Community Permission: Prerequisite for Change

Public involvement is unattainable and must be replaced by an organic conversation by Jamie Robert Vollmer

The high school auditorium was packed. More than 600 people had come out on a March night, in spite of the snow, to a meeting that had nothing to do with money or sports. The superintendent of this small, rural school district in southern Minnesota sat in the front row with members of his vertical team as I spoke. They had great plans for reform, and community involvement was a key piece of their strategy. They had worked for months to inspire such a crowd.

Key representatives of the district's classified and certified staff were on the team from the start. The group had networked with civic clubs and enlisted the aid of major employers. The meeting was scheduled carefully to avoid conflicting with "church night." The scholastic basketball season was over, and, fortunately, pickings were slim on TV.

As the featured speaker, I had been invited as an outside expert to talk about two things: why change was necessary and, my passion, the need for the entire community to be involved in the process.

The speech was well received; the response was warm and enthusiastic. As I climbed from the stage, a woman pushed toward me. In a strong, clear voice she said, "I followed what you said and I am excited, but something tells me that it's going to take more than five meetings to change our schools. Mr. Vollmer, it took me two days to find a baby sitter for tonight. I am working two jobs. So is my husband. I want to be kept informed, but there is no way that I can be involved."

End of an Era

Her words hit me like a brick. She was intelligent and motivated. She represented a fully employed, intact, nuclear family. She had rearranged her life to come to the meeting on this miserable night. And still, she could not be involved! Not because she was angry, afraid or apathetic, but because she, her husband and millions of people like them already were dancing as fast as they could just to make their lives work.

I felt my preconceived notions tear from their moorings. I was a champion of community involvement. I believed that community involvement was the key to progress.

As I stood staring at her, however, all the setbacks that I had ignored, all the signals that I had stubbornly suppressed in my long campaign rushed forward to reinforce her message. She was right: It is going to take more than five meetings to effectively change our schools, and Americans are just too busy to be involved.

It was a devastating moment, but it put the issue in sharp focus.

Rising Involvement

Community involvement became a mantra in the mid-1990s. The only words used more often were "paradigm" and "systemic." Before then, most educators employed what I call the traditional approach to including the community in the process of educational reform.

This approach revolved around a committee, comprised mainly of change agents within the schools, who turned to the community only after internal discussion and planning were well underway. The centerpiece, often the only piece, of community involvement was a public meeting. The public was invited via notes sent home with students, an announcement in the district newsletter, phone calls to key opinion leaders and an article in the local newspaper.

The audience at these public meetings was typical: The same eight people and the one weirdo who came to all the meetings.

The traditional approach resulted in little involvement, but this was not a problem because most changes were incremental and gradually made and customer satisfaction was high.

Conditions changed by the early 1990s. Fewer taxpayers had children in school. Politicians and business leaders pressed, sometimes bullied, administrators to make sweeping changes quickly. Administrators responded, but they paid a price. Tensions soared as new school models collided with old school notions. Factions within staff and community became adversarial. Misinformation and innuendo were rampant. Finally, three or four people ran for school board on anti-everything platforms, and they won. Everyone was ripped back to the status quo. The only thing that changed was the superintendent.

Community involvement was promoted as the antidote. The theory was that broad and deep involvement would foster understanding, which in turn would reduce tension and increase support for school district plans. Soliciting and maintaining community involvement required more labor than the traditional approach, but it promised great benefits. Conferences began to feature involvement workshops; politicians promoted it in every presentation; academia extolled its virtues. Community involvement was included in 10,000 strategic plans.

It made sense to me. I had learned the hard way that the community has the final word in the great reform debate. I knew we absolutely needed something from the community if we were to significantly improve public schools. Pursuing involvement became my primary focus.

I slogged through the palpable resistance of staff members who were suspicious of the community and hostile toward the project. I persisted in the face of consistently pathetic attendance at public meetings, erratic participation of volunteers and the gradual loss of interest by even the most ardent supporters. For years, I ignored these setbacks and soldiered on because it made strategic sense and because I believed it was the right thing to do.

