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MD: Kitchen table conversations in Caroline County

 

Getting community members to talk about education helps students suceed in Caroline County, Maryland. (Photo courtesy of Caroline County Public Schools)

Tucked inside Maryland’s Eastern Shore, agricultural Caroline County produces a bounty of strawberries, corn, and chickens. In 2003, the rural county became known for another product—enthusiastic community engagement on public schools—after what was billed as a “kitchen table” conversation just about burst the school cafeteria. Nearly 100 local residents came, eager to talk about what they valued and wanted in their schools.

Such enthusiasm was a departure from years past. “We had been at a low ebb with community engagement,” said school board member Sandi Barry. During discussions about middle school restructuring and adding a high school Advanced Placement class, for instance, the board had heard constituents grumble, “You haven’t talked to us on this.”

Said Wayne Cole, board president and a lifelong Caroline County resident, “We needed new ways to reach out and talk to people.”

At a conference of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education (MABE), Caroline school board members had heard of MABE’s "What Counts?” process for community conversations. “What Counts?” is a structure for talking with the whole community—not just parents—about what people value in their public schools

District Characteristics
Name: Caroline County SD
State: MD
Type: Rural
Grades: K–12
Enrollment: 5,400
Students per teacher: 15

Enrollment Characteristics
Economically disadvantaged: 43.7%
English language learners: 2%
Students with disabilities: 13.1%
White: 72.6%
Black: 19.6%
Hispanic: 3%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 0.9%
American Indian/Alaska Native: 5.7%
Other: n.a.
Source: SchoolMatters.com

 “The board did a terrific job of identifying people of different political parties, community leaders, businesspeople, parents, and non-parents,” said Ed Shirley, Caroline superintendent. An invitation arrived in the mailbox at Provident State Bank. One arrived at Nuttle Lumber, too. The sheriff’s office and public library staff got them as well.

As they sat in an elementary school cafeteria that October night, some people were skeptical, wondering, “We’re here—is anything going to come out of it?” Caroline County’s agricultural setting has not always squared with a strong educational background, said Shirley. Per capita, Caroline is the poorest county in Maryland and spends the least per pupil. All schools are Title I schools, a reflection of low-income levels. Still, Shirley notes, “Although some people view public education as learning to read and write and then moving on, other people say, no, we need more than that.”

Before the discussion began, MABE staff had trained facilitators for each table of six to eight. Citizens started by discussing community education values. Then from a lengthy MABE list, each person chose eight top signs of school quality—from availability of technology to well-trained and knowledgeable teachers. Voices rose and fell and markers squeaked as each table tried to settle on its collective top 10 signs.

Good to come together

“Our culture and pace is so go-go-go, it was good to slow down and come together as a community,” recalled Sue Simmons, who has two sons in public schools. Although people had differing opinions, “There was a sense of discovery as we considered and respected each other as community. That is always powerful.”

The school quality charts were posted around the cafeteria and participants strolled along the “gallery walk,” voting by placing colored sticky dots on favored items. Kitty Blumsack, MABE director of board development, led a discussion of how signs of quality fit the community values identified earlier. Two hours after they had started, “People walked away saying, ‘That was good,’” Barry said.

The “What Counts?” results were later distributed, and the board has used the information several times since then to enlighten its budget and policy decisions.

Want to play? Better do more than pass

A longtime athletic eligibility policy, for instance, was seen as too soft, specifying that students only had to pass three of four courses—a mere .75 grade point average—to be eligible to play. After extensive community discussion, the board passed a tougher policy. As of fall 2005, students must post at least a 1.5 grade point to play (transitioning to 2.0 later). “That was a cantankerous policy,” Barry noted, “and I felt we had really heard from the community on it, especially kids.”

Having a better idea of what the community thinks has helped in making such decisions. Board member Cole said the board “has now taken ownership of our community engagement plan. We go out to clubs now, service organizations, we are the ones presenting. We used to depend on staff to do that.”

Such an approach may particularly help as Caroline County braces for a growth spurt. Today the county still embraces miles of roadside produce stands, bed-and-breakfasts, and quaint antique stores. The urban pressures of Washington, D.C., are a long hour’s drive away.

But newcomers keep heading this way. Neighboring Queen Anne’s County recently put a moratorium on new housing, so people are hopscotching to Caroline. Some estimates say 6,000 new housing units will spring up in the county in the next three years.

If so, the school board’s community engagement experiences will stand it in good stead to get ready for that day. “In fact,” said Cole, “that’s one of the topics on our summer retreat.”

For more information visit the Caroline County Public Schools web site.

Related content

MD: Learning what counts

Contact

Sandra Barry
School Board Member
Caroline County Public Schools
204 Franklin Street
Denton, MD 21679
Phone: (410) 479-1460
E-mail: SANDRA_BARRY@MAIL.CL.K12.MD.US

 


 

Posted: October 25, 2005

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