MAGAZINE A collection of Community Conversations articles printed in PAGE One magazine
Professional Learning Citizen by Citizen …
A Blueprint for starting and sustaining community conversations
By Dr. Jim Arnold, retired superintendent, Pelham City Schools
n his book “Schools Can’t Do It Alone,” Jamie Vollmer espouses the need for schools and communities to engage in deep, ongoing conversations to bridge the divide and forge strong partnerships in the interests of students. Why is it critical that these conversations take place on a local level instead of on the national stage? Because in any culture, the more intimately you converse—speaking in person versus via the Internet, for example—the more civil and enlightening the conversation will be. Our perceptions about our neighbors and our own community differ vastly from our perceptions of strangers and “outside” communities. For example, when polled, most parents say they are happy with local schools, but when pollsters expand the geographic region to say, the state or the nation, the opinion meter quickly drops into the negative zone … as in “America’s failing education system.” Similarly, while most people report they are fairly happy with their local politicians, they view politicians on the whole as untrustworthy or ineffective. As educators embark on conversations with communities, we
ate a team, or teams, of educators. Beyond the superintendent and administrators, solicit the help of teachers, school board members, bus drivers and more. Not every teacher or employee wants to be a public crusader or speaker, but many will be eager to participate. Have your teams of educators share among themselves positive stories about students—the types of stories that the public needs to know. Then map out the community for opportunities to meet with small groups of local citizens. Take advantage of personal connections each team member may have. Everyone has relatives in one club or group or knows someone who superintendents and administrators might not know. Tailor messages for specific groups. Simply saying that your people are doing a great job means little; specific examples and stories make the message personal, powerful and memorable. Discuss in advance questions that your teams might encounter. Try out your questions and responses on each other before taking them public. As part of preparing for an ongoing conversation with the community, it is important that all of your teachers and employees—team members or not—understand the importance of always speaking positively about their schools and students—no matter where they are in the community. Many parents will repeat what they hear a teacher or school employee say in the grocery store aisle, for example, because the information is relayed personally and not via the local news.
Our middle school agricultural students delivered a powerful presentation to members of a local civic group, many of whom had assumed that kids were generally up to no good. Most had no idea that we even had an agricultural program, and they were excited to hear what the students were learning. should heed this local versus national phenomena. Tip O’Neill once remarked that, “all politics is local.” This applies to education, too. Begin with a team of educators
The first step in conversing with your community is to cre-
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how to share Your school stories
Community centers and local businesses where residents gather are great environments in which to have conversations with local citizens. Every town has a coffee shop or diner where a small group of retirees or local leaders meet informally on most mornings. Joining these groups, even once a week, can provide a valuable forum for community ideas and school/ student achievement. Clubs such as Rotary or Civitan and Lions are always looking for guest speakers. Your broad-based team of communicators should include local principals, coaches and teachers. They can spread the word about student and school achievements firsthand. And don’t October/November 2013
forget about the students themselves; they are powerful tools in facilitating community conversations. Our middle school agricultural students delivered a powerful presentation to members of For an in-depth a local civic group, many of whom had assumed guide to creating and that kids were generally up to no good. Most had no idea that we even had an agricultural program, sustaining community and they were excited to hear what the students conversations in your were learning. school district, go to At Shaw High School, I formed a principal’s leadership group of around 20 students. Not all www.pageinc.org and were student leaders, but I thought it important click on Professional to have successful and not-so-successful students Learning. represented from each grade level. Our rules were simple: Ask any question you want, but we will not discuss individuals or teachers by name. These monthly meetings quickly became the highlight of my schedule. Students see and hear more than we think they do, and they are not afraid to ask tough questions or give honest answers when presented with the oppor- which our students are making a difference locally and educatunity. Parents quickly learned about this group, and we made tionally. membership rotational to accommodate more students. This idea needn’t be limited to athletic contests. Applying the same concept at PTO meetings, booster meetings, banquets or at turning detractors into supporters an open house serves the same purpose. You’d be amazed what community members