The encounter with the woman in the crowd both halted my charge and forced an honest reassessment. In the following weeks, the core question became this: What do we absolutely need from the community to be able to improve our schools?

I realized most people hold strong opinions about the way schools ought to be run, whether or not they have children in the system. To effectively change our schools, we need these people to understand why change is necessary. We need the community to accept the articulated goals. Most of all, we need an informed, supportive community to allow the improvement process to unfold.

Community involvement had been promoted as a means to this end, but given the circumstances, it was ineffective. We want community involvement, but what we need is community permission--permission to fundamentally change our schools. No significant, lasting change can occur without this permission, and permission, unlike involvement, is something we can get.

A Managed Conversation

Permission to change is the prerequisite for change. The process of gaining permission resembles a thoughtful, managed conversation that is interactive, organic and ongoing. This immediately distinguishes it from the wham-bam, full-court press of a levy campaign.
There are six main elements.

* Mapping the community.
The permission conversation takes place primarily on the community's turf at the community's convenience. This all-important shift in venue increases the audience's comfort and accessibility. It is necessary to establish the turf and convenience for as many people as possible.

The challenges presented by this initial step differ in rural, suburban and urban districts. Most human beings, however, organize themselves into groups regardless of location. A mapping committee should make a series of poster-sized lists of groups, including civic clubs, professional, trade and educational associations, the community's bigger businesses and churches, synagogues and mosques.

Program officers of every group should be contacted and told of the district's interest in engaging their members in a conversation about their local schools. The first round of presentations should be scheduled with the clear understanding that these are part of an ongoing series.

Each presentation should be recorded on the appropriate list. Eventually, it should be possible to walk into a room and see represented on the posters a significant portion of the community and the reach of the conversation.

* Providing good information.
All presentations should place the issues in their proper factual and historical contexts. They should answer basic questions: What are we doing now and why; what do we want to change and why; what do we want to do instead; and what do we hope to accomplish?

Including comparisons to the past is helpful. They can preempt the comments of those in the audience who suffer from the disease that I have labeled "nostesia"—the debilitating mental condition caused by the malignant coupling of nostalgia and amnesia. The afflicted are identified by their aggressive defense of the way schools used to be.

Every presentation must highlight positive developments on the local and national levels. Public schools are doing so many things better than ever before. Educators have to overcome their hesitancy to publicize success. There are enough people trumpeting bad news.

Finally, school leaders must cast information in clear, simple terms. "Edspeak" is the bane of effective communication.

* Time to digest.
The amount of time the community needs to consider each message varies. The determinative factor in calculating time is the degree to which the proposed change affects the culture of the community. This is not always obvious.

Subtle but strong emotional threads bind Americans to their schools. The sights, sounds and smells and the rituals and routines within our schools influence the community's sense of place. No one can touch the school without touching the culture of the town. Many reformers have suffered by failing to recognize the presence of deep cultural roots. The deeper the roots, the more sensitive the issue and the more time is needed to consider a significant change.

* Opportunity to respond.
Never should a presentation be made without providing the people in the audience with a bone fide opportunity to respond. Feedback opportunities should take two forms: a question and answer session after each presentation and the distribution of a questionnaire. The tone of the Q&A and the answers to a questionnaire provide a concrete sense of the community, especially when combined with letters to the editor, phone calls to administrators, staff and board members, and all other ways that the community talks to itself and to its schools.

The questionnaire should contain no more than three or four questions. The questions should relate directly to the content of the material presented. They should contain no jargon. There should be enough blank space to register opinions. All forms should be collected, and the presenters should tell the audience that every response will be read.

The responses must be read and categorized as pro, con, ambivalent or confused. A predominance of answers that indicate understanding and acceptance may be as clear a signal of community permission as the district is likely to get. A confused or negative trend is a clear warning that more information is required prior to any major move.

