Seattle Hall Pass Podcast

E33 - Restarting Community Engagement

March 26, 2024 Christie Robertson & Jane Tunks Demel Season 1 Episode 33
Seattle Hall Pass Podcast
E33 - Restarting Community Engagement
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Show Notes Transcript

Re: School Board Community Engagement Work Session, March 13, 2024 

See our Show Notes.
Contact us at hello@seattlehallpass.org.

Christie & Jane review and discuss major points from the March 13 community engagement work session. Topics covered:

  1. The 2024 Strategic Plan, 
  2. Part 2 of Well-Resourced Schools 
  3. Ongoing community engagement

Thanks to AJ Crabill for permission to use clips from his audiobook, Great on Their Behalf.

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Music by Sarah, the Illstrumentalist, logo by Carmen Lau-Woo.
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Episode 33 - Restarting Community Engagement
Re: School Board Community Engagement Work Session, March 13, 2024 

See our Show Notes.
Contact us at hello@seattlehallpass.org.

[00:00:00] Christie Robertson: Welcome to Seattle Hall Pass, a podcast with news and conversations about Seattle Public Schools. I'm Christie Robertson.

[00:00:13] Jane Tunks Demel: And I'm Jane Tunks Demel. In today's episode, we're diving into the school board's recent work session focused on community engagement.

[00:00:21] Christie Robertson: Kind of recent. There's so much going on lately, Jane, it's hard to keep up. So this was actually the March 13th Special School Board Meeting, which was the meeting before last.

[00:00:33] Jane Tunks Demel: Yeah, exactly. This was the meeting where the school board directors narrowed down the finalists for the open seats in District 2 and District 4. We hadn't been expecting them to do any other work, but they ended up adding a two hour work session on community engagement. 

[00:00:49] Christie Robertson: Yeah, I think that the sunsetting of the old strategic plan is kicking their butts into gear. 

[00:00:54] Jane Tunks Demel: Yeah, that's my guess too.

[00:00:59] Christie Robertson: So in this episode, we will talk about. 

  • The development of the new strategic plan and the community engagement related to that.
  • As well as Director Hersey's report on the findings from the ad hoc committee on community engagement that sunsetted a few months ago. 
  • A peek at the district's well resourced school part two plans.
  • And finally, how the board's community engagement plans correlate to the recommendations spelled out in the book Great on Their Behalf. This is a book by AJ Crabill of The Council for Great City Schools. We'll tell you more about it in a bit.

[00:01:35] Jane Tunks Demel: And Christie's actually read the book.

[00:01:37] Christie Robertson: Yep, I recommend it. 

Before we start, I'll note that we do extensive research, and we do fact checking for every episode. So make sure to check our show notes at seattlehallpass.org. That said, we can always learn more! Tell us what we missed by emailing us at hello@seattlehallpass.org.

[00:01:57] Jane Tunks Demel: Anyway, on to the meeting.

[00:01:59] Christie Robertson: Let's start with some background on the strategic plan. For those of you who don't know, Seattle Public Schools has a five year strategic plan, and the current one is sunsetting in 2024. 

[00:02:10] Jane Tunks Demel: And it's called Seattle Excellence. And Christie, what does the strategic plan have to do with community engagement? 

[00:02:18] Christie Robertson: The strategic plan is the foundation for the goals and guardrails of Student Outcomes Focused Governance. And the goals and guardrails are supposed to reflect the community's vision and values, which is supposed to be collected from community engagement, 

[00:02:36] Jane Tunks Demel: The strategic plan is expiring and they need a new one.

[00:02:39] Christie Robertson: And maybe they'll call it Seattle Superlativity! Sorry. So anyway, at the March 13th board meeting, President Rankin said she hoped to have a new strategic plan in place by July. 

[00:02:54] Jane Tunks Demel: That's really soon. And this made me curious, so I looked up how the district developed a strategic plan the last time around, which was in late 2018 and into early 2019, and I actually found the school Board Action Report from March 2019, exactly five years ago.