don’t know about I know of some forward-thinking superintendents who occayour schools. People hear how our halls are not safe, that racial sionally meet with bus drivers as they gather before their aftertensions are at the point of explosion, that bullying is out of noon routes. In doing so, these superintendents not only affirm control, that discipline is lax, that achievement is at an all-time the value of these often unsung yet important school employees, low and that our students are indolent, lazy and disrespectful. but they have also heard some great ideas about reworking trafInviting the coffee shop crowd one or two at a time to have lunch fic patterns and routes. Bus drivers don’t always get to see kids with a few students in the library is a great way to turn detrac- at their best, so listening to the drivers’ opinions and reminding tors into supporters. These informal lunches with parents (you them of the importance of their daily work has a valuable public can invite specific ones a few at a time), students, teachers, PTO relations impact. officers, retired teachers’ groups, local In my district, the football coaches politicians and church groups can provide take their senior leaders to an elementary wonderful opportunities for individuals school each Friday to work with strugand small groups to express concerns and gling readers. The program has been so ask questions about the schools. Hearing successful that other high schools have parent and community concerns directly adopted the idea. In putting together a can be exceptionally valuable, and having presentation for the local Rotary Club, the community hear your students’ stories the football players also changed a few from someone besides the superintendent minds about the students as well as the amplifies the positive effects. value of athletics. One coach expanded the I know of a high school in South Georgia idea to include student visits to the local that makes a dozen or so 15- to 20-secnursing home. It has made a wonderful ond “Moment of Pride” announcements difference for the residents there. The during athletic events. These announcecheerleading coach organized the cheerments include highlights of student leaders into small groups to befriend and achievements in 4-H, FFA, band, college welcome new students during lunch periacceptance, community service, tutoring ods. Taking a cue from the cheerleaders, a programs and more. Anything that illusgroup of local ministers has adapted the trates the great work that our students are idea for welcoming new church members. doing inside and outside the classroom is Our students are doing great things every appropriate. These announcements can be day-and our parents, grandparents and assembled quickly in list form and made community need to hear these stories. Don’t over the public address system every 15 leave the message to chance. Organize, plan minutes or so during timeouts or breaks and begin telling your community ... one in the action. It’s a great way to keep your story at a time ... what an asset they have in n community aware of the many ways in our schools and our children.
Our students are doing great things every day — and our parents, grandparents and community need to hear these stories. Don’t leave the message to chance. Organize, plan and begin telling your community ... one story at a time ... what an asset they have in our schools and our children.
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Schools Are Everyone’s By Lee Raudonis
t seems as if business leaders, chambers of commerce and some of their legislative allies often speak a different
language than educators when it comes to assessing schools. Businesspeople often view education as an enterprise that should conform to a business model, and they become frustrated when schools don’t fit the model. Educators, on the other hand, become frustrated when those on the “outside” don’t seem to understand what transpires in our schools and what is expected of our schools. While educators believe that the vast majority of public schools do a good job educating most students and lack only resources and community support to do a better job educating the rest (generally students from low-income and low-education families), many businesspeople believe that, due to poor management and personnel, schools are “failing” most students. They believe the “answer” to improving our schools lies not in providing more resources, but rather in promoting competition and accountability. “The inability of educators and businesspeople to communicate and work together is a loss for everyone,” says PAGE Executive Director Dr. Allene Magill. “All of us suffer from this lack of communication and failure to work together to make sure that all of our students are given the opportunity to prepare themselves for success in the 21st century.” Fortunately, the chasm between the worlds of education and business is being bridged in many American communities, and efforts to bring the two entities together
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permanently are growing. “With a willingness to listen and discuss, as well as forward thinking on the part of everyone, communities can come together to make their schools work for all students and, therefore, for the entire community,” Magill explains. This article describes what happens when the worlds of education and business join forces rather than collide. It is a tale of two businessmen who understand that businesspeople and educators can accomplish far more when they team up than when they fight over education policy.
