Vollmer: Solutions Emerge From a ‘Big Conversation’

Jamie Vollmer 
                Jamie Vollmer
by Kristyn Hunt

“It is no accident that I’m the opening speaker,” Jamie Vollmer told a packed crowd of administrators as the keynote speaker during the 1st General Session at the 2012 AASA national conference in Houston.

Vollmer’s experience as an entrepreneur, with careers in law and manufacturing, once made him distrustful of the public school system. For years, he was an outright critic. Over time, his ideas have been transformed to one of the nation’s most outspoken advocates for public schooling, and he speaks across the country on the importance of securing a quality public education for every child.

Vollmer’s message at Thursday afternoon’s gathering in front of the nation’s superintendents was simple: The big solution is a big conversation.

The big conversation is a topic that Vollmer’s followers have heard before. He last addressed this topic to AASA during its 1995 conference in New Orleans. The great conversation is a fountainhead for solutions and, in his view, the public education system will not succeed without it.

The focal point of his message was the vital importance of engaging the community. His four pre-requisites for change detailed what schools can do to make things right in their communities. Without the community’s understanding, trust, permission and support, schools will fail, he said.

“Less than 20 percent of your taxpayers have children in school,” Vollmer stated. It is those very taxpayers, who are voting and making critical decisions on what happens in the schools. He encouraged the audience to show the community why support for schools is win-win and that everything is tied to the quality of their public schools.

Trust for schools, teachers and administrators have decreased immensely, according to Vollmer. The community needs a breakdown of trust. “As understanding grows, so does trust,” he said.

To give the community permission to think outside of the box, the public must be encouraged to do things differently and not be allowed to reminisce on how things were done in an earlier era. He encouraged the audience to rethink what’s important to teach.

“You can’t expect them to come to you. You go to them,” said Vollmer. “Trust must be on the community’s turf, on their terms, on their time.”

Rethinking who speaks to the community is a big factor. “The superintendent should not speak to the community,” he said. “Studies show America trusts teachers more.”

He ended his speech with “5 S’s:” Stop badmouthing each other in public; Shift your attention from negative to positive; Share your successes with the community; Sustain the effort; and Start now.

Vollmer urged the audience to have that conversation with their staff and to encourage them to use their social networks to reach the community.

Vollmer’s idea of a world where the community and schools can work together for the betterment of the children was well received. Before he exited the stage, he ended his speech where he started, “I’ve reached a conclusion — the big solution is you!”