If you read about the development of that strategic plan, there was a lot of community engagement. Denise Juneau, who was a superintendent at the time, did a listening and learning tour across the district from August to November of 2018 to help shape the draft strategic plan.

And according to an article I found in the Seattle Weekly, Juneau engaged with 2,500 people over 21 community meetings, 7 town halls, and 22 staff sessions.

[00:03:41] Christie Robertson: I just, that's amazing.

[00:03:44] Jane Tunks Demel: It is amazing, and it was only at that point that a draft plan was developed. and then in January 2019, there were seven additional community meetings that provided opportunities for in-person input. And that was followed by a strategic plan steering committee that met for five months.

[00:04:03] Christie Robertson: It sounds like Superintendent Juneau was doing the heavy lifting for that plan 

[00:04:08] Jane Tunks Demel: Yeah, I guess so. And also, the district hired a consulting company called District Management Group, or DM Group, to support the development of the strategic plan. Because it does sound like a lot of work.

[00:04:21] Christie Robertson: To our listeners: Did any of you go to these strategic plan meetings back then? Did you love it? Did it seem like overkill? What was it like? Did people feel like there was good engagement from underrepresented groups?

[00:04:35] Jane Tunks Demel: Or good engagement with any groups?

[00:04:37] Christie Robertson: I'm looking at that 2019 Board Action Report, and it says that the strategic plan process is required by law and policy, although I don't see a reference to a law but they do reference Policy 1005, and that policy says this:

[00:04:53] Jane Tunks Demel: “The board's primary role is to develop a structure to fulfill the vision of the district, adopt a strategic plan, approve the financial plan and annual district budgets, and employ a superintendent who is charged with the day-to-day operations of the district.”

The board seems to be of two minds when it comes to restarting community engagement, 

First, there's a “don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good” mindset. And then there's also the “we don't want to do any engagement before we're ready mindset”.

[00:05:25] Christie Robertson: I would say the former was the more predominant feeling. 

[00:05:27] Jane Tunks Demel: Definitely. But given how long it's been since there was consistent community engagement. I would agree that it's time to get going on something. 

And this is probably a good time to give the district major credit for the Well-Resourced Schools community engagement sessions in August of last year.

[00:05:45] Christie Robertson: And those sessions would fit right in with Crabill's recommendations around the importance of two-way engagement and the principle that community members really want to feel heard. Here's a clip from Crabill's audio book, Great on Their Behalf.

[00:06:01] AJ Crabill: Until community members have had the experience of being heard. They are likely to focus their energy on being heard. Few issues in life are more motivating and or triggering for people than the welfare of their children. As such, the most reasonable thing to expect is that when opportunities to visit with school board members emerge, people will rush to the microphone to air their concerns about the needs of their children, even if that is not the purpose of the meeting.

Rather than fighting against this reasonable and understandable urge, the school board should lean into it by routinely hosting listening sessions that are scheduled and announced far in advance. Community members should never have to wonder when the next opportunity for an authentic two-way communication opportunity with a school board will be available. They should never have to feel satisfied with the public comment section of most school board meetings. And they shouldn't feel like hijacking other meetings is the only way to have their voice heard. 

[00:06:55] Jane Tunks Demel: So Christie, who is AJ Crabill anyway? 

[00:06:59] Christie Robertson: AJ Crabill is the Student Outcomes Focused Governance guru from the Council of Great City Schools, and he has been walking the Seattle School Board through their conversion to the Student Outcomes Focused Governance framework over the last few years. My understanding is that he meets regularly with board members, especially the board president, and he helps them adhere to the principles of the system. If you watch board meetings, you've probably heard his voice coming from on high from the speakers, and he will chime in to help them improve I love that I'm their processes. 

I just read the second edition of his book. What I love about the book is that it lays out the principles of the framework really cleanly, it's got good analogies, and it's even short. Very readable. Anybody who's interested in how this framework is supposed to work should read it. I definitely hope that everybody on the school board reads it if they haven't already. And there's even an audiobook, which you know I love, Jane.

