A Lesson in Winning Back an Estranged Public

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When Sylvia Soholt came to work for the Edmonds 15 school district here four years ago, she noticed a small detail that bothered her. The office carrels in the administration building were arranged with their back walls toward the door used by the public.

Ms. Soholt, the community relations manager, wasted no time in turning them around. Now, visitors can see straight through to her desk.

The message is subtle but clear: We're here to serve you. This customer-oriented focus has become the hallmark of the suburban district of 20,000 students just north of Seattle.

And it appears to be paying off: At a time when many Americans have become estranged from public education, residents work hand-in-hand with the Edmonds schools.

Rebuilding public support is of pressing concern in education circles, yet there are few good examples of how to do so. This district's broad, multilayered efforts to reach out to parents and community members offer important lessons.

At the policy level, residents here have helped set standards for students, design new school buildings, and hire principals and other administrators. In the schools, barriers that can keep parents and community members away have melted away.

In one corner of the district, parents help teachers run an elementary school. At Mountlake Terrace High School, residents serve as mentors to help students complete a required graduation project. Down the road, Chase Lake Elementary packs in crowds of parents and students two nights a week with family-oriented activities. Pajama-clad children clutching teddy bears curl up with their parents in the library for bedtime stories.

In the Edmonds schools, engaging the public is a way of life, not a slogan.

"I have a very strong belief that these are the public's schools,"Superintendent Brian L. Benzel said. Giving people a voice in decisionmaking and constructive roles to play makes good sense, he said. "The management and leadership literature is full of evidence that if you involve the people who use the product—and listen to them—you'll have a better product."

The Edmonds schools, of course, also need community support to pay the bills. Every two years, voters must approve a levy that generates 20 percent of the district's $120 million annual budget. Washington state, known for its populist political tradition, requires approval from 60 percent of voters for ballot measures.

Last February, Edmonds fell short of that mark on a tax levy by just 19 votes. Although the levy passed in April, the defeat was a ringing reminder to administrators here that public engagement is a job that's never done.

Spaghetti and Tests

Ms. Soholt is the strategist behind many of the efforts to connect with residents of the five communities served by the district: Brier, Edmonds, Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace, and Woodway. With a background in journalism and public relations and a master's degree in marketing, she uses techniques from business and politics—including focus groups and surveys—to study the public.

Last summer, she cut back her schedule here to work part time for A Plus Communications, a company based in Arlington, Va., that works with education clients across the country.

Ms. Soholt uses ordinary materials to communicate in creative ways. She seldom misses a chance to inform, even if her medium is as mundane as the school lunch menu: On the back, she has information printed about the district's new curriculum frameworks.

One brochure she wrote compares the national efforts to develop new tests of students' knowledge and abilities to the nutrition labels required on packaged foods.

"It used to be that weight was the only measurement on a can of spaghetti," the brochure says. "Thanks to recent work on food labeling, you now have a better idea what's in that can. Someone took the necessary steps to define the elements that needed measuring: calories, proteins, carbohydrates, fat."

The brochure is designed to give parents a better idea of the ingredients that make up a good testing program. It includes examples of questions so that residents can decide for themselves whether multiple-choice tests or more complex performance tasks provide better information about students.

The district's popular calendar, illustrated with student artwork, is also a prime communication tool. This year, the theme is "Learning the Basics." Each month explains a slice of the district's new curriculum frameworks.

To explain a new test, administrators produced a video for parents and a detailed chart that allows parents to see what kinds of reading and math their children are capable of doing.

And each school has an annual performance report that describes its mission, academic programs, test scores, and budget.

Printed materials can only do a small part of the job of engaging the public, Ms. Soholt cautions. People don't read most of what comes into their homes.

That's why she's enthusiastic about using videos and convening focus groups, which allow the district to gain and share information at the same time. "Focus groups are a wonderful way to get very concrete opinions," she explained. "You cannot make assumptions about how people think."

Changing Attitudes

Vi Walls, who has served on the Edmonds school board for 11 years, has seen a dramatic shift in the public's expectations for involvement.

"I taught 30-some years ago," she said, "and we had elections without telling anyone."

Opening a dialogue with the public—and showing that the school board has heard their comments—is a vital part of building support for public education, she said. ''If you only come to them for money and never ask any other opinions, you won't be as credible."

People want to be involved in issues such as changes in school attendance boundaries, said Bill Hepburn, a Seattle firefighter who co-chairs the district's citizens' planning committee.

"Five or 10 or 15 years ago, the district would have said, 'We have changed the boundaries,''' he said. "Now, people want a say in the decision."

