Tony Wong, a 10-year veteran of the Cecil County School Board in Maryland, recalled a school boundary redistricting situation several years ago when "the community all came out, and although it started out heated, it demonstrated to us that if we sat down and talked together, we could get things done." Wong and fellow board members were looking for new ways to keep achieving that same kind of dialogue—but without waiting for contentious issues to crop up.
Wong, board president, credits recent "kitchen table" conversations with prompting more involvement from citizens in his county, a relatively rural area in the northeastern corner of Maryland, bordering Delaware and Pennsylvania and nestled along the Chesapeake Bay.
The kitchen table conversations are part of "What Counts?", a collaborative effort of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education (MABE) and local boards of education. Each "What Counts?" session asks citizens, "What do we value most about public education?" Community members then explore what defines quality—everything from high graduation rates to high parental involvement, availability of technology, the way a school looks, teachers who are well trained and knowledgeable, and programs for gifted students.
More than 50 people turned out for the Cecil County session, intrigued by the forthright request from their school board. Come and talk with us, the invitation urged: "Explore...how the effectiveness and quality of public schools should be measured. One important measure, certainly, is how well students perform on standardized tests. The central question to be explored at this forum is what ELSE should count in assessing the quality of the public schools?"
As they gathered in small groups that night, individuals first selected their top eight signs of school quality, then shared their rationale for choosing. Each table tried to agree on its top signs overall. With large poster sheets tacked up around the room, participants walked around posting a handful of colored sticky dots on their preferred items, talking to their neighbors as they walked.
Kitty Blumsack, MABE's director of board development, facilitates such meetings all around Maryland. Before each session, she briefs board members, superintendent, and staff on the process and their responsibilities. The district invites the participants, hoping to wind up with 40 to 80 attendees from all corners of the district. After the session, MABE compiles data, summarizes evaluations, and provides the "What Counts?" report.
"We were successful in terms of turnout and collecting a lot of good information," said Wong. "It enabled our community to look at us and say—hey, we didn’t realize all this was going on."
Cecil County serves about 16,500 students, with about 135 of them second-language learners. Although Cecil County is a rural area, its housing market is exploding, said Wong, as people realize they can "work in Washington, take the [commuter] train here to live, and have a great quality of life." With the coming population boom, Wong hopes his "pretty progressive school system" gets even better, building on the interactions and information gleaned from "What Counts?"
Talk Radio 'Noise' on Public Schools Not Accurate
"What Counts?" started in 2002. Carl Smith, MABE executive director, said "We created our own process, an animal unique to Maryland." The informal setting—usually in small groups in a school cafeteria—gets people to talk about public schools, to clarify their expectations and needs.
So far, a third of the state’s districts have participated. Four "What Counts?" sessions are scheduled each year, a service that MABE provides free to its members. "Part of public engagement is to get schools on the radar screen, help districts do strategic plans, and perceptions of the community are part of that context," said Smith.
A recent "What Counts?" report notes, "All of us who have been involved have been struck by the reservoir of good will and approbation that participants expressed for their public schools. Their responses challenge the argument of some that public schools are failing to earn the confidence of parents and communities. We did not find that attitude in Maryland."
The participants' evaluations have been strongly positive, with 99 percent saying they would participate in such an exercise again. People value the fact that public schools teach all children. They also believe public schools should have a wide range of programs, for the arts as well as core academics.
"When you listen to a broad cross-section of people, you see that despite attacks by those who are not trying to improve public schools, most people are very affirming," said Smith, who has listened in at all the sessions. "You realize that despite the noise on talk radio about public schools, people are pretty sensible, and they are very affirming of public schools."
Ripples in the Pond
"What Counts?" has also had an impact beyond Maryland. Impressed by what she had heard of the program, Carole Schmidt, school superintendent in St. Joseph, Michigan, asked Blumsack to come and replicate it in her community. From the police chief to parents, more than 120 people turned out in October 2004.