[00:08:01] Jane Tunks Demel: Yeah, I need to read this book too. And I see the full title of the book is, Great on Their Behalf, Why School Boards Fail, How Yours Can Become Effective. Ooh, fancy title.

[00:08:12] Christie Robertson: Right? In the book, Crabill talks about many aspects of the governance framework, but what's relevant here is his emphasis on the importance of community engagement. If you've watched the school board's transition to Student Outcomes Focused Governance, you might think that community engagement is not a big part of the framework. But as a matter of fact, Crabill puts a huge emphasis on it. 

[00:08:36] Jane Tunks Demel: I love that I’m agreeing with AJ Crabill right now.

[00:08:39] Christie Robertson: Towards the end of the book, he outlines three critical kinds of community engagement that must be done for Student Outcomes Focused Governance to succeed. 

  1. Listening, or two-way engagement
  2. Training engagement, and
  3. Regular reporting of student outcomes to community. 

[00:08:56] Jane Tunks Demel: So let's talk about two-way engagement because it sounds like that's the engagement that would be relevant to developing the strategic plan, right?

[00:08:19] Christie Robertson: Yeah, exactly. And the board was contemplating, at least in the long term, holding monthly community engagement sessions, out in community spaces, on a predictable schedule, and with a focus on dialogue. That would definitely align well with Crabill's guidance. Superintendent Jones laid out what he and president Rankin had been talking about in this vein: 

[00:09:27] Brent Jones: One of the concepts we touched on was - “What is a well-resourced school?” Let's actually have a board meeting in a well-resourced school, or something that has the contours of that. And wherever we're trying to be regionally, or with specific groups, we can actually be invitational. And maybe have board meetings, every twice a month. Typically one meeting here and one meeting at a school. And that at that school will also be invitational to the type of folks... or not the type of folks - the populations that we're trying to reach out to. 

[00:09:56] Jane Tunks Demel: Okay, so I want to be really honest here. Since the pandemic, which coincided with the introduction of Student Outcomes Focused Governance, the Seattle School Board has done very little community engagement. In fact, it's one of the reasons I wanted to do this podcast in the first place, because I want to be able to connect with other SPS community members to talk about what's happening in the district.

[00:10:29] Christie Robertson: But wouldn't it be cool if now we get to report on how much excellent community engagement the board's doing?

[00:10:35] Jane Tunks Demel: Yeah, well, yes. Let's hope. And Brandon Hersey, bless him, he wasn't afraid to admit that there's a problem with how the district does community engagement at the moment. Here's what he said about what he calls the library model, like when a school board director holds a meeting at a library or hosts online office hours.

[00:10:56] Brandon Hersey: We want to hear from as many people as possible or people that make sense. But what I'm saying is we need to take a more strategic approach to how we conduct community engagement and not just like try to, you know, cast a net and catch as many people as we can. Because what we are often doing is providing even more access to the folks who generally have shown up at our meetings. 

And that's not a bad thing, right? You wave your head back and forth. I think that like, What I'm trying to say is that many things can be true at the same time. Those folks' opinions matter 100%. And, we would not be doing our jobs if we did not try our best to take a more strategic approach, to get as many opinions as we can from the people who are most impacted by the decisions that we're making. 

[00:11:45] Jane Tunks Demel: I don't know if President Rankin feels the same way. She's been very clear that the board should not be pulled into what they call, “customer problems”.

[00:11:54] Christie Robertson: So Jane, a “customer problem” would be like those schools that have recently had trouble with their water fountains, right?

[00:12:01] Jane Tunks Demel: Yeah, exactly. And what happened there was that the water fountains needed their water filters replaced. And though the schools requested service from the district's maintenance department, the filters didn't get replaced for weeks. Which meant that the students couldn't use that water fountain also for weeks.