Mr. Hepburn's committee, made up of representatives from each school, monitors the district's facilities needs and keeps track of demographic changes. Enrollment is now growing after declining from 30,000 students in the early 1970s to 16,000 in the mid-1980s.

Part of the challenge in engaging the public here, administrators say, is connecting with residents whose children have grown.

Mr. Benzel, the superintendent, remarked that longtime residents who remember when the school board closed schools and sold off buildings aren't eager to turn around and pay for new ones.

The makeup of the student population also is changing, creating new demands for schools. The proportion of children from minority racial and ethnic groups has grown to 18 percent, and 28 percent of the district's students come from low-income families.

Building Support

When Ms. Soholt joined the district in 1992, it was struggling to pass a bond issue to build and renovate schools. The $118 million measure was finally approved on the fourth try, in February 1994.

To build support, the district used focus groups, held community forums, and sent out a calendar that explained exactly how it spends tax money. Once voters said yes, Edmonds turned the planning of the two new high schools and the renovation of an elementary school into a community-building exercise.

A facilities-design team, made up of a broad array of residents and district officials, set out to find out what residents, parents, and educators wanted from their new schools.

After consulting with nearly 250 people, they found out: Well-constructed buildings that would last and serve as points of civic pride. Schools loaded with technology that could accommodate innovations such as group projects and demonstrations by students. And buildings with theaters, performing arts spaces, and conference rooms that could be used by local institutions.

Nancy Bird, a district resident who works at an architectural firm, was skeptical when she joined the design team. "I had voted down the levy," she recalled. "I thought schools are buildings that sit there--it was all taxes to me. That was my pitch when I came in. They had to educate us as to what's going on in education. It got to be really exciting."

'Push and Pull'

The most ambitious effort here to involve the public began in 1992, when Edmonds started its standards-setting process. Through community meetings, forums with business leaders, and workshops with staff members, district residents and educators hashed out what they thought students should know and be able to do in different subjects.

Early the next year, the district printed a draft of the results and distributed it widely, inviting people to help edit it.

Some members of the community objected because the draft placed skills and "habits of mind" before academics. Others complained about an abundance of education jargon.

The next draft included a graphic called "A Tapestry for Student Learning" that weaves together skills and academics specifically to address the concerns.

"It was like a huge focus group, and it was done in a very public way," Mr. Benzel said of the process. "Our egos got bashed around. This hasn't been developed without resistance, but out of the push and pull we've been able to reconcile differences of opinion."

Teachers took the "tapestry" and wrote curriculum frameworks that are now in use in classrooms. During back-to-school night this year, every teacher made a presentation to parents about the frameworks--a requirement of the teaching contract.

Parents took home copies of the frameworks, which are posted on bulletin boards in school offices throughout the district.

'Math Nights'

One key to successful public engagement, administrators here say, is to know the many facets of the public.

School board members try to engage state lawmakers by leading them on school tours before each legislative session. Mr. Benzel and Ms. Soholt have met with local religious leaders, some of whom have been highly critical of the standards-setting efforts.

To help taxpayers understand where their money goes, the district created a budget-building simulation that uses poker chips.

Teachers and students periodically hold "math nights" to let community members see how the subject is taught these days.

"We have to find ways for people to see what kids are learning and what they can do" to counter the commonly cited example of "the cashier who can't make change," Ms. Soholt said.

The superintendent notes that people sometimes question spending money on communications, but says residents must have accurate information. "In the absence of that information, people will create their own and it won't be right."

The Edmonds district makes a point of reaching out to people who don't use the schools. Ms. Soholt has surveyed private schools, polled parents who are on a waiting list for the parent-run elementary school, and arranged for 200 children who live in the district but who are home-schooled to use district computers.

With the district's support, the Maplewood Parent Cooperative School, started 13 years ago by parents who had taught at their children's preschools, has flourished. It requires each family to perform 90 hours of volunteer work per child each school year and now serves more than 460 children in kindergarten through 8th grade.

Ms. Soholt is eager to see schools develop special focuses, like Maplewood, and use their performance reports to market themselves more aggressively. Students can attend any school in the district or state as long as they provide their own transportation. Some schools have embraced the district's emphasis on parent choices, while others have not.

"Developing a consumer orientation is the hardest thing I've ever had to work with," Ms. Soholt said.

The district still has plenty of critics, administrators say. But surveys indicate that people here are becoming more positive about their schools. A survey last December showed that 56 percent of parents with children in school gave their schools an A or B, up 16 percentage points from 1992.

That, Ms. Soholt said, is good news. "We're making incremental moves in the right direction."

Vol. 16, Issue 12

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