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"Nobody Asked Us!" School Closings, Public Decision-Making, and, Yes, There Is a Better Way

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Last week, thousands of teachers, parents, students and community leaders showed up in Chicago's downtown loop to protest the closing of 54 schools. Chicago is not alone: from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, public schools are being shuttered in low-income, urban communities of color. The stated reasons are similar: tight budgets, shrinking enrollment, low academic performance.

The decision-makers argue that they cannot afford to continue to run schools where half the seats are empty, and where the majority of students are failing. The community outcry also rings similar across the country: "We weren't consulted." "Nobody is taking into account the disruption to the students." "Our school is a hub for so much more in this community."

The problems are real - and there are better ways to solve them.

What if school leadership reached out to the students, teachers, families and communities where schools are under-enrolled and underachieving - before making the decision to close them down? What if they brought this larger community into a problem-solving process? What do they have to lose?

When I started my second term on the City of Boston's school board, I proposed that we hold community forums as a way to bring disparate factions together on the tough issues we were grappling with. I came at my school activism as a parent and organizer; the community forum idea came from years of experience in the community and on the job. I was always mystified by the firewall between best practices for engaging folks in other arenas, compared to the ways our school district was mostly working very hard to keep critical stakeholders out. Three minutes of public comment did not, in my experience, constitute meaningful input.

I got the blessings of my mildly supportive and somewhat skeptical school board colleagues to take the lead on organizing the proposed sessions. I then set to work with staff to organize two rounds of community forums over the following two years.

My approach was informed by my day job at the time, with YouthBuild USA, a national alternative education, job training and leadership development program for low-income high school dropouts. One of my responsibilities was to get input to program standards from program directors and participants.

The YouthBuild program directors from across the country proposed attendance requirements somewhere between 80% and 90%. The Young Leaders Council nailed them when the topic came up:
"There's no way you can hold down a job out there if you can't learn to show up every day. I know because I tried. Our attendance requirement should be 95%, nothing less!"

These young adults proposed standards that were often tougher, and more effective, created out of a deeper understanding of the challenges. When given respect and responsibility, they helped create stronger programs. And their input led to a sense of ownership.

In the Boston Public Schools, our decision-making processes were disengaging too many of the key groups with a stake in our public schools--students, parents, teachers, and community residents.

I pulled together a small team, and we designed the community forums to engage all of these parties. The goals were to broaden understanding of the problems and open up thinking about possible solutions across groups who generally viewed each other as adversaries.

I started appearing regularly at school board headquarters bearing contact information for Boston's Spanish and Haitian radio stations, along with long lists of community organizations to be sent forum invitations. Churches, the gang unit of the police department, student support staff from the school department--I wanted everybody at the table. I kept reminding myself that this was not business as usual.

On good days, the school board staff took my lists and instructions without complaint. On other days, one would remind me, "Ms. Naimark, have you forgotten that we have a committee meeting this week? We'll get to this when we can, but it won't be today." I'm sure they were tempted to duck out the back door when they saw me walking down the hall toward their office.

We held the first forum series in the fall of 2001, focused on student supports needed for middle and high school students. Three sessions engaged over 250 people from across the city and all walks of life.

"We never get a chance to talk directly with people from the schools! We've been trying forever. I'm so glad you're doing this."

A clear set of themes emerged. The school department needed to better integrate social supports with academic supports. After-school activities needed to be more widely available to young teens, and these programs needed to link back to what was being taught in school. Better communication between schools, families, and community organizations was needed. Lastly, adults needed to cultivate more meaningful and caring relationships with youth. For each of these areas, specific strategies were identified. These recommendations became a useful road map for everybody involved. As a result, community agencies were able to connect their after-school homework help directly to the curriculum. District staff launched a program to help new immigrant students adapt to a new culture. And the superintendent hired the community forum co-facilitator as the district's first Deputy Superintendent for Family and Community Engagement.

The next round of community forums was held the following year, focused on the achievement gap. This time, high school students led off each session. Again, well over 200 people participated, and solutions to seemingly intractable problems emerged.

This was not rocket science. It also wasn't a magic pill for solving our schools' toughest problems. But it was an approach that brought people together instead of polarizing them, and held great potential for a different way of doing business.

This approach can only work when school leadership is open to admitting that they don't have all the answers. And when they are willing to share honest and accurate information about the challenges they face. And, most importantly, willing to listen to all voices and respect all points of view. Under these conditions, our schools can develop solutions to the real constraints and problems they face. And these solutions are more likely to have the support and buy-in of parents, teachers, students and communities.

For the sake of our children, why should this be so difficult?

Significant portions of this article are excerpted from Naimark's recently published book, The Education of a White Parent (Levellers Press, 2012).