The big push: Unit 4 hosts Community Dialogs on Tuesday, Feb 12th

There is a deluge of email, Facebook updates, tweets, radio spots (tv spots?), flyers and word of mouth about the Community Dialog this coming Tuesday at the I-Hotel. If you are one of the few folks who has not heard about it, I would be very curious how they missed you. 🙂 They have arranged bus rides from several schools, translators for three different languages, and even a literacy activity to keep the youngun’s occupied.

In every message I am seeing/hearing, the school district is emphasizing the importance of feedback and input from the community. There are two sides to this coin.

On the one side, I think this is totally awesome! For too long, the school district has given the impression of operating under the guise of its own expertise. That landed us with a costly Consent Decree, and now we have too many kids and not enough seats, not to mention buildings that are horribly behind on maintenance. Oh, and a selection of schools that, for the most part, has not tracked with the shift in demographics. So, kudos to the district for seeking the voice of the community. I have really appreciated how DeJong (via Scott Leopold) has been quite open about the data they have collected and has kept us generally up to date on what is happening in the Steering Team meetings (which are also open to the public). Scott has been really great about talking to people, even to the point of carving away some time to meet us at Houlihans (hard to knock that, eh?).

And now the other side. Scott and I have agreed to disagree on how to present the options to the community. For me, I think it would be best to put the current options up on the futurefacilities website now (actually, last week would have been better…), since the Steering Team has already discussed and pretty much voted on what we are going to see. Scott has argued that he wants unbiased and virgin thoughts during the big reveal at the I-Hotel on Tuesday, so that the options may be presented objectively and in context. Obviously, there are pros and cons both ways. Sine this is my blog (cue evil laughter), I am going to expand a little on some issues with this approach.

We as a community struggle to practice true democracy – the kind of thing where we collectively chew on important issues, deliberate, debate, hash out and publicly weigh the benefits versus the cost. Social media has given us the illusion of a participatory democracy, but come on, really? Sure, some thoughts and meaty material manages to survive in that medium, but look at your facebook statuses and tweets, look at all the “no holding back” anonymous opinions on the online public news media outlets. Over the past year or so I have become convinced that we tend to practice some inkling of democracy best by face-to-face situations, and then even better when the arguments for and against can be recycled back into the public sphere for further regurgitation and mastication. Next Tuesday we have two hours. I have not yet seen an agenda (I am sure Scott told me at one point, sorry man, I forgot), but the first portion is going to have to be some form of presentation. Let’s say, 30 minutes. Either during that time or directly afterwards, folks are going to be able to actually read the printed options for the very first time. Let’s say there are 6 or 7 scenarios (I am merely speculating here, I truly do not know); you will have several scenarios with a mix of what to do with Central, what to do with the middle schools and maybe even a scenario or two that throw a curve ball and have you think about a totally different grade configuration. That’s a lot to think about. There is a ton of data on the futurefacilities website (and on certain blogs *tongue in cheek*) that will most likely be available to “help” you in your own analysis if you have not done so already. Let’s say that you get all that done in 30 minutes, so now we have one hour left. You will be told to discuss your findings (you took notes, right?) at your tables for about 45 minutes or so. At the end, you will all “report out” somehow and there should be some summarization of what everyone thought.

I think that can be a decent start, but I personally think it is but one small step in a public discourse. What about another (or an extension of the) Dialog the next day, and the next week?

So I’ll swing back to recognize some more positive things (or at least, positive potential if you will). The school district is going to keep the options posted on the facilities website for two weeks and encourage ongoing (online) feedback. It is not clear exactly what form that will take; I have asked a couple times to turn on the site’s wordpress blogging features, but there is worry and concern about moderation. Stephanie is jumping out into the brave new world of twitter with both feet and will even have Dr. Wiegand online to help co-host a twitter chatfest with the EDC (Feb 15th).

And now back to the critical side. While I applaud the school district for trying these things, I’ll say again that social media is not a substitute for “in the flesh” dialogs. At best, it might help augment that physical discussion by extending the sphere of interaction. I am quite certain that some people will even enjoy these opportunities and maybe even get some excellent threads going. But I cannot help but fear that a significant number of people will 1) not participate  and worse 2) not even be aware of content of said interactions.

I fear “Great Schools, Together” and “Big.Small.All” happening all over again – lots of effort poured into relevant and important topics; a road paved with good intentions but eventually lost in the sunset. It is exceptionally difficult to point a finger at how the community (or anyone for that matter) has been helped by either event. And please, feel free to take that up as a challenge – if you are aware how these two events did benefit others, please let me know.

Here is a big picture to consider. There are really awesome things happening in the schools and in the district. Stephanie has done a superb job of collecting and broadcasting such success stories. We have awesome diversity (not only ethnically, due to the tremendous draw of an internationally acclaimed high-powered research University, but also in our rich variations of income and home life) and amazing teachers. We also have big problems; kids continued to get expelled, some students still need remedial work after graduation, and just today in another post I heard about students who stay home scared of bullies. Our short-term finances seem really solid; but our taxes keep going up and we are looking at the potential for a very large tax referendum next year, not to mention all the other entities who want to eat away at our pocketbooks with the County Jail, the issue with the nursing home and maybe even the airport authority. And while the surprise increase in Kindergarten enrollment is touted as a “good problem,” we are scrambling to adapt and cutting a couple corners (might have to bust out more temporary classrooms in a couple years) – all that of course circles us back to Future Facilities and how we are going to adapt.

We need to do something with our current facilities; a mix of renovation and new construction seems totally appropriate. I do not argue against that. I just wish we could do more to pull the community together; we are hurting. We are divided.

One Response to “The big push: Unit 4 hosts Community Dialogs on Tuesday, Feb 12th”

  1. Steering Team Committee meeting tonight (6:pm) | Citizen4: A citizen's blog about Champaign Unit 4 Says:

    […] I have written about my concerns in regards to the feedback collected during previous events (1, 2) and I remain concerned about how this is going down. I think my biggest concern is the way […]

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