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Friday, March 21, 2008
Alpine School District's "What Counts?" Forum

A local gathering of fellow-travelers and critics to discuss what constitutes great schools. I'll tell you what that has to do with last night's meeting of an unrelated American Fork City committee.

Twice this week I have mentioned the forum I was invited to attend on Tuesday evening at the Alpine School District offices. Here are some more detailed notes and commentary. I understand that a similar meeting was held last evening with a different group of people.

I think I'll also mention, before I'm done, a meeting I attended last evening in connection with a different policy area involving a different local government. There are some similarities. I hope.

Cast of Characters

There were about hundred people invited to participate in the Alpine School District's "What Counts?" forum. Each of us was assigned to a table. The people at my table were fairly representative of the whole group. We were:

  • A school board member, whose job was to make notes on our work, mostly on a large pad of paper, and who was not to participate in the discussion in a substantive way.
  • A former school board member.
  • A member of the American Fork City Council, Sherry Kramer, who is also a trained elementary teacher and has been active for years in the schools, as a member of the community.
  • A student body officer from a high school in Orem.
  • Two intelligent, articulate gentlemen who do not hold public office, but who have some interest in educational issues. I'm not completely sure how we were selected, but I suspect it was because we are rather opinionated and not shy about sharing our opinions, and someone liked that.

American Fork Mayor Heber Thompson and former mayor Ted Barratt were at other tables. The tables which did not have School Board members for recorders had district staff members. Also present was a guest named Mossi ("MOE-see") White, of whom more shortly.

Introductory Thoughts

School Board President Deborah Taylor greeted us with warmth, gratitude, brevity, platitudes, and hyperbole, assuring us that the reason for the meeting was that the Board is terribly devoted to collaborating with the community and really, really want to "share [the community's] values." I will concede the possibility that Ms. Taylor and her colleagues may really believe this about themselves. Beyond that, I'll let my readers decide whether to receive those morsels with cynicism or credulity.

Ms. Taylor introduced Ms. White, a sort of itinerant facilitator who teaches community engagement to public school officials and their communities. She told us we have a "very progressive school district" and a "visionary board." Once again, I leave to the reader to decide whether to receive these morsels with cynicism or credulity . . . or perhaps stark terror.

Ms. White talked about some theoretical things for a few minutes -- not too long -- and then told us that our project for the evening was "to help determine where, educationally, the children of Alpine School District will be taken."

Sidebar: Mossi White Lore

Along the way, Ms. White told some good stories, and she told them well -- always to make a point, but the stories stand on their own merits. I particularly enjoyed the tales of her parents, leaders in the Norwegian underground during the Nazi occupation, smuggling secret papers in her diapers. (She doesn't remember this, but was told the stories many times by those were older and did remember.)

Near the end of the evening, she described the hardships and deprivation which followed the war, as a prelude to a psalm of high praise for her adopted nation, the United States, a "fairy-tale country," a happy place of hopes and dreams. This pro-America gushing is not PC at all; it's just not what well-trained teachers and adminstrators are supposed to think, though I believe many do. It seemed to play well with the rest of us.

Make It Positive

We were exhorted to make all our comments positive, which is not as absurd a ground rule as it sounds. It's not debilitating at all, because it's child's play to phrase criticism in positive terms. For example, one of the things I listed when asked what I value about my local school district was open enrollment. It was not necessary to say anything about my dissatisfaction with a specific school. Even when pressed, I could say that I value open enrollment because it means that my wife and I can haul our children to an excellent public school across town rather than selling our souls for private school tuition.

When I listed "very generous funding" as a current strength of our school district, I could have said something negative instead about the endless, tiresome assurances that everything in the schools will be just fine, if the penny-pinching Utah Legislature will just give the schools a lot more of (my!) money. As it was, I floated that little item as a trial balloon, to see who would rise to the challenge. The former school board member at the table thought I was confused. She said the time for listing ways to improve the schools would come later; now we were discussing current conditions. I told her that I think the schools are currently very generously funded, but I recognized that was a controversial attitude and I didn't insist that it should be inscribed on our table's official list of happy stuff.

