Over the past few months, Charleston County School District Superintendent Dr. Gerrita Postlewait has convened several sessions with community groups to hear what they believe should be included in a new strategic plan for the district.
The need for these sessions emerged from missteps she publicly acknowledged and a desire on her part to slow the process down and listen more closely before proceeding.
Six of these sessions were large gatherings and open to the public. It was my privilege to facilitate five of them, each comprised of panels — teachers, principals, community leaders, etc. — and members of the community who were encouraged to ask questions and make comments. Six topic areas from an early draft of the district’s strategy framed the discussions.
The only ground rules were that the superintendent was there to listen only, and commenters and questioners were requested to listen to each other and build on what others said to enrich the conversation. Specific concerns would be “parked” and responded to later, and they were.
As one ‘listener’, this is what I took away from these sessions:
Coloring outside the lines: If six strategic topics were to frame the discussion, rarely did participants address any one of them directly. Apart from ‘Communication’ where the message was loud and clear, how Teaching and Learning or Students Supports, for example, should improve required deep and appreciative listening to hear the connections..
Storytelling: More than a few speakers came to tell their story. Scores of children and adults who had experienced failure, success, abuse, isolation or fear for a variety of reasons at the hands of their student, teacher, principal or district shared their stories. Listening to them meant listening as much to the “music” as the words to discern the patterns that connected them.
Trust: Speakers were cautious to engage on sensitive subjects other than through their own stories. Even those who came to make a speech or press a single issue felt the need to do so with defiance, as if personal attack or rhetorical questioning would garner applause or shield them from a response. Courageous conversations on topics like Race need safe places bound by trust, and one could hear or feel the absence of it.
Edges: Most of the exchanges in these sessions were about whether and how schools (vs. parents) could or even should be accountable for building character, teaching sex education, developing tolerance or equipping students for work. Different points of view were expressed respectfully but as a polite form of trench warfare, intended to move the boundary one way or another. Arguably, these are topics without edges. Students will learn about them in school one way or another, and alignment and mutual re-enforcement with parents and employers should be the topics for discussion.
Core: By default, relatively few of the comments directly addressed core subjects, such as reading and math proficiency, even though results are alarming. The silence was itself instructive. As a community, we’re not yet ready to take this on and perhaps we don’t know how. While the accountability may rest with the schools, we — parents, businesses, governments, community leaders — don’t yet own the responsibility.
Tests: The pattern of discussion would cause one to conclude the following about tests: too many, too biased, too blunt, too insensitive to individual student circumstances and too inaccurate for evaluating student, teacher and district progress. If tests in our schools are to serve primarily to help teachers drive student progress and improvement, they are — or at least are perceived as — doing the opposite.
Adults: There were a disproportionate number of comments made by adults about other adults, adult structures like governance or inanimate objects like buildings and stadiums. It takes effort in these public discussions to drive the conversation toward what is in the best interests of all children and their families. The media coverage doesn’t help in this regard…
Means and ends: In all of these discussions, the debate moved directly into the tactile and tactical issues of public education where the disagreements live. There is no disagreement on the goal, that we as a community are near unanimous in wanting all of our children to be successful, and we would do well to start there.
It remains to be seen what will come of these sessions in the way of a new district strategy. The superintendent should be commended, however, for placing that strategy on hold to engage the community. It is apparent that she intends to embed this value of appreciative listening into her leadership and her expectations of those who work in the district office.
It does seem to me, however, that the means by which the education of our children takes place in any strategic plan cannot be effectively resolved without first coming to terms with what Equity should mean. So much of the subtext of these sessions was about “unfairness,” as if “fair” was something we all agree on. It isn’t.
What’s “fair and equitable” for adults — in teacher evaluations, principal assignments or school board pay, for example — is often framed in terms of the establishment or restoration of Equal Treatment as if it were synonymous with Equity. It may well be so when it comes to adults. However, this framework and these issues should be set aside in considering it means for children.
Children are innocent of all that went before, and equal treatment is a barrier to the success of those on the wrong end of disparity. Distinguishing “equity” from “equal” is the single most important issue that emerges from appreciative listening and one which a district strategy and our community must address head on.
John C. Read is CEO of Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative, a community-wide movement in Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties focused on improving the quality of life of its citizens and its workforce through education.