'Building A Broad Constituency For Change'
Fifty years ago, Grand Rapids, Mich., was the first city in the country to fluoridate its water. The community didn't ask questions, and no one offered information on the chemicals introduced into our water supply. Perhaps because it was 1944, and the nation's focus was on winning the war, but this drastic government action did not create any public concern. It did not attract much particular interest at all.
What a different time we live in. Today, the residents of any city would be far more vocal in protecting their health and water. Some would want to know the health risks and benefits before they decided if fluoridated water was in the best interest of the community. Others would be suspicious of "government help." Many would at least want to voice their concerns in some organized way. In 1944, we were a different, perhaps more naive, citizenry.
In 1987, a new kind of citizenry created the Grand Rapids Public Education Fund. Citizens today demand more opportunities for public dialogue. The PEF works with city schools and the community to improve public education, to develop a vision of educational excellence, and to engage the whole community in improving student performance.
We have worked with the citizens of Grand Rapids for the past decade in a variety of ways and through many programmatic initiatives. We have helped the Grand Rapids public schools involve hundreds of community members in the conception and development of a strategic plan for the district. And we have helped more than 60 local businesses and community organizations form working relationships with schools. In short, we work to include all sectors of the public in the process of education reform in careful and highly personal ways. We have listened to community members when they say that public schools are inaccessible at best, hostile at worst.
We have come to understand that the public cares deeply about public schools. They want children to have better opportunities than they did. They possess the experience and resources to make significant contributions toward improving the performance of learners of all ages. But, the public has developed sensitive "junk detectors" when they feel that their input is not valued, or worse, that it is used to further someone else's political agenda. If people feel shut out of important decisionmaking that affects their children, they will not hesitate to impede that decisionmaking.
We have also learned that education professionals do not share our belief that the public cares deeply about the future of public education. Schools are not organized and managed in a way that permits authentic public engagement. The business and community partners we work with do not feel welcome in schools. They feel their suggestions are easily dismissed as uninformed or mettlesome.
The public in Grand Rapids, then, is indeed organizing--in opposition to reform efforts. They do not have the confidence that the proposed changes will be good for their kids. Because the schools did not ask for the public's input, they will never acquire their trust. If we are going to be successful in improving the performance of our schools and our children, we must foster authentic involvement of the community in shaping and sustaining that change.
The PEF is building a broad, grassroots constituency for change. We are engaging the corporate community in the work of schools. People from neighborhood churches, businesses, and youth-serving organizations, through a series of public dialogues, are beginning to find common ground. They are working together to make their neighborhood school a better environment for kids. We continue to learn from that process.
We have learned that the public is not monolithic. All business leaders don't necessarily hold the same vision for schools; working-class parents don't always want the same reforms. There are many different publics. They come together in different places, using different language and jargon. They listen to different leaders. And they are at different stages in their understanding of schools and ways to improve learning.
We are most effective in building public support when we go to where people naturally organize themselves--in schools, churches, or neighborhood centers--and learn what matters to them in their schools.
At a recent citywide public forum on violence in city schools (clearly an issue of concern to many parents, myself included) not one parent showed up. School officials wondered aloud whether this meant parents feel all schools are safe. In fact, parents felt such a large meeting was far too impersonal. We have learned through trial and error that parents are more likely to respond to conversations with principals and teachers than to voice their concerns at a large gathering.
Over the past few years, the PEF tried unsuccessfully to get teachers and their community partners to share program ideas and concerns over lunch. We didn't understand why the lunch meetings weren't working until we realized how many principals and teachers supervise lunch duty. One daylong retreat for partners angered those who didn't want to miss that day's Michigan vs. Michigan State football game. If only we had asked what people were thinking and how they wanted to confront the issue.
We are continually surprised as we move between the corporate community, churches, and other neighborhood organizations at the common values among them. Ultimately, people want higher performance standards for students and their entry-level workers. They believe in their own ability to make good decisions. They want a strong system of accountability for students, teachers, parents, and schools. And across the board, they have felt shut out of the process of reforming schools.
We are currently working with parents and community groups to create a system of performance measures that they believe will give them meaningful information in understanding how schools are doing and what areas need to be improved. These conversations mark a fundamental shift in how citizens approach education. Rather than reacting to an education crisis, they are proactively setting a positive vision for their neighborhood schools. This process has been an instructive one. It has required educators to articulate to the public a fairly specific current status of schooling. And it has asked parents to question what they expect of schools--and then hold educators to those expectations.
Our lessons have been hard-won. We have had some missteps and some treasured breakthroughs. But we are learning to meet the people where they are, not where we want them to be. And we are working with them to understand how well our children are--or are not--learning and to give them an authentic voice in improving their schools.
Vol. 15, Issue 12, Page 33Published in Print: November 22, 1995, as 'Building A Broad Constituency For Change'