While traveling the state working with school boards for the past eight years, I have had the good fortune of being part of many wonderful discussions. They always involve education leaders passionate about improving public education. For the past four or five years many of the same concerns or common themes seem to come up at the meetings:
- The needs of our students and community have changed;
- We need do a better job of preparing our students with life skills;
- We want to do more for our students, but we don’t have the necessary resources to make that happen;
- We must do a better job of helping our kids that are at-risk.
So how do we move beyond the choir and the congregation and find a way to speak with our community? How do we have a conversation with our stakeholders to find out what they want for their students as they prepare them for the future? What do your students, parents and community members want from our school systems? There are many cities and towns in Kansas right now that are facing critical financial situations. The discussions at some board tables are focused on “how do we keep our doors open” to meet the needs of our students instead of how do we hire staff, add programs, and curricula that will improve student outcomes. When boards and administrators are forced to make the tough decisions angry patrons with legitimate concerns “storm the gates” and demand the school board “fix it.” There is no such thing as an easy fix. I have yet to visit with a school board member or a superintendent in Kansas that didn’t want to do more for their students. Boards are not cutting opportunities for students because they want too; they are doing it because they don’t have the resources necessary to prepare students for success.
How do we move these important discussions beyond the people that already agree with us? A few years ago school districts around the stated hosted “Kansas Conversations.” They were designed and developed to allow community members to come and share thoughts on their local district. We had 90 districts and over 2,000 people share their insights, ideas, and concerns. What we discovered was simple. Everything we do in our schools is important to someone. As one might imagine we had some people throw programs and people under the bus. “We don’t need sports.” “Why is the music/art department such a big deal?” “Why do we need so many teachers/paras in the school?” Yes, there were complaints about buses, meals, activities and taxes, but when they sat down across the table from a fellow community member and heard different parents perspective, suddenly they were a lot less critical and had a better understanding of “all” students. Some parents told stories of the importance of the fine arts; others share how important sports were to their child’s success. Everything our schools do is important to someone. That is the important message. We need to help our communities understand “WHY” it costs more to prepare our students for the future in 2014, than it did in 1974.
In closing, nearly every day I have a discussion with Mark Tallman, associate executive director for advocacy and communication. They are always about the same topics, the importance of education, the future of education, what can we do to better share the message with our members. Therein lays the issue. Many of our members are well informed and committed to the cause of public education. We have come to realize that we can’t keep doing what we have always done. We have to take a different approach. We have to speak up and share our vision with more than just people that agree with us. Now we have to raise our voices and speak with all of the people in our district and community. The famous quote from John Lewis says: “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” It really is up to us to carry this message. Let’s stop preaching to just the choir, and let’s get started today.