As I said, it was a trial balloon. After that, believe it or not, I didn't say anything deliberately provocative.

Topic 1: What We Value about Our School District

As you have already deduced, the first of our two major topics of discussion was what we value about our schools and district. We brainstormed at each table for a while, then talked our way to a consensus about six specific items. These went on a large sheet of paper. Then we all circulated and looked at other tables' lists.

There was broad agreement on a number of items, including excellent, committed teachers and administrators, where they exist; fine facilities, where they exist; the fact that our children seem to feel safe at school; broad offerings of academic and other programs, including gifted and talented programs (another very un-PC concept), where they exist; and, yes, open enrollment.

This got us warmed up for the second topic.

Topic 2: Characteristics of Great Schools

We each wrote down several characteristics of great schools on our own, with accompanying rationales, then read them to the table and discussed them. Along the way, at each table, we picked several we generally agreed upon to refine and put on the table's official list. Then we all circulated again, reading each table's offering and voting for the ones we really liked, by affixing blue dots, of which each participant was allotted eight.

The range of items listed under this topic was almost as broad as under the first topic. My own list was not as broad, perhaps; it included:

  • Every student is taught math by a teacher who is good at math, writing by a teacher who is good at writing, and so forth.
  • Every teacher in a specific subject area (such as math or science) has a full academic degree in that subject area, not just a watered-down "teaching major." (This is Hilldale College's approach, but is rarely required elsewhere.)
  • Excellence in teaching is measured and rewarded, and mediocrity is removed.
  • Every teacher, administrator, and staff member models excellence; for example, even the notes and newsletters that go home are well written and properly proofread.
  • Excellent principals may remain at a school for many years, rather than being rotated.
  • Students who get A's and B's in required math and writing courses have mastered them well enough that they don't have to take remedial courses in these subjects when they get to college. (One person at my table protested that it was unfair to put all the blame for this problem on the teachers -- which I had not done. But you see how easy it is to criticize by speaking in positive terms. I actually think that the public schools should reimburse the costs of remedial courses, if they gave students A's and B's in subjects they really hadn't mastered. But I didn't want to open that can of worms.)
  • Students, teachers, and others are physically safe at school. (My table and others expanded this to include a healthy environment as well as a safe one; there were diverging opinions on the implications of this for school lunches, vending machines, and cell phone towers.)

The interesting thing happened when people began voting with their blue dots. When the dust settled, it was clear that by far the greatest concerns were attracting, recognizing, retaining, properly equipping, and generously rewarding excellent teachers. The idea that parents should have input into teacher evaluations was fairly popular. There was also considerable concern for meeting the needs of all students -- specifically included the academically gifted, which just isn't PC at all. What the District will make of all this is up to them, I guess.

So What? (A Powerful Question)

On one hand, I do not expect the local educational establishment suddenly to embrace the rather different set of values held by Tuesday evening's participants. On the other hand, they will have to work a little to convince themselves that what they heard Tuesday evening was identical to what they already believe and accept, which it clearly is not. I think a little cognitive dissonance will do them good.

In any case, the whole effort was a considerable improvement in style. It was much better than the superintendent publicly calling discontented parents "extremists." It was much better than some other district and school officials telling parents that they have x number of students to worry about, so they can't worry about just one.

For my part, I enjoyed hearing others' thoughts on a topic of importance to me. And I was pleased to discover that some of my own thoughts are widely shared.

But will it make a difference? To answer that, I must tell you briefly of the meeting I attended Thursday.

American Fork Neighborhood Preservation Committee

About four and half years ago, American Fork Mayor Ted Barratt yielded to pressure from one city councilor, the leadership of Neighbors in Action (of which I was a part), and some other disgruntled city residents. He appointed a Nuisance Abatement Committee, which he would chair, to study the city's nuisance abatement ordinances and their enforcement, to see what could be done to improve both.