Tale No. 1: Huddle House and Calhoun Schools: A Great Team
Residents of Calhoun, Ga., can learn about local schools and students in an unexpected way—by dropping into their local Huddle House on Georgia Highway 53 near I-75. While dining, customers have the chance to peruse the writings of local students. “Each month, students from a Calhoun City School display work at this local restaurant for customers to read and enjoy,” says School Superintendent Michele Taylor. High school freshmen, for example, have submitted “I am” poems that communicate via verse the students’ strengths, struggles and successes. Following an introduction to elements of grammar and literacy terms, other freshmen have shared their unique rewrites of nursery rhymes. Eleventh-grade writing samples have included a story analysis, letters to the administration and introductory paragraphs on varied topics. “All of these assignments have provided practice for the Georgia High School Writing Test, which students must pass to
obtain a high school diploma,” adds Taylor. Local residents see firsthand the work of local public schools because Gregg Hansen, owner of eight Huddle House restaurants in Georgia and Tennessee, is committed to helping the schools in the communities his restaurants serve. “In our six-year history with Huddle House, we’ve always been involved with schools, so it was a natural step to reach out to the schools of Calhoun and begin a relationship,” says Hansen. “We want to do our part to help schools with their enormous task of educating our young people. We value that relationship and work hard to participate.” The “Write to Win” program helps schools motivate students to higher levels of achievement. “We change the winning essays each month,” says Hansen. And because Huddle House provides a notebook at each booth, customers may write comments to the students about their writing. “The student author gets a collection of notes from our customers. It is a great self-esteem booster because it encourages students to write even better, and it gives the teacher another tool to motivate the students.” To top it off, Hansen provides a month of free meals for each student whose writing is displayed. “They may come in once each day for a meal, if they wish, and some nearly do. Sometimes regular customers who write notes to students have learned that a student writer is in the restaurant, so they personally congratulate him or her. It is very special for the students, and the customers really make a connection with the students and the schools. It’s good for everyone.” continued on page 8
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Local residents see firsthand the work of local public schools because Gregg Hansen, owner of eight Huddle House restaurants in Georgia and Tennessee, is committed to helping the schools in the communities his restaurants serve. Furthermore, Hansen reads to students weekly. “It is important, especially for the older elementary students—fourth and fifth graders—to see adults who enjoy reading.” Huddle House provides coffee for the Calhoun teachers throughout the year so that the schools can save some of their hospitality budgets, and Hansen and his staff provide a made-to-order breakfast for the teachers during the year. At the schools’ request, Huddle House provides incentives for students to help improve behavior, attendance and academic performance. “From the beginning, we made it clear to the schools that we are available,” says Hansen. “We also told them that we can tailor what we do to their individual needs. When we started this several years ago, we had a relatively short list [of ways to be involved], but that list has grown based on the schools’ requests.” Hansen gauges success of his company’s involvement in terms of connections. “If I walk down the hall of a school and a student recognizes me and calls me by name or just calls me Mr. Huddle House, that shows that we’ve made a connection and had an impact. Businesses have a responsibility to help raise our young people, and schools are a natural place to help do that—by reading, providing
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leadership, being a role model and assisting in other ways.” What would Hansen say to other businesspeople about the value of participating in the schools? “I would say that I always feel good when I leave a school. I would tell them that they should give their time, not just money. We have been involved in schools for years and have written very few checks. It is much more fulfilling to create connections. We benefit from relationships and good feelings as much the schools do.” Hansen is convinced that the adage, “It takes a village to raise a child,” really does apply. “Businesses need to understand that they are stakeholders in the schools. If they become actively involved and see what is really happening, they generally have a higher estimation of how well the schools are doing, and they learn that the schools cannot do all they need to do by themselves.” Hansen cautions, however, that businesses need to understand their role in the partnership. “We don’t pretend to know what the schools need. We just want to help those who know what needs to be done meet their goals. We’ve worked hard not to get involved in setting priorities. We want the schools to tell us their priorities and continued on page 10
