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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
February 1, 1997
Vol. 54
No. 5

The New Village Commons—Improving Schools Together

In a New England community, teachers, students, parents, administrators, and school board members learned how to put the children first as they developed important communication skills.

This is the story of how one school district—White Mountain Regional in northern New Hampshire—succeeded at engaging its citizens in a series of thoughtful dialogues about children's learning. They learned many valuable lessons along the way. But to understand just how far this community has come, you need to know a bit of history.

Battles and Bitterness

The five quiet, picturesque villages that make up this district give no outward clue that the townspeople have been at war with one another. Like many other communities today, these towns were caught up in bitter, adversarial battles over their schools—fighting first over whether and then where to build a new elementary school, squabbling over the school budget, and arguing with the teachers over money.
The State Board of Education and County Commissioners finally had to decide where to build the new elementary school. But nobody had resolved the fierce war of words that took place every March during the town meeting debate over the school budget, or the crisis with the teachers. For the past several years, teachers had worked without a contract, without a raise. They finally staged a one-day "sick-out" in protest—which only further alienated the townspeople. Things had become so bad that the local weekly newspaper was filled with editorials and letters attacking one aspect or another of the schools.
Despite these grim circumstances, the White Mountain communities had elected some competent school board members who had, in turn, hired a dedicated superintendent and administrative staff. In the summer of 1995, board members, school administrators, a few parents, and three teachers participated in a retreat to discuss the development of an educational improvement plan as a part of a Consolidated Federal Education Grant. The group quickly agreed that before they could develop a blueprint for change, they had to find some way to improve the public image of the school by involving the community in planning.
That same summer, the district's assistant superintendent, Richard Juve, had attended the Harvard Institute for School Leadership—a new program to train school district teams in the theories and practices associated with systemic change. At this institute, Richard had heard me discuss the public engagement strategies that we had developed at the Institute for Responsive Education. He invited me to meet with the small group that had attended the retreat.

A Beginning Focus

The group was interested in much more than just "getting the word out about how good our schools are." In fact, participants were committed to engaging the community in a genuine dialogue. But they had made no specific plans to involve teachers or students. The group accepted my proposal to conduct an initial focus group with 12th graders and hold a discussion with teachers, in addition to training facilitators for a town forum the following month.
The eight students who participated in the focus group quickly identified problems of concern to them in the high school—including lack of academically challenging classes, inadequate college advising, and a school climate that was not conducive to learning. And they wanted to help find solutions to the problems. We agreed that they would conduct focus groups with the other 90 seniors and would participate in the town forum. Their serious, thoughtful list of concerns both surprised and pleased the administration.

Meeting Teachers' Concerns

The meeting first with the union leadership and then with about 70 teachers was another story, however. They were angry that there hadn't been a general invitation for teachers to come to the summer retreat. (Administrators had called a number of teachers during the summer, but only three were able to participate.) School improvement was, once again, being done to them, not with them. For many veteran teachers, this was one more example of lack of respect. There was talk of boycotting the school improvement efforts until long-standing salary issues were addressed.
I made it clear that I was not working just for the administration—but ultimately for the whole community—and so was sympathetic to their concerns. But I also offered some tough comments as a "critical friend." They were already paid more than the average income for most families in the community, and so any boycott was only going to increase community resentment. The community was unlikely to agree to pay raises so long as teachers appeared indifferent to efforts to improve schools and teaching. I encouraged them to pursue a dual track—working collaboratively on school improvement while addressing issues related to salary and lack of trust and respect. I offered to facilitate dialogues with board members and administrators where we could begin to discuss these issues. Fortunately, the union had just elected new leaders, Bonnie Hick and Jean Bergin, who were interested in trying less confrontational approaches. The union agreed to officially cosponsor the community dialogue the following month, and several teachers expressed interest in participating.

Doing the Town Meeting

  1. What important things should all White Mountain graduates know and be able to do?
  2. What values should the school reinforce?
  3. What are immediate priorities for school improvements?
We spent half the evening in small focus groups of eight, then let people wander around the room and view posterboard summaries of each group's discussion, and finally came together for a whole-group discussion.
In preparation for the evening town meeting for learning, a group of volunteer board and community members, parents, teachers, and high school students learned focus group moderator techniques. Meanwhile, the superintendent and board members advertised the meeting on the radio; met with community and religious leaders; asked for support from the Lions Club, League of Women Voters, and so on; and wrote letters to the editor. The newspaper responded with a supportive editorial, and several ministers urged their congregations to attend the meetings.
Still, leaders of our effort were not especially optimistic. Previous efforts to invite the public to school meetings had resulted in small turnouts. Several people said they would be happy if 50 people showed up.
More than 175 people came out for the meeting. Asked to set the stage for the evening, I suggested to the group that, indeed, schools all over America had problems, but they were not failing, and therefore teachers, administrators, and parents were not to blame. Rather, fundamental changes in the nature of work, in requirements for active and informed citizenship, in our understanding of the learning process, and, finally, in students' and families' life circumstances all had rendered a great deal of the curriculum and many teaching strategies obsolete. And so it must be the whole community's responsibility to reinvent—not merely reform—our schools. We must rethink what all students need to know and be able to do and then develop the appropriate curriculum and teaching methods to achieve these new goals. And the first step is to have a civil dialogue where we can discuss our concerns and priorities for our children.
Mary Lavelle, chair of the school board, and Jim Gaylord, the superintendent, paced the gym floor nervously during the small-group discussions. Some of the most vociferous school critics were there, including the newspaper reporter who had written negative stories about the schools. Mary and Jim were prepared for the worst. But the dialogue at more than 20 tables was uniformly civil.
The real surprise came when the groups put their summaries up on the posterboards. The different small groups showed extraordinary agreement about goals, values, and immediate priorities. The whole-group discussion that followed continued in the spirit of engaged civility. One woman confessed that she always brought her knitting to school meetings and that this was the first meeting where she hadn't touched it. A school board member observed that for the first time since she could remember, the community had actually come together to discuss education issues. Finally, many people said that the only real problem had been lack of time to discuss further—and they wanted more meetings.
Stunned by the success of their event, the organizing committee quickly decided to have three more town meetings for learning— one devoted to each of the original questions, using the same format as the first. The next week, a positive newspaper article described the new school improvement initiative. In the months that followed, the positive press and community good will all continued to grow.

