Learning how to do community (a review of the Futures Conference on Nov 1st)

There are approximately 3,000 high school students in the Champaign Unit 4 School District.  If you were to start your school district from scratch, how would you best divide high school students?

If you had a sandbox, what kind of castle would you build? If you had a copy of SimChampaign, where would you put the schools, the municipalities, the commercial zones?

For me, trying to answer this question represents the challenge of the Futures Conference; it is both the fallacy that this question stands alone, and the social pressure of stating what you really think in front of other people (like that urban or city planner city sitting across the table from you). But let me make a very clear distinction – I think perhaps the most important part is the asking and the answering of the question. Not necessarily what the question is, nor the answer for that matter. “What is your favorite color?”, while possibly eliciting the odd “Blue! No, wait, Red! AAAAAAaaaaaahhhhhhh……”, just does not provoke the same kind of deeply held and possibly unconscious beliefs about “the way things should be.” I will come back to this.

There were a number of good things, and a number of challenge areas at the Futures Conference this afternoon. I’m a “give me the bad news first” kinda guy, so here goes.

Weaknesses

I felt the presentation time was way too long. When I looked at the agenda and saw 70-85 minutes for opening introductions, an overview and the main presentation, I thought I could live with that. But by the time we got to slide 16 (out of 69) I was already wondering how much longer it was going to be. By slide 35 I had checked out. I couldn’t tell you what time it was, but I am pretty sure that we were already close to the soft “time limit”. Have you ever sat in a white church and looked around about 30 minutes into a sermon? People have this glazed-over zombie-like expression. That is exactly what I saw in the room. (I have been to a few black churches and have yet to find any zombies *grin*) I wrote down in my notes that Tracy Richter had some great momentum built up with the first two videos he showed at various points during the presentation (see “Strengths” below), but he killed that momentum. I so badly wanted to just start talking about the videos!

And those charming, sweet cute kids. How can I rip on kids? Don’t worry, I won’t. 🙂 Leaving aside for the moment that the “kid presentation” went WAY over 5 minutes, for me it felt like that time was a bit jarring, demanding too much of a context switch in my own head, not really understanding how this segment fit into the Conference. (read below for the good stuff – I want the recording of those kids!)

And finally, the questions themselves. I had a really hard time answering them. Most of my personal difficulty came from the fact that I really don’t have a weighted opinion on whether one giganormous high school is “best” for our community, or a class size of “less than 20” is “best”, or a new high school north of 74 is “best”. I can’t say which magnet or thematic programs are “best suited” for various levels of education. I realized as we were having round table discussions (literally) that what I want is whatever is needed to actualize the priorities we have identified for the district. Ah, now there we could stir the pot a bit, open the can of worms. What should the priorities of the school district be?

Lastly, we were rushed at the end (as you might imagine). This is unfortunate because it would have been nice to have a little more time to “report out” and for the entire assembly to see the final results.

Nope, I lied, one more point. We need to have more discussions, with a much broader community. Not necessarily one monstrously large room for 5000 tax paying residents, but rather, more safe environments where folks can gather and hash out ideas. Offering the survey online as a way to keep the ball rolling just doesn’t cut it, I’m sorry. Even having some kind on of online dialogue has a limited benefit; certainly helpful for those that feel compelled or safe enough to indulge in such mediums (I do, and probably perhaps another dozen or so – hardly representative). I am not sure how well the questions are received by others, but personally I would like to see us focus on the priorities and goals of public education in the first place. Else we risk being like Alice who runs but doesn’t get anywhere. I think it would be really helpful to hear stories from various segments of society. Just recently, CUCititizenAccess ran an article giving voice to the residents of Bristol Place, and how the city’s plans to level their neighborhood impacts them.

Strengths

So this part is more fun to write. 🙂

Early on, I was impressed that Tracy Richter and Scott Leopold both recognize the importance of equipping us with the tools necessary to sustain the “living document” (officially called the Background Report). Those tools will encompass a way to ascertain demographic, programming, facility and opinion research data (slide 13). At least, that was my understanding; if they can truly deliver on this, in my eyes that constitutes a significant justification for the cost of their services. One justification of many, I hope.

Tracy and Scott later showed two videos (Hans Rosling and Sir Ken Robinson via RSAnimate), both of which Chuck Jackson and I have talked about at our open forums. I really love the way Hans visualizes data – to be honest, I was actually distracted by the technical details which diverted my attention away from his main point of how over the past hundred years or two, the countries of the world have together become progressively “rich and healthy”. But even more germane to our conversation was Ken Robinson’s talk (the RSAnimate videos are all snippets of a much longer TED talk), which totally challenges the traditional way of delivering education. It was great to show that in front of a large crowd, including a lot of district administration, CFT and teachers. I so much wanted to talk about that paradigm shift right then and there! And I was sure to bring it up again at our round table discussion.

And those gosh-durn kids. They were hilarious, and yet also wonderfully introspective and I love the observations they made. Two things that popped out for me; several of the children mentioned how much they like the bright colors and talking. For me this says they like change, dynamism and social connection. In fact, I thought about this when faced with a question from the survey; “What are your thoughts about personal technology (cell/smart phones, tablets, etc.) being used as learning devices in the classroom?” I gave this the highest ACCEPTABLE rating for each device listed. Like Ken Robinson mentioned, the greatest tragedy of modern education is stamping out the amazing creativity inherent in each child. Slide 34 of the presentation reinforces this idea that kids (and humans) are plenty capable of absorbing and assimilating new information just fine without being told exactly how to do it. But back to the kids – they were a riot! Several times Tracy had to disclaim that he did not coach the kids; each of them were very much excited and in some cases head-over-heels in love with school.