The people in the community should know they are being heard. Ideally, presenters would provide each group with a written summation of their responses within a week of the event. This is an excellent way to counter the prevailing attitude that the people who run schools do not listen. This summary should be disseminated even if some responses are at odds with the district's plans. Some negative feedback is a given, and it provides the district insight into the issues that must be further explained.

* The target audience.
I believe in the 15-70-15 rule. Fifteen percent of the people are "Early Adopters." They love new ideas. Fifteen percent are "Retros." They hate change. Seventy percent are "Changeables." They are amenable to change, but the energy needed to move them varies depending on their position relative to the other two poles.

Historically, too much time has been squandered on the Retros because they are loud and aggressive and because administrators must be politically astute. This must stop. Do not exclude the Retros from the conversation. Every conspiracy fanatic in town will shout, "I told you there was a hidden agenda!" but resist engaging them in a protracted conversation. Retros will not budge. It's genetic.

The Changeables are the key in the permission process. Without their understanding and support, change agents will square off against the defenders of the status quo in one polarized meeting after another until the community is so fractured that the board is replaced and the opportunity for meaningful reform is lost.

* Who carries the conversation to the public?
Presentations to the community should always be made by teams of two to four people. Contrary to prevailing tendencies, administrators and board members should rarely be the featured presenters. They must approve and support the conversation, but teachers, joined by interested support staff and community partners, should carry the conversation to the community. Such a team provides strength and authenticity to the effort. It also helps combat staff resistance. No one can kill this process faster than the staff if they feel it is just one more top-down program developed and initiated without their input.

Gaining Permission

Permission to change is granted when the community says, "Yes, we understand the issue, we accept the proposed plan, and we agree to alter our lives to the degree necessary to help our students succeed. The people in the community are unlikely to be this explicit, but they will signal the district when it is appropriate to proceed.

The required strength and clarity of the signal will vary according to the gravity of the issue. Districts, for example, now ask people to grant permission to raise more money by going to the ballot box. Fortunately, no other issue requires such cumbersome, formal assent. In most cases, permission to change will emerge from the back and forth flow of the conversation described. Each presentation will provide signals. Casual and official contact among staff, parents and community members will yield insight into collective conclusions. Opinion leaders will provide a sense of the community's predominant response.

Eventually, district leadership will have to decide whether acceptance has reached critical mass. Districts that have been aggressive in their outreach will enjoy a greater degree of certainty regarding the community's response. Plumbing the depths of acceptance may be more art than science, but it is comforting to know that if the district misreads the signs and proceeds prematurely, its leaders are much more likely to be forgiven by a community that has been included in the permission conversation than by a community that has been effectively ignored by the traditional approach.

A Mental Switch

Since the late 1980s, it has been widely assumed and greatly promoted that educators must seek more community involvement. I have concluded that this assumption is incorrect. Spending time attempting to increase community involvement is an extravagance that educators and their partners can ill afford. The energy required is considerable, success is meager and fleeting and the process is demoralizing.

We absolutely need something from the community if we are to move public schools forward. That something is permission.

It is a relief to make the mental switch from involvement to permission, especially for administrators who have spent hours soliciting involvement only to see the same handful of loyal volunteers huddled in the auditorium with no reinforcements in sight. I do not promote permission for the relief that it affords. Twelve years of work in the field have left me with the unshakable conclusion that the switch is necessary.

Our schools were designed to serve a society that no longer exists. Changes are coming in curriculum, assessment, governance and scheduling that precious few people comprehend--certainly not I. These changes will affect everyone in schools and in surrounding communities in intimate ways. They will change more than our schools; they will change America.

Americans are not going to let this happen, regardless of political pressure, unless they understand the need for the change and permit the process to evolve. The permission process conforms to the reality of American life. It builds understanding and acceptance. It demonstrates respect for the people who pay for public schools. Community permission provides administrators with the support they must have to create the schools our children need.

Jamie Robert Vollmer is president of Vollmer and Associates, 1114 Lakeview Drive, Fairfield Iowa 52556. E-mail: jamie@jamievollmer.com