Learning to Win-Win

Things did not go as well with some of the teachers. Many felt that they were not respected by the community; others felt they had been betrayed by administrators and board members who appeared to side with them in salary discussions, but then said different things in public. It became increasingly clear that a continuing lack of trust was likely to undermine any positive results from the community meetings.
Just before the second town meeting, I invited six people—the superintendent, the coordinator of the educational improvement initiative, the school board chair, another board member, and two union leaders—to address some of the underlying issues. At a dinner meeting, each person briefly described some of the problems that interfered with collaboration. There was broad agreement that lack of clear and consistent two-way communication was one root cause of many of their problems. The six agreed to meet monthly to share concerns and communicate more directly. The union leaders also urged that board members attend training with them on how to do "win-win" negotiations, and they agreed.
Although the union leaders said they were willing to try to start over, many teachers were still preoccupied with issues from the past. I offered to moderate a meeting among teachers, board members, and the superintendent to air grievances. Once again, as in the town meetings, my role was to set the ground rules for a safe and civil dialogue where people could disagree without being disagreeable.
The meeting was neither fun nor easy. Some tough things were said—but not shouted. Both sides had valid concerns, but people seemed to be able to express strong disagreements with less animosity than before. Most people left the meeting feeling that they had been heard and with a better understanding of how the other side saw things.
All through the late fall and winter, the dialogues continued at every level. One administrator, Peggy Paddock, spent considerable time on planning, coordination, publicity, and follow-up. The town meetings continued to be well attended. Board members and union officials went to the training for win-win bargaining and then sat down to negotiate the next contract in a new way. The small group of union leaders, administrators, and school board members also continued to meet.

What We Accomplished

In February, the board and the union agreed on a new teacher contract in record time, and it contained the first raise for teachers in nearly five years. But many people were concerned about what would happen when the school budget came up for approval at the March town meeting. No one could have guessed the outcome: A substantially increased budget passed with a voice vote and no vocal dissension—for the first time in several years.
At the last of the four town meetings, we asked for volunteers to consider next steps. More than 60 people indicated an interest in working on one of three committees: one to create a mission statement for the district that would spell out what all White Mountain graduates should know and be able to do; one to create a statement of core values; and one to look at immediate school improvement priorities. Each committee began to work on a report and recommendations for next steps.
Then an unexpected test of our new-found spirit of cooperation occurred: In the fall of 1996, a coach was suspended for unprofessional behavior. The disciplinary actions taken by the principal and by the superintendent were extremely controversial, and so the board decided to review the case. The turnout for the meeting was enormous. Both the board and the community were split down the middle by the issue, and many privately feared that this controversy would destroy the civility the community had struggled to achieve. But this time there was no name-calling, no shouting. The townspeople seemed to have learned to discuss their disagreements in a different spirit.

Lessons Learned

  • Courageous leadership is critical. At White Mountain, school board members, administrators, and union leaders all took risks in daring to engage the public and move from confrontation and defensiveness to collaboration.
  • Public engagement begins with listening. In many communities, there is a pent-up need to share concerns; educators' willingness to hear these issues is the most important first step in improving the image of schools.
  • Dialogues must be structured in ways that create a safe, respectful environment and minimize blame. Basic ground rules of civil discourse raise the expectations about the quality of dialogue from what otherwise frequently occurs in many communities. Framing problems as being "ours," not "theirs," can create a more productive dialogue.
  • Work with the teachers and the union first. Teachers need to feel they are part of the public to be engaged, not the victims of whatever the public may decide. Similarly, union cosponsorship underscores the collaborative nature of the endeavor.
  • Address underlying issues of trust and respect. At most schools, lack of trust and respect—between teachers and students, between teachers and administration, between teachers and the community—are serious concerns. Acknowledging these problems at the outset enables people to work toward an improved climate and clear core values.
  • Allocate adequate resources to ensure success. The success of our work through the year required an investment of time and money—for planning, for consultation, for materials. Implementation will require a similar investment.
  • Make student learning the focus. The purpose of public engagement is not simply to create good press. The goal is to generate greater clarity and broad agreement about what must be done to improve student learning.
After a year of actively listening, White Mountain district has generated a new spirit of public trust—but it is fragile. The schools' leaders must now grapple with what they heard and act on the community's concerns and ideas for how to improve student learning. It won't be easy. The community has now set much higher standards for educators, students, and citizens. A shared concern for their young people and a commitment to more honest, respectful, face-to-face dialogue have replaced years of mistrust, name-calling, and divisive debate. Talking about ways to improve schools together has enabled citizens in this district to rediscover common ground and to re-create community.

Tony Wagner is the first innovation education fellow at the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard University. He is the author of five books on education, including The Global Achievement Gap (Basic Books, 2008). 

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