Joe Nathan

Families, students, staff and teachers have a lot to say about issues like cellphones, class size, parent-teacher conferences, sports and school start times. One of the most important things that educators can do is listen and learn.

This may seem surprising because we usually see educators as people who teach students and lead schools and districts. But the most effective educators don’t just teach and lead – they also gather information about what they are doing well and what could and should be changed.

Fortunately, many Minnesota district and charter public educators understand the value of using input to improve. Sixteen Minnesota educators recently provided me with examples of what was discovered from listening and how they applied this information.

It’s not enough to ask people what they think. Unquestionably educators can’t follow every request or recommendation; no school has the resources to do everything people request, and sometimes suggestions conflict. But wise educators follow up on at least some of the advice they receive.

Here’s part of how Minnesota educators are using information they gathered from families, students, community members and fellow educators.

James Skelly, director of communications and public relations for Anoka-Hennepin Schools, explained that in 2019, the school board used feedback data from an annual survey of district residents to work on “discipline and chemical health issues, two items the survey reported as increasing concerns. The district launched a coordinated parent outreach awareness anti-vaping campaign as a result.”

In addition, “The district added 60 new teachers in core subject areas K-12 to address concerns over large class sizes. Large class size was the highest reported concern from residents in the most recently completed survey, at 19 percent reporting it as their biggest concern,” Skelly said.

“Survey data is essential to knowing if the investment in communication with residents is effective. Feedback was used to increase communication using email, the most preferred source of information for parents and guardians. This is being done through district and school electronic newsletters and improved website content,” he said.

Peter Wieczorek, director of Northwest Passage High School in Coon Rapids, reported that the school “will be adding a new program starting fall of 2019 based on feedback we have received from parents and students. We are introducing a ninth-grade cohort we are calling HEADWATERS. For the past 12 years we have run multi-grade ninth- through 12th-grade advisories, but based on parent/student feedback and research around ‘ninth-grade shock’ we decided we will reconfigure our advisory model to include a ninth-grade specific cohort. HEADWATERS will work to reduce the challenges most ninth-graders experience when entering high school. HEADWATERS will have a dedicated space, low student to staff ratios (16:1), more intentional community building, … project based learning, and additional adult mentoring.”

Educators gather information in many ways.

Monticello Public School District Superintendent Eric Olson told me: “I believe in what you are talking about so much that I do not wait for end-of-the-year surveys to make changes based on suggestions. I meet with parents one time every six weeks. I call these sessions Coffee Chats. We conduct them at the Community Center. I spend half of the 75 minute scheduled time listening to parents suggestions. ... I had a Spanish interpreter at our Coffee Chats too.”

North Branch and Stillwater school districts use software called Thoughtexchange. Carissa Keister, Stillwater’s community engagement manager, told me that the software “allows us to hold an online conversation where stakeholders can share thoughts and ideas with school district staff and school board members. Participants are able to share their ideas, read and consider other people’s ideas and help establish priorities for district leaders to consider in their planning for the future.”

Richfield Superintendent Steven Unowsky explained that in 2018, “We spent an entire school day engaging with our students, listening to their voices and participating in an event we called Reimagine Richfield. We additionally held numerous parent events gathering input in person and through district wide feedback surveys.”

Skelly explained that the board has “authorized an annual survey of district residents with Morris Leatherman dating back to the early 2000s. The board considers this an important feedback method as it allows them and district leaders to track items over time and also compare performance with the other metro and state districts served by Morris Leatherman.”

According to Dan DeBruyn, executive director of Spectrum High School and Middle School in Elk River, “Spectrum High School and Middle School surveys parents, students, and staff annually as part of the school’s continual improvement process.”

Wise educators gather information from parents, students and others in various ways: direct meetings, surveys, sophisticated software, etc. Those educators recognize the value of listening, learning and using at least some suggestions they receive.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome,

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