And because it's a simple repair, ideally the school district would fix this kind of thing right away. But because a maintenance team won't come to the school site unless there's a certain number of hours of work to be done, it didn't happen. 

A teacher at the school finally put a call out to Director Hersey on social media asking for him to fix the water fountain. And that's what got it fixed. 

[00:12:41] Christie Robertson: You were talking about a situation at your kid's school too recently, right?

[00:12:45] Jane Tunks Demel: Yeah. At my student's neighborhood elementary school, there was a roof that leaked in several places. But even though the principal asked for the roof to be repaired many times, nothing was done until parents emailed the district en masse.

[00:12:58] Christie Robertson: Too much water one place, not enough another.

[00:13:02] Jane Tunks Demel: There you go. So while I totally get President Rankin's frustration with what she calls, quote, customer issues, at the same time, the district has gotta be more responsive to students, staff, and families.

[00:13:14] Christie Robertson: So I hear your frustration, Jane, but this concept of the difference between customer issues and ownership issues has been really useful in my mind. And I generally agree with the principle that school boards should be dealing with owner concerns. 

Where I think they're related though, is, like... so my kid's water fountain isn't working. Yeah, that's a customer issue. But there's a bigger ownership issue if central office is not responsive to parent concerns. 

[00:13:28] Jane Tunks Demel: Yeah, I totally agree. And so that's why I think the school board, instead of being reactive, you know, sometimes it feels like they're like, “why are you emailing me about this?” And it's because literally we have emailed the district and no one's responding and no one's solving our problem. 

So thinking about it from an owner perspective, Maybe the school board should add a guardrail that measures the district's customer service. Because right now, the customer service leaves a lot to be desired. And because the district isn't dealing with these customer concerns, the school board directors are constantly getting emails about them, and they're not able to strategically focus on the big picture, which is what they want to be doing.

Let's hear from Director Hersey

[00:14:24] Brandon Hersey: Our system isn't fully set up to be responsive in the way that it needs to be. Yet. We are still, I believe in us. Our superintendent has made epic strides in that direction. And we, as a board, are getting really, really under ourselves. 

But I don't want to paint this picture that, like, the folks who've shown up to the meetings at the library model are only concerned with themselves and their school and their problems, right? There are some real legitimate issues within our system that folks don't know how to fix because they either have not gotten an answer at their school level, they have emailed either us or like central office and have not gotten a response. And to just say that, like, we are in a position to where we are now only representing the vision, the values of the community and not supporting those community members in wayfinding to get to some form of resolution when they've been ignored. It's also untenable and frankly, unacceptable. 

[00:15:19] Jane Tunks Demel: Thanks, Christie, for letting me get that off my chest. It's clear that both the school board and the community are not happy with the way community engagement is at the moment, which is probably why they put the ad hoc committee on community engagement into place last year.

[00:15:32] Christie Robertson: A large part of this meeting was about Director Hersey's report out of that ad hoc committee. He chaired the committee and it sunsetted in November, just before the newly elected board came in.

[00:15:46] Jane Tunks Demel: And remember that under the Student Outcomes Focused Governance model, there is only one permanent committee, the Audit Committee, so this ad hoc committee was set up for a very limited time. Though the ad hoc Community Engagement Committee members briefly went over their findings in November, it wasn't until now that they went over them in depth.

[00:16:05] Christie Robertson: And I'm really glad they finally got around to it because when we talked about the sunsetting in Episode 10, I was really disappointed. I did not understand what had come out of the committee. But in this meeting, Director Hersey spent a good 20 or 30 minutes going through the recommendations to the full board, and then they spent another good amount of time talking about it.

[00:16:27] Jane Tunks Demel: And one major recommendation was a plan for board members to hold regular engagement events in teams of three. Let's hear from Director Hersey on this. 

