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Fighting the Public School Fortress

Fighting the Public School Fortress

I have worked with a number of nonprofits and foundations over the past few years, terrific organizations like Common Cause and the Avi Chai Foundation, traditional organizations working sincerely to turn themselves into Networked Nonprofits. To break out from behind their high walls and wide moats and focus on building meaningful relationships with wide networks of folks.

I am also doing the same as president of my synagogue, Temple Beth Abraham (new website coming soon!), a lovely 112 year old institution that has fortressed itself over many years.

In the last several weeks, I’ve also taken on the role of insurgent as a parent trying to storm the barricades of our local public school district. It has been a while since I’ve been up against a formidable fortress like this. It is fascinating to see how predictable their reactions and actions are, their knee jerk inclination to discuss and decide important issues in back rooms, their desire for continuity over disruption, the motions of listening that are really just talking at parents.

In my meetings with administrators and school board members, they key characteristics that has struck me the most has been the administration’s unwillingness to examine the relationship between the school district and parents. It has ossified to the point where few parents show up for meetings communicated by e-blasts and press releases. It begins a viscious cycle; they declare a meeting, we are tired of being talked at in edu-speak so stay home, they intuit we’re not interested, we intuit they don’t care about us. And on and on….

This tired cycle is most often broken when institutions face a crisis;  sales or donations are down significantly, an organization faces a significant loss of reputation such as the American Red Cross faced after Hurricane Katrina. In these instances, it required soul searching on the part of the organizations to use a different lens, a social lens, to change their relationship between inside and outside. And then the walls can start to crumble.

Public schools are in crisis across the country. Their funding is being cut by states, local taxes are down, public pressure is on to both increase test scores and develop and inspire a generation of creative thinkers (goals at odds with one another) making school administration one of the hardest jobs around. But without engaged and enthusiastic parents, these districts are fortresses sitting on desert islands. They are turning their back on our energy, enthusiasm, talents, resources and networks, which is a terrible loss for everyone. However, unlike organizations that rely on sales or donations, public institutions have to be forced to change from the outside most often.

And that’s what we began last night. A group of parents met and there was wonderful energy, and yes, some anger, in the room. I offered to create a parent-to-parent network online to share information about what is happening since the news coming from the administration is too often sparse window dressing, make sure we have representation at key meetings and develop strategies together of how to storm the barricades.  When I asked my network on Twitter this morning the tool they recommend for starting this work both Amy Sample Ward and Shaun Dakin recommended Google Groups.

I’ll get that started and plan to post here on our progress fighting the fortress. Should be interesting, wish it wasn’t so darn important for my kids.

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