Features

Laptops and Communication Lessons

A school district discovers the painful ramifications of overlooking public input by Diane E. Reed, Allison J. Armstrong and Renee A. Williams

Every school district faces its own challenges and each grows from its experiences in meeting them. For the Honeoye Falls-Lima School District in upstate New York, the greatest recent challenge involved laptop computers, communication and community trust.

The 10,000 residents of the Honeoye Falls-Lima Central School District are a mixture of professionals, small business owners and long-time residents. As is true with many small communities, the residents are supportive of our schools. Students perform well on state assessments and are making progress toward reaching the high goals set by the district and the state. In fact, Newsweek ranked Honeoye Falls-Lima High School in the top 1.6 percent of schools nationwide in May 2005.

Residents traditionally have expressed their support by passing our annual school budget by a ratio of 2 to 1. In the spring of 2004, however, their voting foreshadowed something different. Despite exit polls that indicated the traditional level of support, the budget passed by only 14 votes. It didn’t feel like much of a victory.

We were aware some members of our community were upset about a new one-to-one student laptop program we had implemented at the middle school level. Familiar concerns had surfaced, such as students downloading music and playing games rather than using the laptops strictly for academics. But moving ahead with a large-scale project was not out of the ordinary for our district, and we saw good things happening. Students said they were more organized, spent more time on task and felt an increased sense of responsibility.

We had to look deeper than the laptop issue to explain the magnitude of the community’s dissatisfaction.

A Promising Deal
To understand the deep-seeded problems, we need to revisit fall 2002 when we distributed laptops to 164 teachers across the district. The teachers appeared to be enthusiastic about the program, for which we provided training and ongoing professional development support. The project was considered a success.

We began discussing the possibility of one day providing each student with a laptop as well. We visited other school districts that had one-to-one laptop programs, researched the topic and assessed our own readiness to undertake such a project. Our Teaching, Learning and Technology Committee, comprised of staff, parents and community members, supported the initiative, advocating a one-to-one laptop program at a single grade level. The cost, however, prevented us from pursuing the program.

In summer 2003, a vendor offered to support a one-to-one student laptop program in our school district. Not only did this offer allow us to implement the program much sooner than expected, negotiations to obtain a reduced cost per machine allowed us to expand the project to the entire middle school rather than one grade level. We now could provide a laptop to each of the 738 students in 6 th through 8 th grades. The four-year lease at an annual cost of about $235,600 appeared to be reasonable given its anticipated benefits to teaching and learning. We were prepared to implement the project as soon as possible.

Tipping Point
In September 2003, three weeks into the school year, the school board approved the lease of the laptops and we moved forward quickly, informing the community about the program via our traditional avenues: an article in the local weekly newspaper, a letter to parents, a posting on our district website and an article in the district newsletter.

The community was quiet for much of the fall. Unbeknown to us, people were talking—they just weren’t talking to us. They didn’t think we’d listen.

Through the years, the community had shared in the district’s education planning via their votes at budget time. The district had given voters the power regarding decisions such as allocating $125,000 for an optional extended-day kindergarten program, which they readily approved.

But we didn’t follow that inclusive process this time. Community members had little input into the laptop program. A week before the budget vote, several residents asked the board of education to add the laptop project to the ballot, but it was too late. Board policy required that a proposition of this nature be submitted to the board 60 days in advance of the budget vote. Despite explanations by board members, the community members felt like they had been dealt another blow.

The price we paid for moving so quickly turned out to be far greater than the cost of the laptops. Trust between our community and our school district was damaged. Could it be regained? A board member suggested we establish a committee to examine the district’s communication with the community and to recommend improvements. The real mission became a crusade to regain lost trust and community support.

Delving Deeper
The Community Communications Committee became a key factor in our quest to rebuild trust and re-establish our good relations with the community. The committee was composed of 12 community members and two members of the district’s leadership team: the communications specialist and the director of finance and operations. Initially, the community members argued that district representatives on the team would inhibit their ability to communicate openly. They relented at the urging of district representatives who pointed out that the district could better understand and respond to their concerns if we were part of their discussion.

While we expected the committee members to provide feedback about our newsletters, press releases and website, which they did, we did not anticipate some of their other recommendations, which fell into two categories: values and practical issues.

The values recommendations focused on rebuilding trust and prioritizing two-way communication. The practical recommendations included improving the district and teacher web sites, evaluating the district communication plan, and providing increased opportunities to gather community input through surveys and focus forums.

We could not act on every recommendation immediately, but we did begin to implement some of the changes: increasing collaboration between building principals and the district communication specialist, reducing the length of newsletters and more effectively using our district website to provide information.

We also acknowledged the mistakes we made in implementing the laptop project so quickly. Consequently, people began to believe we were listening and communicating more openly.

A Different Story
Our district is in much better stead today. We still have issues, but they have not been about communication. The parents know we are listening to them. When they voiced concerns about the laptops making an already stressful transition to middle school even more difficult for 6th graders, the board of education decided to provide laptops to students in 7th and 8th grades only during the 2004-2005 school year. The 6th grade students use laptops on carts that are shared between two classes, providing a ratio of one computer for every two students.

Does this modification to the original program constitute a defeat for the district? Quite the opposite. Our school’s mission and vision statement is: “We are a learning organization. We are in partnership with our community and actively seek their participation.” Our willingness to modify the laptop program demonstrates our ability to listen to, learn from and seek the involvement of our parents and the community.

Today, focus forums of randomly selected groups of parents and students increase opportunities for two-way communication throughout the year. Rather than grumbling among themselves, residents now offer suggestions to help us improve the program. For example, they have asked for additional staff development for teachers and parents and have offered suggestions for our press releases. They have shared their frustrations as well as the excitement they feel about digital learning.

In addition to listening to their ideas, we take this opportunity to update them on how we have implemented their ideas from previous forums. We also have open discussions with our middle school teachers, who provide valuable feedback as direct users of the laptop program.

Our parents, teachers and students have demonstrated an increased level of comfort and openness this year. That comfort is contagious; we are learning from our partners and our past.

Critical Components
We learned through this process that regardless of how busy we are in our daily work, we must take the time to be careful observers and critical listeners. We must stay in tune with what is going on inside and outside the walls of our schools.

Student learning is at the heart of every decision we make, but the success of our education programs depends in great measure on the trust and support we gain from the community through honest, open communication.

Diane Reed is superintendent of the Honeoye Falls-Lima School District, 20 Church St., Honeoye Falls, NY 14472. E-mail: diane_reed@hflcsd.org. Allison Armstrong is the school district’s communication specialist, and Renee Williams is assistant superintendent for instruction.