[00:16:37] Brandon Hersey: And so what we're really trying to do in this fashion is just ensure that we're breaking down barriers. We are un-siloing information. We are making consistent schedules that people can predict, right? By having our directors participate in teams and by putting it on a calendar we accomplished two things. First, there is an opportunity for your community to know where you're going to be, right? And maybe they might not necessarily be able to make it to your October engagement. But they might be able to make it to your September engagement or your December engagement or whatever the case may be. 

[00:17:16] Christie Robertson: Another key recommendation was coordinating with district staff for support in hosting these meetings.

And then, of course, it's super important to this board that they connect to the communities who are usually underrepresented and whose voices we don't hear from enough. Some ideas to address the difficulty in reaching these communities included holding board meetings in neighborhood schools, partnering with community organizations that serve diverse populations, and going to community events that have interpretation services, so they can communicate with people in their home language. 

[00:17:50] Jane Tunks Demel: But most of all, the Ad Hoc Community Engagement Committee stressed the importance of getting started and being willing to iterate along the way. Here's how Director Hersey framed it.

[00:18:00] Brandon Hersey: Rome was not built in a day. It took us decades. And this is something that I borrowed from Superintendent Jones and his team. Especially, shout out to Fred Podesta - “It took us decades to build this problem. It's going to take us decades to solve it.” Right? To solve it effectively. So. And another thing I heard from Superintendent Jones - “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” When you're tackling something like community engagement, which has been a problem in every school district since the dawn of school districts - one meeting at a time.”

[00:18:34] Christie Robertson: Okay, so those are the main takeaways from the Ad Hoc Community Engagement Committee. 

[00:18:41] Jane Tunks Demel: Shifting gears, Superintendent Brent Jones and Chief of Staff Bev Redman reminded the board about the district's Well-Resourced Schools engagement efforts that took place in 2023, where the district gathered input on what families want to see in schools when it comes to academics, extracurriculars, and support services.

[00:18:59] Christie Robertson: According to Redmond, the district is working on Well-Resourced Schools Part Two, that is focusing on community members who may have been missed the first time around. They are making targeted efforts to gather student voice and they're also intentionally outreaching to multilingual families and affinity groups.

Let's listen to how Bev Redman describes it.

[00:19:20] Bev Redmond: We went through Phase One. We're going to Two. We'll be headed out toward the end of this month, not too many days from now, going out to see students. Also doing a student survey. Then we're also going to hold a night (and maybe, I don't know if we'll get to two, but at least one major night) for our families, our multilingual families, and our families... and I'm going to use the word affinity groups for this reason, but I'm going to explain what I'm talking about. We want to make sure that we're getting to our families that we don't see and hear. And I'm going to say families that might look like me. Families who might have ASL as part of their main language or is their main language. We want to make sure that we're getting to those families. That doesn't mean y'all, can't come. You can. However, I want to make sure that the doors are open for those individuals and that this is a time to highlight what's going on in their families and how they feel about their schools. 

[00:20:30] Christie Robertson: The district also plans to circle back to the community with the key themes from phase one and check if those findings still resonate. Here's Superintendent Jones about that.

[00:20:40] Brent Jones: so this can have dual purpose - not just getting information around how we do the work, what we need to be sensitive to, what the wants, wishes and desires of community are. Both staff internally and externally, but also really can as you all will guide us. You know, what are the essential questions that you all want answered so that we can double down on these opportunities to get this vision and value data that you all can have to ultimately reset the goals and guard rails. For us to send in the next strategic plan and then we can go forward. 

[00:21:12] Jane Tunks Demel: And I absolutely love how transparent the superintendent staff has been with reporting out the results of the Well-Resourced Schools outreach they've already done. Bev Redman, who had a big hand in running those sessions, has been very intentional about sharing the results at open board meetings so that everyone could hear.

[00:21:30] Christie Robertson: And that reminds me of another part of AJ Crabill's book, where he talks about how he recommends a school board updates the community after engagement.

