Sunday, October 26, 2014

We Need to Talk

In public education, it is a good idea to know what the community is thinking and saying before moving forward with a major initiative. We do have the usual built-in networks, with information coming to us via Board members and principals from their various sources, and some information comes in directly to senior staff via email and casual conversation with parents and teachers. However, these sound bites are not enough to accurately drive the School District's decision making processes, and we often do require a broader collection of information to make sure we are on the right track. This is when we ask the public to participate.

We initiated the most significant example of this type of process two years ago when designing our School District's Strategic Plan. It started with a series of questions sent out via school email and URLs published in the local papers, which were funnelled through a website that fed into a survey program provided by Thoughtexchange. The questions focused on what our students need for their learning, how we will know if they actually are successful, and the structures we need to support them through these processes. This led into a five full-day sessions with nearly forty participants, consisting of parents, members of the aboriginal community, Board members, support staff, senior staff, and eighteen teachers engaged in the process. Each day consisted of activities designed to explore the 1100+ responses we received through different perspectives, understand them, categorize them, and involve the participants in developing a cohesive plan to move our District forward. Senior staff polished the work, and with the help of graphic designer, we produced a brochure, bookmarks, and posters to share understanding, then we went out to describe the work further in a series of presentations in staff meetings, and evening sessions with parents. Since then we have sent team of senior staff annually to PAC meetings at every school in the District intended both to inform and consult regarding its implementation, and added several more presentations when schools or parents have had more specific questions. We believe our Pathways to Education Strategic Plan fits well with the province's new BC Education Plan and accurately reflects the information we gathered through public participation, but it still requires constant communication with our community to hear their concerns and describe what we are trying to achieve, if we wish to keep it all moving forward.

Our second largest consultation process in the last two years was designed to address our District calendar. Calendar can be a challenging discussion in the Sea to Sky corridor, and we wanted to do our best to make sure our efforts were earnest and thorough and be seen to be as such by our community. We formed a committee, brought in a local consultant who had a clear picture of these conversations from the public's perspective, and we worked together to build a series of draft calendars. We then shared these drafts with representatives of the local teacher's union, support staff union, and the District Parent Advisory. After receiving feedback, we modified the calendar options, and then constructed a calendar webpage. This page described the calendars and the process, the timeline, and the criteria the Board would use to make this decision before leading the particpants to a page that connected them to the Survey Monkey e-survey. This was critical, I believe, as community members needed to know their input was very important, but only one of the factors that the Board was going to consider when they made their decision. Once again, we shared the process and options at every PAC meeting, then made sure to share the results of the survey prior to the open Board meeting where the decision was actually made.

We have repeated many of these basic consultation elements with our local reconfiguration decision, our new early French immersion and sport academy programs of choice, recent principal hiring processes, and another calendar check-in after our delayed start-up due to the labour disruption. There have been times where we have received complaints about the number of surveys being sent home, but we think it is far better to err on the side of too many surveys than too few.

One of the indicators of successful community consultation is the Board meetings themselves. In the past, it is my understanding that meetings on contentious issues would sometimes be packed with community members who felt that attending was the only way to be heard. In the last two years the Board meetings have been lightly attended in most cases, a shame in some regard, as the discussions have been appropriately thoughtful and informed. We think that getting out to schools and PAC meetings to interface with the public, describing the process, getting feedback through surveys, and sharing those results has gone a long way to build understanding and reduce anxiety in our learning community, and kept the contentious conversations out of that environment. This isn't say that it always works perfectly. We still receive emails or comments from time to time that make what I call "that clunking sound" reminding us that we need to continue to refine our processes and keep working to build trust, and we will strive to do just that.

I've attached a tool made by iap2 which clarifies some aspects of interfacing with the public and may help you with your own public participation processes. This chart has guided our work somewhat in the past, and I expect it to be a more explicit part of our practice moving forward. It is critical for the participants to understand what their participation really means when "we need to talk", and to not overstate or understate their role in making a District decision. In truth, as much as the interests of our community do influence our direction, it is not very often that we operate on very right side of this chart, and correctly so. As we have be known to tell our public, "This is a survey, and not a vote. It is our job to provide the Board with the information they need to make a decision, and that includes the results of this survey. It is their job to consider all the information when they vote."

One clear exception to this occurred this recent November. The BC School Trustee elections are a chance for members of the public to be empowered as they choose who will represent their community at the Board table. Hopefully our community will enthusiastically engage in this unique opportunity to influence decision making every time it presents itself, and yours will too. Good luck with your own public participation processes, however big or small they may be.

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