information about the school budget. Newspapers were terrified we would not buy a paper if they put their content online.
I did change my ways and started sending only excerpts of the Daily Progress articles. I added the following at the bottom of each message:
[Copied ONLY IN PART from The Daily Progress, https://www.dailprogress.com . Unfortunately, The Daily Progress doesn't maintain an article archive I can link to. Nor will they allow me to reprint entire articles about educational matters in e-mail.]
Later, most newspaper websites including the Daily Progress started creating online archives and many started allowing you to email the full content of an article from their website. We take it for granted today. As technology moved forward and the tax battle dust cleared, the Daily Progress left me alone. I am still a subscriber to BOTH the Daily Progress and the Washington Post and my morning routine begins with a trek to the mailbox in my pajamas to pick them up, well after I check my email and blogs.
In November 1999, I started an experiment in school communications when I partnered up with BNSI to facilitate the creation of email mailing lists related to public education in Albemarle County. More than six years later, the project is going strong with the launch this month of the Albemarle High School PTSO's "Patriot Progress" joining as list #17. Now over 6,100 email addresses are subscribed to these school mailing lists. Passing the 6,000 subscriber milestone presents the opportunity for me to provide a long overdue message of thanks to the Learmonth family and BNSI.
Whenever I have asked them for help, they have always been there to support improved communications in our school community. The Learmonth's generously share their technology platform because they sincerely want to give back to their community. They have never asked me to promote their services beyond an easily overlooked tagline at the very bottom of our emails that says "Internet mailing list services provided by BNSI."
If you have benefited from these mailing lists, you can thank them publicly by posting a comment on this blog, dropping them an email (sales @ bnsi.net), or by purchasing their services for everything from residential DSL to website hosting. Great firm. Great family. Excellent service and support. Thanks BNSI!
Today I attended a Virginia School Boards Association leadership conference on community engagement. The speaker was Eileen Kugler, author of Debunking the Middle-Class Myth: Why Diverse Schools are Good for All Kids. She is a communications consultant who has worked extensively in Fairfax County schools. Ms. Kugler talked about diversity as a gift we can give all our children. Her daughter attended Annandale High School at a time it was going through huge changes in its demographics because of growing immigrant communities. The buzz in the backyards--"You don't really want your kid to go to that school do you?"
Brian Wheeler & Dr. Elizabeth Daniels (School Board member from Portsmouth City and President-Elect VSBA Board of Directors)
Brian Wheeler with colleagues from Madison County (seated L to R) Doreen Jenkins, Doug Farmer, Superintendent Brenda Tanner, and Billy Good)
Ms. Kugler learned she DID want her daughter at Annandale and that their family, and their community, would be a better as a result. Diversity became Annandale's strength. It wasn't always that way, and it took a lot of community engagement to make this diversity work to their advantage. They also had to bust the myths that Annandale was something less than what it used to be when it was all white middle-class students. In fact, it was something even better.
As the redistricting plans have unfolded over this past year, it has become very clear to me that we have some significant work to do on this front in Albemarle County. Fortunately, our new goals and strategic plan reflect a stronger emphasis on community engagement and diversity. Now we need to walk the talk.
I have been encouraging the Albemarle County Public School Division to investigate Internet-based parental notification systems (example). In our June retreat I shared the following suggestion with the Board/Superintendent:
"Implement electronic alerts for parents related to school closings, emergencies, and event announcements. There are numerous companies that provide this service and that allow parents to set their preference for school event notification (email, mobile phone, pager, etc) via a secure web interface on Internet. This can improve community engagement as well when schools use these systems to activate their network to announce events in their community. Email and Internet access is not required as notifications can also be pre-recorded messages sent to telephones."
Having just filled out all the back to school forms for my children this year, it prompted me to bring it up again at last night's School Board meeting. Staff have now reported back to the board as follows:
"The Board has expressed interest in obtaining information about electronic systems for parental communications with the schools. There are several products on the market that allow for this type of communication. In August Chris Dyer arranged for a demonstration from one vendor of such software. Staff will be investigating other systems. Purchasing such a system would require funding beyond what is available in the 05-06 budget but could be a budget initiative for the next budget cycle." Superintendent's Letter 9/9/05
I predict the costs for these systems would be more than paid back by time savings of staff entering emergency notification data over and over again. Plus the data can be kept current by parents/guardians throughout the year and we will be better prepared with this technology to respond to a situation that requires immediate notice to our community. Priceless.
If you would like to be kept up to date on this initiative, please let me know. Come budget time, I'll tell you the costs.
William Raspberry wrote an opinion piece in Monday's Washington Post entitled "A Culture for Teaching." He described the work of James P. Comer, "the Yale professor of psychiatry and the mind behind the Comer School Development Program, a highly successful model for transforming urban schools."
I am not familiar with Dr. Cromer's work, but I share his belief that we as a school system need to foster better relationships with children and parents (community engagement) and we need to build professional "learning communities."
Raspberry describes Cromer's insight as follows: "Curriculum reform, new governance models, stiffer tests for students and teachers may be fine, but there's no magic in them. The magic is in a culture that supports child and adolescent development, and that can happen only through relationships..."
"Comer says, most teachers and school administrators haven't acquired (because they haven't been taught in teachers' colleges) the skills to create learning communities. That, he says, has to change. And his Comer School Development Program aims to change it by retraining teachers, administrators -- and parents."
For the past several years, Albemarle County Public Schools have been incorporating the goal of creating "learning communities" into our professional development training for our teachers and administrators (Rick DuFour is the national guru on this subject and I have sat in on his training sessions with our staff). I am pleased this objective will be more clearly described in our 2005-2007 Board Superintendent Priorities.
Second, fueled by strong feedback in our strategic planning process and community focus groups over the past year, we are also undertaking a new community engagement initiative with the recent appointment of Chris Dyer into the new position of Director of Community Engagement for the school division.
I'll be talking more about both these subjects in the months ahead. Brian