[00:21:40] AJ Crabill: In addition to the school board needing to align school system resources with priorities necessary for improving student outcomes, the school board has to be intentional about communicating the school systems results back to the community. Since the school board represents the vision and values of the community, it serves as an agent of the community and thus has an obligation to update the community periodically. And this responsibility requires more attention than is immediately obvious. However, If the school board isn't seen as listening to its community, it's less likely to be listened to. And even if community members are open to listening, if the context gap between community members and school board members isn't bridged, school board members will at best simply sound out of touch and at worst, aggressively negligent. The largest strategy of communicating results should address both of these issues. 

[00:22:32] Jane Tunks Demel: Yeah, so once again, I'm agreeing with AJ Crabill. And I'm hopeful that this school board keeps on getting better at listening. In the last few years, there hasn't been a lot of transparency about which community groups or community members they are actually engaging with. And Director Hersey admitted that, which I loved. 

[00:22:51] Brandon Hersey: We also can't hide behind the fact that we think that we're doing a good job and like that it's an acceptable answer to say, “oh no, we did community engagement,” without telling folks exactly who we talked to. And I think that, like, that is a good thing, both in terms of accountability and in terms of our values that we have set out. For our board and the values that we are trying to reflect our community. 

If we are trying to actually follow our strategic plan, we need to be able to say without question that we regularly interface and engage with black boys and their families, point blank, period. 

If we are saying that, like we have real goals around like making any potential changes to a special education model. We need to be able to say that we have interfaced with those who are receiving those types of services and the people who care for them. As well as other folks in the community, because we don't want to just hear from the people who are most impacted. We want to hear from as many people as possible or people that make sense. 

[00:24:00] Jane Tunks Demel: So that makes me hopeful.

[00:24:02] Christie Robertson: And finally, superintendent Jones emphasized his willingness to be flexible on the strategic plan timeline. 

[00:24:07] Brent Jones: I just want to say that if we get into this and you all run out of capacity, we'll flex on our timeline. So if we need to push things back, we can do that. But let's stay ambitious for right now. We're going to, we'll be responsive and we'll do what we need to do. We'll call in extra support if need be. But I want you all to just be absolutely. Clear-eyed about your capacity too. Because if it starts to become too much, we need to back it up a little bit. I don't want it to be rushed. You all don't want it to be rushed. We want to make sure we have adequate time to do all the things. And so I do think we have a little flex in here for If need be. But let's just be in communication about your you all's capacity.

[00:24:50] Christie Robertson: We hope the board takes that to heart and doesn't rush through this important process, 

[00:24:55] Jane Tunks Demel: And since they're likely to stick to most of the things that are already in their strategic plan and just fine tune it and maybe add a guardrail or two while we don't expect the board to do that in depth of community engagement, we certainly think that they should give themselves enough time to engage with the community properly to inform their results.

[00:25:15] Christie Robertson: And as you mentioned, the 2019 strategic plan was initially due in 2018, and they postponed it a year in order to get the level of community engagement they wanted.

[00:25:25] Jane Tunks Demel: And yeah, they do have a lot going on right now. Appointing two new board directors...

[00:25:30] Christie Robertson: And two of the current directors are brand new themselves.

[00:25:34] Jane Tunks Demel: Exactly. ...cutting $111 million, getting ready to look at the cuts that will need to happen in 2025 and beyond. It's a lot.

[00:25:44] Christie Robertson: And that concludes this episode. School board meetings are happening at a rapid clip these days, so we'll be back soon with more updates on the board's work and opportunities to get engaged.

[00:25:55] Jane Tunks Demel: Until then, remember to look at our show notes at seattlehallpass.org. You can also subscribe or donate to support our costs. We welcome your emails at hello@seattlehallpass.org.

[00:26:07] Christie Robertson: Much thanks to AJ Crabill for permission to use clips of his audiobook, Great on Their Behalf, which you can find on audible.com. I'm Christie Robertson.

[00:26:16] Jane Tunks Demel: And I'm Jane Tunks Demel, thanks for listening to Seattle Hall Pass.