Wednesday at Houlihans: Dec 7th recap

We had quite a few folks show up at our little open chat session this past Wednesday. We had a Unit 4 Board member, a Barkstall parent, Meg Dickinson from the NG and a Champaign County Board member. And some really good discussion! 🙂

I already know I am not going to do justice to all the topics we covered, so I am hoping the participants do not mind sharing their own perspectives. For now I’ll let you remain anonymous until you are ready to attach your name. *grin*

An underlying theme that we seemed to circle back to a few times was that of perception, which manifested itself in several ways. The Barkstall parent is a recent transplant from out of state; not knowing where to look or how to get information at first, she was frustrated by overly confusing “choice process” and school assignment. Obviously, coming into the school semester mid-semester is going to be a little bit of a hassle, but this parent attempted to get the ball rolling as soon as possible and was simply met with an obstinate wall of policies and procedures. There was very little, if any, sort of “outreach” to help her feel welcome to the new system. The complexity is exacerbated by the high mobility rate (18% was quoted) of students throughout the school year! Meaning that even after school starts, almost 1 out of 5 students are moving from one school to another. Wow! That’s crazy! This conversation led to discussions about Controlled Choice vs Neighborhood schools (maybe have elementary schools be neighborhood schools?), the desire to overhaul the FIC and the date-locked state of the Unit 4 website which does not encourage much community participation at all, and more specifically, the way the school assignment system is presented is very lack-luster.

In one encouraging moment, we were told that the Board and the Administration is aware of the antiquated focus of the website and it is on their radar to do something about it. This is the first I have heard of such an admission, and now I am extremely curious what is going on. As I said, I find this encouraging, but why does there continue to be a disconnect between what the Board is talking about and what the public knows?

Going back to our new community member, it was suggested that new folks could ask around at the College of Education with the University, or even the Champaign County, to learn more about the schools. Funny thing is, I never thought of that. It now makes me want to go and ask just to see what they would say. 🙂 What would I find out if I started asking Laura Weis at the Chamber of Commerce? Something for my “to do” list.

One of the participants has an extensive background in Urban and Regional Planning, and made a statement I personally thought was noteworthy; if the District had employed an Urban/Regional Planner, there would be no need whatsoever for the School District to pay for an out-of-state consultant to conduct the Demographic Study. As an aside, I happened to stumble upon a local company that could have done the exact same thing back in 2008, and we are scratching our heads about why Unit 4 went out of state for this. But anyway, there is obviously an issue with long-term planning within the BOE and the Administration – most of our schools are clustered near the center of town, inside the ring of outward expansion (think of a donut hole). On the other hand, and this might be counter to the previous statement, I do agree that we have to be very careful about sprawl; we do not want to go building a ton of new buildings on the outskirts of town in an attempt to extend the reach of Champaign municipalities/services. As we talked, I really started to like the idea of artificially land-locking ourselves in an attempt to make us come up with better ideas to use what we have (“to be creative” as a participant said).

The idea of having a true Planner on staff segues into the idea of having a focus on “inter-disciplinary” hiring, as opposed to a more “business-oriented” approach that attempts to capitalize on efficiency and multi-tasking. This idea seems to make sense, but I am not fully aware of the ramifications. Would it be more expensive? Probably, yes. But if at the cost of doing better planning, it seems like a worthwhile investment.

Lastly, I feel compelled to mention something about the high school options. 🙂 But I am not exactly sure what. Everyone at the table had seen some news and info blurbs about it. This topic did tie into our lengthy coverage of needing to do better planning and sprawl in terms of where to place a new high school, but we did not cover any specific option (ie, move Edison to Central? Go with a 8-9 Prep school?). There was some talk about whether or not this was a good idea, with varied opinions on both sides. There are lots of ways to structure how you group students; the bottom-line question seems to be “What really do our students and community need?” Most of us at the table found that to be lacking in any documented communication from Unit 4 – what question is a new high school going to answer? And exactly how will it answer such a question.

Before I close, I should mentioned “Economic Gardening“. I have not yet had a chance to read it (as I just looked it up for this post), but it was suggested to us. The premise sounds quite intriguing.

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