Where does negative perception come from?

After speaking with School Exec Connect representatives Dr. Ed Olds and Dr. Kent Johansen, I come away with mixed feelings. Again. In some ways, I hope that this blog entry raises questions and invites folks to disagree. I always invite others to disagree with me – for me, that is a healthy and even necessary way to grow.

 

So here it is: I think this community is its own worst enemy.

 

Today, I and several others met with School Exec Connect on two different occasions. Once during a PTA Council session at the Mellon center which Gaby help set up, and another Junior League sponsored event at Centennial, for which about 30 (max) community members showed up. They presented a few bits of information, like what to expect next, how things are going to roll, and some stats on the surveys that some 850+ of us have filled out. A large majority of the survey respondents (515 I believe) were parents. I was also surprised by the top ranked characteristics people wanted in a Superintendent:

  1. “Student-first” philosophy
  2. Serve as a model for high standards (integrity, personal performance)
  3. Has administrative experience in a similar district
  4. Necessary leadership skills to respond to a ethnically diverse community
  5. Experience to select/implement priorities aligned to interests/needs of students & communities
  6. Develops a good admin team that progresses the district’s vision

 

Nothing about transparency, nothing explicit about communication, nothing overt about strengthening ties with school building staff.

 

Tonight’s session was, in a way, a turning point for me. Maybe only in small way. But it dawned on me how cynical we can be. For instance, try to come up with a list of stregths of our school district. Right now, make up your own list. See how long it takes. See if you can think of more than two.

 

My own list took a while (over 20 minutes) – allow me to point out some of the strengths I see in our school district, qualities that most people will probably agree with but spend a disproportionate amount of time pondering:

  • We have some really awesome teachers
  • Gene Logas; he might speak a different language, but he has set this district on solid financial ground
  • Lynn Peisker; possibly one of the best decisions that the BOE and Administration has made in a long time
  • Several community-engagement programs that do not often make the spotlight (Champaign Urbana School Foundation, Junior League of Champgin-Urbana, various backpack-stuffing groups/efforts, mentors, volunteers, after-school programs, college students who help out in various ways and several college courses that interact directly with students)
  • Lots of exciting things happening in practically all the schools (thanks to Peikser’s newsletters)
  • Some passionate school principals who have a huge heart for the kids
  • Lots of good people with good intentions in Unit 4
  • A majority of children are having a positive experience (if we take the Climate Survey at face value)

 

We can quickly point out the things we do not like about the school district, but it tends to be more difficult to find the positives. At tonight’s session, I heard a story that I have heard numerous times in the past; a couple is considering Unit 4, but they are finding it really tough to not sent their precious child to private school. To rub salt in the wound, they are a product of Unit 4. We heard from another well-spoken gentleman who is concerned about the lack of African-Americans in teaching positions. Read the negativity expressed by some commentors who graced chambanamoms recently (warning, some are flagrant trolls). I myself have contributed to the Pool of Distraught Outlooks as well, and have been decrying the state of IT in Unit 4.

 

There are problems with the school district. Most definitely, no doubt about it. But I think we whip ourselves up in too much of a frenzy about it. I am not convinced that we have to wait on Unit 4 to change, nor need we wait for a new superintendent, for a change in perception.

 

I really like how Dr. Johansen emphasized near the end of tonight’s session that the Superintendent is accountable to, and in fact is hired and evaluated by, the local Board of Education. The BOE is powerful! Or at least, should be. The BOE is elected by, and thus accountable to, the people. When the Superintendent does not work under the jurisdiction of the BOE and the BOE is not listening to the people, you have a very dysfunctional system. I think we had that system recently. I think we are slowly shedding the vestiges of the old system like an ill-fitting chrysalis. I think it is paramount that we see the fruits of this metamorphosis and work together to unfurl our wings and make something really good come of this.

 

What am I trying to say? It would behoove us to spend a lot more time focusing on the positive and less time pointing out the negative. I am not saying that we should stop saying negative things. By no means! Rather, that we should put a “constructive criticism” spin on them.

 

I know I am not pioneering a new path. Others have been down this road. Some burned out, some gave up, some turned back. Some just plain disappeared. But why?

 

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7 Responses to “Where does negative perception come from?”