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“Businesses have a responsibility to help raise our young people, and schools are a natural place to help do that—by reading, providing leadership, being a role model and assisting in other ways.” — Gregg Hansen how we can help.” After working with schools like those in Calhoun for many years, Hansen is convinced that the Huddle House partnership with the schools benefits the entire community. “Clearly, it benefits the schools, because they need help, and we can provide resources, including people and opportunities. Our involvement is uniquely structured for each school, based on what the school is trying to accomplish at a given time. “We want to do what we can to help the schools improve. If they are great, we want to help them become amazing. If they are good, we want to help them become great. If they are missing something, we want to help them get it.” A true partnership requires all participants to feel as if they are benefiting, and Hansen believes they’ve hit the mark. “This relationship makes my staff and me feel good about positively impacting the community, and it benefits the community because residents positively connect with the schools.” Hansen credits the Calhoun City School System with understanding that business and community participation is vital to school success and for actively encouraging that participation. “I have had great interactions and learned a lot about the schools and students,” says Hansen. “It’s a very successful partnership, and it doesn’t seem like work. We enjoy it.” To learn more about the engaging partnerships showcased in Calhoun City Schools, please visit their Partners in Education page at www.calhounschools.org/PIE. 10 PAGE ONE
Tale No. 2: The Genesis of the “Great Conversation”
Jamie Vollmer, a former executive with The Great Midwestern Ice Cream Company, once shared the popular perception within the business community that public schools were “failing” due to a “people problem.” Like many of his peers, he was convinced that unionized teachers and overpaid administrators were the problem because they were immune to the competitive pressures of the marketplace. Vollmer became engrossed in education reform, quit the ice cream business and became the first executive director of the Iowa Business Roundtable. He traveled throughout the state preaching school reform to anyone who would listen. “In retrospect,” he admits, “I was the perfect double threat [to educators]: ignorant and arrogant. I knew nothing about teaching or managing a school, but I was sure I had the answers.” Vollmer says that it took several years for his perception to change. In his book, “Schools Cannot Do It Alone,” he describes the first of many transformative encounters that crushed his conviction that schools should be run like a business: After telling educators at a staff development session in a small town in Western Iowa that “I wouldn’t be in business very long if I ran my company the way you run your schools,” Vollmer took questions from the not-so-happy audience. A high school English teacher’s hand shot up. “Mr.Vollmer, we’re told that you make good ice cream,” she began. Vollmer replied that it was the “best ice cream in America.” August/September 2013
The English teacher set the trap. “Mr. Vollmer, when you are in your factory standing at the receiving dock and you see a shipment of blueberries that do not meet your triple-A standards, what do you do?” “I send them back,” Vollmer replied. The English teacher sprang to her feet, pointing a finger at Vollmer. “That’s right! You send them back. Well, we can never send back the blueberries that our suppliers send us. We take them big, small, rich, poor, hungry, abused, confident, curious, homeless, frightened, creative, violent and brilliant. We take them of every race, religion and ethnic background. We take them with head lice, ADHD and advanced asthma. We take them with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, English as their second language and who knows how much lead in their veins. We take them all, Mr. Vollmer! Every one! And that’s why it’s not a business. It’s school!” Says Vollmer, “After that exchange, my world would never be quite the same.” Over time, his other preconceived notions crumbled as well. After countless sessions talking and listening to teachers and after spending a day as a teacher’s aide, Vollmer came to recognize that schools do not have a “people problem.” The real problem, he concluded, is that there is a major flaw in the design of the system: That flaw is that schools are still operating under an industrialage model, which is completely unsuitable in our post-industrial “knowledge age.” As the former ice cream executive told a June gathering of PAGE and business leaders, “If you spend time honestly observ-
ing what goes on in schools, you realize we don’t have a people problem; we have a culture problem.” The primary message of “Schools Cannot Do It Alone” is that schools and communities need to partner if we are to unfold the potential of every child. Vollmer argues convincingly that for a multitude of reasons, including the increasing demands on schools and educators, today’s schools need all the help they can get to fulfill their mission. Instead of blaming schools and educators for failing to properly educate today’s young people, Vollmer now urges communities to recognize that schools cannot do all the things required of them with their current structures and resources. What is urgently needed is for communities throughout the country to participate in a “Great Conversation” about how to structure schools. This “Great Conversation” is essential, Vollmer told PAGE luncheon attendees, because of the powerful forces driving the public away from public schools. These forces include “the silver tsunami of an aging population and the echo chamber of group think among those who believe schools are failing and should be privatized and run like a business.” The “Great Conversation” must be held, he insists, to “convince all citizens that almost every aspect of life is tied to the quality of schools, and that good schools are good not just for kids, but for everyone.” See Q & A with Jamie Vollmer, author of “Schools Cannot Do It Alone” starting on next page.