Please note that leaders often appoint such committees in the hope that they will produce nothing, but will serve, at least for a while, to get a few malcontents out of their hair. If they want to make sure the committees accomplish nothing, they can chair them themselves.

After a few monthly meetings, the Mayor lost interest. He said the rest of us could keep meeting if we wanted to, so we did. We studied American Fork statutes and the handling of complaints; the latter tended to die on a certain desk at the City. We pored over and discussed the nuisance abatement statutes of several other Utah cities and some cities elsewhere in the country. In March 2004 we assembled, unanimously approved, signed, and submitted to the City our report, explaining the importance of good nuisance abatement ordinances and enforcement, and presenting a proposed nuisance ordinance for the City Council's consideration.

We didn't just submit one copy of the report; we were too jaded for that. Instead, we submitted about eight copies, one at a time. A delegation from the Committee personally delivered a copy to the Mayor, each member of the City Council, and a few other interested officials, and we were invited to present a report at a City Council meeting, too. We made a little noise in the general direction of the news media, which led directly to my being called a fascist and a jack-booted thug in the local newspaper, by someone who thought our proposals would unjustly infringe upon his sovereign right to sabotage his neighbors' property values. (That is my summary of his arguments, not his.)

After that, the proposal was buried in a City drawer or pitched into a City wastebasket, where it landed with an anticlimactic thud. We were disappointed but not surprised. (If you'd like to see the Nuisance Abatement report, here's an unofficial copy, without actual signatures.)

We pressed on. We kept meeting, reviewing lists of nuisances in the city and discussing how to address them. With the diligent and generous help of the American Fork Police Department and the City's part-time enforcement officer, and the consent (if not enthusiasm) of a senior City official or two, enforcement of existing laws began to improve, despite the City's official hostility to fixing its ordinances.

As to the ordinances themselves, we kept studying others' approaches and discussing how we might persuade the City to embrace at least parts of what we proposed. In the meantime, a new mayor and some new city councilors took office. They were terribly busy with bigger issues, but generally receptive to what we -- now renamed the Neighborhood Preservation Committee -- were trying to achieve. In fact, the issue had come up in the election campaign; we saw to that.

Along the way, we took City officials on two bus tours of the city, during which we pointed out and discussed some of the larger and more persistent nuisance situations.

Last evening, the Committee held its monthly meeting. City criminal attorney Tucker Hansen and two members of the City Council were present. We hashed through things again, and now I think they are moving. Before the year is out, I believe the City Council will have fixed most of the problems in our nuisance ordinances -- without imposing anyone's standard of beauty on anyone else, by the way.

Rather than explaining or debating the merits of such ordinances, for the moment I will simply note how this relates to Tuesday's education forum.

Changing reluctant and entrenched institutions, even for their own good, is a slow battle. It takes years. But if enough like-minded, sensible, persistent people will stick to the task long enough, change can happen eventually. It took four and a half years to get from the appointment of a committee that wasn't intended to accomplish anything to the point where a City attorney (Kasey Wright, the City's very able civil attorney) is drafting actual ordinances for actual consideration by the City Council, which, I think, will pass them in some form.

My point: If it takes four or five years to see real progress in this relatively small matter in a small city, it may take much longer, perhaps even decades, to reform a large, well-funded, deeply entrenched school district. That's a long time, but let's keep trying. After all, as the other side keeps telling us, it's for the children.

David Rodeback comments (3/22/08):

Local math warrior Oak Norton participated in Thursday's meeting; his brief report is part of his weekly update. He noted an unfortunate first impression, which I noticed but did not mention, because I hadn't written down the words. There is a big banner in the hallway of the building we were in, which declares the Alpine School District's desire to raise of bunch of Social Democrats: "Enculturating the Young into a Social and Political Democracy."

That's troublesome on several levels, beginning with the first jargon word: enculturating. I thought they were supposed to be teaching, but . . . whatever.

Heidi Rodeback comments (4/15/08):

Kasey Wright is thusly spelled.

David Rodeback comments (4/15/08):

Duly noted and corrected above, with thanks. (It said Casey.)

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