  1. Papaathome Says:

    Well, it seems like we’re having a two person conversation but here goes…
    All that you say is important to hear. But in the end, our day to day experiences and the results we see undercut a positive spin on things. How is it that we as community members feel like we’re intruding when we come in to see our kids in our schools? How is it that when we have a special speaker come in, we can’t offer them internet and a projector without going to superhuman efforts to secure it (and then make them feel like prisoners in the building with the sign in procedures when they will never be alone with the kids!).

    I see many good people who have stopped thinking. Rules become the only consideration and there is little flexibility. This is how treat people are treated – I haven’t even started describing the achievement stats – the real purpose of schools. In the end, it is about effectiveness. Do children (especially children who are considered “at risk”) learn enough, learn how to learn, learn the benefits of learning, and leave Unit 4 prepared for their next step in life? All too often the answer is no.

    In 2010 44% of 11th graders did not meet the minimum standards for reading on the ISAT. While such testing has its own issues, it is the data available to us. http://is.gd/aX8o1N
    It is only 28% for third graders but still – more than a quarter of our kids can’t read?
    This is where an argument from competitiveness breaks down. It looks like we’re within range of the rest of the state on these numbers – but who cares? That number is NOT acceptable.
    One of the problems is that your kid and my kid aren’t in that 28%. The kids of the BOE (if any) aren’t in that 28%. And so, as in the Climate study, there is a difference in experience. Many people end up saying – “everything’s good, carry on.”

    I appreciate that there isn’t enough money. I appreciate that it isn’t easy. But children continue to mark time in our schools and come out the other end with not nearly enough to show for it. Until there is an obvious and urgent response to this dire situation, I do not believe that Unit 4 will regain the trust and energy of our community.

    Loren Tate writes about Illinois sports every time he writes. Very often, he makes the point that winning is what will turn around the fortunes of the program. That attitude can be applied in many things. (That winning is the only thing that matters is a travesty in amateur sports but that’s another topic) Until we hear the administration and BOE turn every sound bite opportunity into “WE MUST HAVE BETTER RESULTS,” and, of course, follow through on that attitude, nothing else matters.

    Back to your point. Why not be positive? In my opinion, positivity must be built on something. We can’t hope into nothing-ness. When there is reason to hope, when the expectation is for something good rather than for something bad, we will see hope blossom. When there is a concerted, coordinated, visible effort we will see hope. What we are used to seeing is good people doing heroic work in the face of high mountains of futility. And so we choose to not engage in self delusion.

    I don’t want to “put a spin” on anything. I want there to be factual evidence that aside from total lack of participation or organic inability, Unit 4 produces individuals prepared to succeed in life.

  2. charlesdschultz Says:

    You can’t find anything at all to be positive about? Wow…..

    A couple of short responses.

    You stated that you feel like you are intruding when you go into a school. Perhaps you do not feel welcome, or are not welcomed in a way that you perceive as being warm. That is a very personal experience, correct? Not to discredit your experience, but my own personal experience is quite the opposite.

    I think your point about children and learning is well-taken; we have an abysmal number of children who seem to struggle through school, or “fall through the cracks”. I still take those standardized tests with a huge grain of salt – I am not a test taker and hate them personally. I am not sure if I am at the point of using a crappy measuring stick vs no measuring stick at all. But that is not an argument I want to get into right now. My observation is that some “at risk” kids seem to thrive (educationally) when they have more focused attention, whether that be a teacher’s aide, a tutor or after-school help. And then there are other “at risk” kids who need a completely different learning environment altogether and will learn at a different pace. Contrast these children to other young students who seem to thrive no matter what environment they are in. And then throw them all into the same room for a grand total of 25, 26 or 27 students with wildly different needs, abilities and aptitude. I am not currently aware of a “good” way to dish out education in such an environment. But our teachers are trying their best.

    So allow me to take your “dire situation” point blank. Essentially, some kids are not being adequately serviced by public education. Yes, that is a major problem. If I may, what form of constructive criticism would you offer?

    I am not as familiar with the mechanics of the Educational Machine; I do not claim to understand how the Administration is supposed to work, nor what makes it work “better”. What I do know is that we have a ton of concerned parents. Some are vocal, many are already quite busy and have careers. But still a lot of folks who think children are important and worthy of “great things”. What would it take to significantly increase the number of parents in schools? Mentors, tutors, special help, classroom volunteers, leading after-school programs…. It is going to take some sacrifice. It may take a little bit (or a lot) of a paradigm shift and resetting priorities. Part of it will be addressing that “trust” issue you raised as well.