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Q&A with Jamie Vollmer
Q: Even if communities do come together to try to make their schools more relevant to the 21st century, can they really accomplish that if local schools are required to follow state and federal mandates regarding testing, curriculum and other policies? Jamie Vollmer A: No. This is not an indictment of all state and federal laws and regulations, but there can be legislators know better than local educators no doubt that many regulations and stat- and citizens how to run their schools? I utes are hindering meaningful and lasting believe that most people in government are change and, in some cases, confirming the good people who want to do the right thing, adage that the further a decision is made but they get trapped in the “group think” from those it affects, the dumber it generally bubble with lobbyists who have agendas is. When did we decide that politicians and of their own. To get from point A (where
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Following a presentation to attendees of a PAGE luncheon (see page 14), education advocate Jamie Vollmer sat down with PAGE ONE for a Q&A about the “Great Conversation.”
schools are now) to point B (where schools can help unfold the potential of every child), communities must retake control of their schools. To do this, schools must form alliances within the community—with businesses, clergy and other citizens so that we can utilize these human resources.
Q: Given the massive budget reductions in states such as Georgia over the past decade, along with the state and federal mandates, is it realistic to expect local schools systems to make major changes, such as expanding the school year at a time when many systems have had to reduce the number of days students come to school? (Some systems in Georgia are down to less than 150 days per year.) A: In 1989, then President George H.W. Bush said that the country has the will, but not the wallet, to make our schools great. Shortly thereafter, he launched the first Gulf War, which suggests that we do have the wallet, but not the will, when it comes to funding education. This has certainly been true for several years in virtually every state legislature, and funding priorities will not change until legislators go home and hear their neighbors tell them that educating our children is the most important thing our society must do, and that if [legislators] won’t fund the schools properly, they will be voted out of office. For better or worse, legislators reflect the group consciousness of the people. Society won’t find the wallet until we find the will. Q: Is it too late to save public schools now that many state legislatures have apparently made the decision to privatize education as quickly and thoroughly as possible? A: I think that the pendulum has swung as far as it can go in undermining public education. The problem with the move to privatization is that it doesn’t care about fairness or equalization of opportunity. It is ironic that supporters of the most privatization efforts claim to be conservative, because it is not conservative to destroy an institution that is August/September 2013
The primary message of “Schools Cannot Do It Alone” is that schools and communities need to partner if we are to unfold the potential of every child. central to every community in the country. Destroying public schools is also destroying the culture of a community. Q: The idea of having the “Great Conversation” in communities across the country is exciting and very important, but can such conversations really produce significant changes in the way public schools are run and the way they approach education? Have you seen a great conversation lead to lengthened school years, altered curricula, giving greater flexibility in the time it takes to learn? A: They can produce significant change, but it may take a while before communities begin the conversation and then realize that public education should quit playing defense and start pushing back against the forces preventing schools from helping to unlock the potential of every child. When
I was in school, 77 percent of the jobs did not require a high school diploma. Today a mere 13 percent do not require at least a high school education. Q: Although the idea of the “Great Conversation” is new, can you cite a community that has come together to help their schools make at least some of the changes necessary to prepare students for the information and communication age? A: The community of Beloit, Wis., comes to mind. It is a blue-collar satellite of Detroit where kids without a lot of education used to get good-paying jobs prior to the collapse of the American automobile industry. With unemployment extremely high and no likely replacements for low-skill, high-paying jobs on the horizon, the community’s economic
development council, public school district, community college and other community leaders came together to restructure the schools to remove obstacles to all students succeeding and gaining the skills n needed for today’s high-tech jobs. To learn more about Jamie Vollmer’s conversion from public education critic to strong ally, read “Schools Cannot Do It Alone.” Educators will appreciate the book, businesspeople and legislators should be required to read it, and everyone will find it enlightening: www.enlightenmentpress.com.
