nathan mt

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.

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ANOKA area

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 9th grade cohort we are calling HEADWATERS. For the past 12 years we have run multi-grade 9th - 12th grade advisories, but based on parent/student feedback and research around ‘9th 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 9th 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.”  

MINNETONKA:

Jason Ulbrich, executive director of Eagle Ridge Academy in Minnetonka, explained: “In the spring of 2018, Eagle Ridge Academy conducted an After Expansion Survey and focus groups with the ultimate purpose of identifying opportunities for growth in all areas from safety and security, to academics, and school culture. Some specific feedback came through in the surveys and in the focus groups. 

“Families identified the drop off and pick up of students as taking too long and chaotic.  ERA brought in a traffic engineer to study and make recommendations.  We retrained our parking lot supervisors in those recommendations.  Finally, ERA implemented an online dismissal program that parents can register through an online APP.  This not only streamlined the parking lot, but also provided safety and security. (This reduced) our pick up times by 55%.

“Students of ERA were not satisfied with the quality or choice in school lunches. ERA put together a team of students’ parents, and teachers to visit other lunch programs. We received bids for new vendors and required samples to try. We now have a new vendor in Taher. Our lunches served have increased by over 25% per day.” 

MONTICELLO:

Eric Olson, superintendent of Monticello Public School District, wrote: “Some of the things that we have changed based on formal suggestions would be the following:

“1) Increased lighting in the parking lot at Eastview (17-18)

“2) Better and more official checkout procedures for preschool 17-18

“3) Better student security measures with all of the apps that we use on our 1:1 devices in grades 6-12; we developed a new app request form and research as a result from this suggestion (18-19)

“4) Increase in Spanish communication (18-19) Every District Phone Message (15 messages) this year went out in both English and Spanish. We set up a specific group of families to receive messages … in Spanish according to their language of choice preference signified through our enrollment/registration process. This helped us identify over 400 phones (multiple per household) to deliver important messages in their first language of choice. We also sent out over 10 district wide publications in two languages. We also updated our website with a translation resource.” 

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 6 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 schools 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.”  

James Skelly, director of communications and public relations for Anoka-Hennepin Schools, explained that the board has “authorized an annual survey of district residents with Morris Leatherman dating back to the early 2000’s. 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, joe@centerforschoolchange.org.

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