And finally the discussions themselves. As I alluded to earlier, I valued the fact that we could have these open discussions around round tables in a safe environment. I very much feel that this kind of open deliberation is essential to a thriving and participatory community. I met a teacher, a couple people from the City and another from ACCESS Initiative. We joined up with another table and we found that on a number of items we had difficulty coming to a consensus  I think in the interests of time we simply did not fully engage in hashing it out in order to find a point of acceptable agreement. But as one Unit 4 administrator at our table said, it was great just to hear what others where thinking and observe how differences of opinion can be put to play on the field of debate. One person likes one really large high school, another smaller schools. One person has a big interest in central A/C (our late spring and especially early fall can be awful), another wants to emphasize high school accessibility. I think the magic is that no one person is wrong per se, we are just different; and the point is that we have to choose what to do about that. In my opinion, that is the guts and core of “doing community.”

Another strength is that DeJong is obviously organized and have the benefit of experience on their side. While Chuck and I have tried to do stuff like this, we just don’t know what the heck we are doing. 🙂 It is encouraging that DeJong-Richter have made it a priority to be transparent, and I am glad they are posting things online and are giving the public a good look at their process, in addition to being very open to suggestions and communication  Moreover, it is great to see the district administration and school board get involved – I sincerely hope they continue to observe and listen to all the great feedback being generated.

In Conclusion

I struggled with how to title this post. I wanted to place a focus on where I think we get the most bang for the buck (since we, you and I, hired the PE firm – they are not doing this pro bono). I personally think that if DeJong-Richter and Fallon can help pull our community together, can help teach and educate us on ways to engage in striving for consensus (not majority rule or unanimous vote), collaborative goal setting and open yet safe deliberation, it will be money well spent. My fear is that they are going to set their sights on getting a referendum passed in April 2014 and leave it at that.

Another thought popped into my head when talking to folks from ACCESS Initiative and the Champaign Community Coalition; what about holding the Community Conversations on these topics (simply asking what our community problems are)?

I have not yet found any articles from the major news media outlets. I’ll keep my eyes open for them.

[update: I see Meg posted her article]

And now it is your turn to say what you think.

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4 Responses to “Learning how to do community (a review of the Futures Conference on Nov 1st)”

  1. Laura B. Says:

    I couldn’t attend, so thanks for the summary. I did fill out the online survey. Personally, I don’t think that one giant high school is best for the community. I know from experience that smaller class sizes make a huge positive difference for students. I’m looking forward to more conversations. 🙂

  2. pattsi Says:

    could not stay for the whole afternoon. That stated the following are some unobtrusive observations.

    I I had an interesting one-on-one conversation with a member of
    the C-U Education Fdn. She is an attorney. Much more productive than
    what I observed unfolding. Even if I had had the time, I do not think
    I could have made myself stay. There was nothing new in format, same
    ole same ole, no new information in the way tooooooo long intro, as
    you pointed out. Lots of flash and dash. I observed a large number
    of people left after the intro part and did not stay for the round
    tables. So the crowd was diminished and even more self selective. This
    aspect you did not cover in your blog post.

    I am wondering why child care was not offered plus a willingness to
    work with various employers in the community to enable more working
    parents to attend. This might have enhanced the diversity. There were
    some non whites in attendance BUT these were very self selected
    individuals who could attend as part of their job. Actually, the same
    can be said for the Whites in attendance. All of which is skewing the
    results.

    I do not understand why the consulting firm started out with the
    particular schedule of questions rather than using these at mid point
    or the end after having had focus groups throughout the community. Using the questions at the beginning could of had a use if the same questionnaire was administered to the same population at the end of the process to measure any changes in ieas, thoughts, processes, etc. I do not think that this is part of the process.

    My biggest take away is that there is a huge fear factor to try any
    new methodology to engage the community. When Scott said that they had
    worked in Alabama, ergo I understand Black and non White communities,
    a flag went up that boiler plating is convenient and thinking outside
    of the box is. When I learned that he was introduced to the community via a drive around with the city planner and Scott then, in turn, had not asked for a drive around with a “John Q. Public” I see this as a missed opportunity.

    One last thought–there was not one new educational concept in the
    movie–just educational principles that worked decades ago put into a
    brightly colored building. You should look at the schools designed and
    built in Columbus, IN decades ago by starchetics–lots of windows,
    open spaces that can be reshaped, moveable chairs. etc. Have you ever
    visited Columbus or learned about the place via the internet It is
    referred to as the Athens of the Prairie.

  3. charlesdschultz Says:

    Given my appointment with a Fallon Research Focus Group tonight, I stumbled upon this interesting article written by Paul Fallon:
    http://www.completecampaigns.com/article.asp?articleid=9

    One of the weaknesses of surveys is that they tend to serve as a tool to validate the campaign or candidates views of the conventional wisdom. Survey questions are based on the information that the campaign and candidate want to test, and, therefore, surveys make assumptions about the topics of importance. The obvious problem is that these assumptions are not always correct ones. Consequently, the surveys end up being crafted in such a way that they only give respondents an opportunity to express opinions about the issues included in them. This creates an element of bias.

  4. charlesdschultz Says:

    Here’s what the City had to say about their experience:
    http://ci.champaign.il.us/2012/11/08/city-staff-participates-in-unit-4-futures-conference/


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