The number one priority they identified was well-qualified, highly knowledgeable teachers, "which was not a surprise," said Schmidt, but the district has since used that information in supporting the hiring and pay for teachers who are the best candidates. Schmidt said that after the "What Counts?" session, "The community feels they are being listened to more by the board." Positive press coverage has also increased substantially.
"The biggest benefit I see is the connection with the community...seeing the board in a different way," said MABE’s Blumsack. She notes that even in some smaller communities, people who should have known each other don’t, always—"and that tells you what a challenge it is for board members to be that community link."
In Maryland's Wicomico County, about 60 people gathered in March 2004 for a "What Counts?" session. "We were so pleased to get such a cross-section of the community," recalled board member George Whitehead, "including the president of our community college and the president of Salisbury University. The fact that they took the time to do something like this means a lot." Whitehead, who is a psychology professor at Salisbury, notes that many Wicomico students end up attending the two institutions, so a natural synergy already exists.
As a follow-up to the "What Counts?" report, Whitehead later produced a 15-minute cable television show that walked viewers through the quality measures that Wicomico citizens had come up with, and how the school system was addressing them.
Sometimes nailing down specifics on those quality measures is tough, Whitehead acknowledged. For instance, one of the measures of quality, "Kids like to go to school," can be determined only partly by attendance rates. "We know we need to work on attendance at high school, but we also are working on discipline and school climate," he said. Some efforts already were in the works, but hearing about them at the "What Counts?" session spurred the board on to move even more quickly.
Wicomico, which has 14,000-plus students, had previously done community engagement around topics like the budget or hiring a new superintendent. Whitehead says the "What Counts?" concept “gave us an opportunity to have a broader conversation.”
"Reaching Farther" in Baltimore County
When your district is big, community engagement certainly doesn’t get any easier. Baltimore County, one of the 25 largest school systems in the nation, channels more than a billion dollars a year into educating more than 108,000 students. Since 1999, the district has been taking on a massive school renovation and major maintenance program, aimed at improving nearly all of its 162 school buildings. And like other school districts, Baltimore County must be mindful of the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law that regulates testing and achievement measures.
"We are all focused more on statistical information now," said John Hayden, a seven-year Baltimore County board member. While board members often have opportunities to sit in on seminars and delve into such information in depth, "the community at large doesn’t have those opportunities to understand what kinds of decisions are being made in respect to the allocation of money," he explained.
So a "What Counts?" session two years ago was a welcome part of continuing efforts to hear what community members had to say.
While some people might see such ventures as an opening for public criticism and complaint, Baltimore County board members found participants looking ahead and seeing the need to make changes. Dealing with capital issues and maintenance came up, for instance, as did the interest in expanding service to pre-kindergarten students.
"In my view, there is less involvement in terms of PTA and so forth today," noted Hayden, "and so we have to reach farther into community." While volunteers, school business partners, advisory boards, and the like are a welcome help, Hayden believes, "We need desperately to draw more people into the discussion of education issues."
For more information, visit the Maryland Association of School Boards web site.
MD: Kitchen table conversations in Caroline County
Maryland's Kitty Blumsack says she finds the “What Counts?” sessions engender the greatest success by following a few tips:
Ask board members to identify people and groups who should get invitations.
Advertise all over place” to cast a wide net for more participants.
Do personal follow-up, preferably by board members.
Look for “holes”—segments of the district that may not be represented—and make special efforts to fill them.
In the sessions, use facilitators who are not solely from school system. This helps participants see that a wide range of people are involved.
Review which questions yield good conversation.
Although the “values” and “measures of quality” lists come from survey data that were already in place, be open to recasting of thoughts. “Don’t be hard and fast on the words,” says Blumsack. “People sometimes combine statements and reword them, and those new statements often garner more support from the group. Remember you are not looking so much for agreement as you are for conversation.
Director of Board Development
Maryland Association of School Boards
621 Ridgely Ave.
Annapolis, MD 21401
Phone: (410) 841-5414
October 18, 2006
©2006 Center for Public Education