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PAGE Luncheon Launches the “Great Conversation” Among Georgia Educators and Business Leaders Photos by Saldivia-Jones Photography
pproximately 200 educators and business leaders from across Georgia gathered at a PAGE luncheon in early June to hear public education champion Jamie Vollmer, author of “Schools Cannot Do It Alone.” Vollmer stressed the urgency for schools and their communities to initiate and sustain connections with each other in order to break down barriers impeding advancements in education. Vollmer calls the process the “Great Conversation.” Everything that occurs in the schoolhouse has ties to the beliefs, values and traditions of the community at large, thus the two entities are naturally entwined, noted Vollmer. Luncheon attendees learned the value of communicating their school’s successes and challenges with their own communities. They also gained insight on how to n start the dialogue. To see a video report about Jamie Vollmer’s message to Georgia educators, scan this QR code or visit www.pageinc.org/associations/9445/pagetv/ ?page=873&tab=3&tab=3
Pete Martin, AT&T Georgia vice president (retired)
Sis Henry, Georgia School Boards Association executive director 14 PAGE ONE
Joe Bankoff, chair, Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Tech
Georgia educators and business leaders attending the PAGE Summer Luncheon were inspired by Jamie Vollmer’s charge to engage in the “Great Conversation” Buford Hicks, Heart of Georgia RESA retired director
Jute Wilson, principal, Dawson High; Sheila Wilson, assistant principal, Pickens High; PAGE Executive Director Dr. Allene Magill
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From The Executive Director Dr. Allene Magill
To Be Successful, Schools Must Engage Their Students and Their Communities
n assessing the challenges facing public schools, Jamie Vollmer, former manufacturing executive and author of “Schools Cannot Do It Alone,” says that we do not have a “people” problem, we have a “system” problem. That’s because our schools were designed for the 20th century, when most people were trained to be workers and a minority were groomed to be leaders. The former leader of the Iowa Business Roundtable was once a severe critic of public schools, but Vollmer’s views changed radically once he realized how much more is being asked of schools year after year. He also came to see how most critics suffer from “nostesia”—a combination of nostalgia for the “golden days” of education that never were and of amnesia, which prompts school critics to selectively remember the good things,
For schools to gain the trust and support of their communities, the two parties must collectively address perceptions and misperceptions.
—Jamie Vollmer, Author of “Schools Cannot Do It Alone”
conveniently forgetting the rest. Vollmer says that to succeed, it is imperative that schools first gain the understanding, trust, permission and support of their local communities. To achieve this, educators and citizens must engage in what Vollmer calls “Great Conversations.” The two parties must collectively address perceptions and misperceptions about their schools. After all, communities are their schools and schools are their communities. In early June, PAGE brought together a statewide group of school, business, foundation and education leaders to hear Vollmer’s riveting message, to engage with him and to begin thinking about how they could launch their own “Great Conversations” across Georgia. The well-attended luncheon was a great success, and hopefully it sparked a platform for change. Following Vollmer’s presentation, PAGE and Regional Education Service Agency leaders from across the state met to explore how we could cooperatively promote “Great Conversations” locally to set the stage for gaining our community’s understanding, trust, permission and support. “Great Conversations” are community-level discussions. PAGE cannot lead them from Atlanta, but we can work with partners such as the Georgia School Boards Association, whose executive director, Sis Henry, is fully committed, as well as with RESAs and their local superintendents. Facilitating these conversations is a priority for PAGE. For too long now, public education in Georgia has been battered by budget cuts and policy decisions coming from Washington and Atlanta. It is time for local communities to take their schools back and work hand in hand with local educators to provide a high-quality, engaging curriculum that will increase student achievement and success. The time is n now. The work is ours to do. To see a short video about Jamie Vollmer’s message to Georgia educators, scan the QR code below or visit www.pageinc.org/display common.cfm?an=1&subarticlenbr=873
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