    My point is that if we view the District’s problem as something they created and therefore something they/ have to fix, we remove ourselves from the equation. And we nicely remove our responsibility so we can continue tossing tomatoes from the peanut gallery. I know you, specifically, do not think that way; I realize you want to see reform, and you want to do something about it. Now! You do not want to sit around and just see what happens.

    I am not exactly sure how this school year is going to pan out. But personally I am excited. People are talking. And the BOE and the Administration are being more open. Little by little. Certainly, we in the community want more. *grin* Of course, we have an insatiably appetite for transparency in things we really care about. But the two gentlemen from School Exec Connect mentioned a couple times that our Board is being more open than many other Boards typically are. I see our Board taking more and more steps to get the word out. Baby steps, tiny steps, yes. And I would agree right along with you that I want bigger steps sooner. I am going to have to be patient. And in the back of my mind, I have to remind myself that perhaps what I want is not necessarily the best for the School District, or maybe not even for the community. I hope it is. But I try to keep open eyes and an open mind, listening, observing.

    And writing long blogs posts.

  3. Karen Says:

    Whether it’s the result of issues at the building level and/or the Admin level, Unit 4 has managed to alienate some really caring and involved families residing in the district. These people were the parental ‘presence’ you refer to, above. Some buildings in Unit 4 don’t/no longer welcome this parental presence (at least seemingly, in practice). There is much talk of the school-parent partnership. But, it seems to be the experience of more than a few parents that such partnership is ‘welcomed’ kind of from a distance. In terms of school climate, a sense of community is much harder to foster when students are shooed out of the building ASAP (yes, I know, buses and car-riders, etc.) and parents are ‘encouraged’ to wait outside. I know there are logistical as well as safety/liability issues that contribute to this. But, I think there are additional barriers at some buildings. There were parents more than willing to be a positive presence in the school for all students, but, who got tired of feeling like/being regarded as a nuisance/disruptive.

  4. charlesdschultz Says:

    Karen, thanks for your response.

    I can see how that happens. Even in my own experience, there are a few examples where I am excited and want to be involved, but it doesn’t fit the principal’s plan. It happens. In fact, now that I think about it, I could name several instances off the top of my head. However, in my own story, I happen to have found out later what was on the principal’s plate and why a cold wet towel was thrown on my ideas. For me, it helps to know the larger picture.

    So I would ask, for both you and “papaathome”, is there any reason (good or bad) why you are made to feel intrusive? Is that the intent of certain individuals? Above it was hinted that rules are followed rigorously above all else – is that perhaps a barrier? I know PapaAtHome does not give up easily, and I imagine that you, Karen, do not either; I am sure that you both have tried many times to be that positive presence. But like the subject of this thread says, “Why?” “Where did that negativity come from?”. I am curious, if nothing else. Now I want to know. 🙂 What specifically gives you the impression that you are intruding?

    Please keep in mind that I am not trying to prove you wrong or anything, I sincerely would like to know. If you want to go outside this forum, email me: sacrophyte [at] gmail.com

  5. Papaathome Says:

    I have loads of ideas, here’s a selection:
    Since you don’t read the papers (except online) I’ll point out a front page story today that isn’t online (at least not now) about the UI getting kids ready for school in Danville. Seems like an awesome program but I don’t know a thing about it other than what’s in the article today.

    I heard someone recently say – put more teachers in the room and all need for educational reforms go away. So is it that simple? Instead of spending millions on buildings and labs and curriculum and all that, we just have a teacher-student ratio of 1:4? Obviously it isn’t cheap, but it is simple.

    Also, if you haven’t seen it, watch this video, it is something I wish everyone would watch:

  6. charlesdschultz Says:

    Blast you, now you got me watching a whole bunch of RSA videos! I would stop watching them if they were bad, but I like ’em.

    Found this interesting one: “The ideology of CHOICE .. prevents social change”.

  7. Champaign PTA Council President’s Dinner « A citizen’s blog about Champaign Unit 4 Says:

    […] rubbed the wrong way or not being adequately listened to. This goes back to the whole “where does negative perception come from” post. So now my question is, how does one get over those bad experiences? What is required? […]


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