Ohio Public School Advocacy Network
“Breaking the silence is the first step. It makes it possible to stake out an issue, draw others to it and empower people, who may have been silenced by the policy, to begin to use their influence…Silence is the enemy of change.” This thought-provoking quote appeared on March 1 in the Heights Observer. The column was written by Susie Kaeser, a long-time resident of Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District (Ohio) and a national board member of Parents for Public Schools. Like public schools across the nation, her district has been deeply affected by the adoption of federal and state policies that have made testing, accountability and privatization the key levers for affecting school quality. A staunch advocate for public education, Susie was instrumental in the formation more than four years ago of the Heights Coalition for Public Education, an all-volunteer group of concerned community members who are calling on Congress and the Ohio Legislature to end their war on public education.
Researchers and clinicians who have studied the problem of violence over the past three decades have found a steady increase in levels of children’s exposure to violence. On the heels of the Parkland school shootings, Daniel J. Flannery recently reported how witnessing violence harms children’s mental health. Flannery is Professor and Director of the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at Case Western Reserve University.
Amid the national focus on school safety following the tragic shootings in Parkland, Florida, local school and community leaders throughout our nation now have an important choice to make. They can wait for federal and state government policymakers to tell them what to do to beef up protection for their staff and students or they can take the bull by the horns. They can sit down with their staff and students, design a plan that is tailored to each of their school systems, discuss it with their parents and community and then generate local public support (including money) in order to make it happen. It is clear that the growing concern about school safety has hit a tipping point. As a result, the window of opportunity to provide our citizens with an opportunity to make a real difference has never been greater. It is time to take the bull by the horns.
On January 18, one of the education policy groups working with the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network hosted three of the superintendents who are helping to lead this grassroots movement to provide citizens with a stronger voice in shaping statewide education policy. Sponsored by the Heights Coalition for Public Education and entitled “Superintendents Fight Back,” the panel presentation and discussion featured Woodridge Superintendent Walter Davis, Olmsted Falls Superintendent Jim Lloyd and Cleveland Heights-University Heights Superintendent Talisa Dixon. In addition to the website article, the 90-minute forum was video-recorded. The goal this year for the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network is to create education policy advisory groups in school districts throughout Ohio.
Throughout his 13-career as superintendent of the Medina City Schools, Charlie Irish became somewhat of an expert at utilizing the power of public engagement to pass operating levies and bond issues. Today, however, in his post-retirement career working with the Kettering Foundation, he admits that he’s done a flip-flop on his earlier views about engagement: “There was a time when I believed that engaging our residents in conversations about important topics such as voting for levies and rallying around other causes that our school board and I thought were important was enough. While in the short run it did help us build enough community support to pass several school tax issues, it didn’t empower our citizens to assume ownership of education in our community. For me, the lesson in all of this is that the real power of public engagement is empowering citizens to forge their own collective judgement about issues. By providing them with the opportunity to name these issues for themselves and define their own choices for action, they will own the responsibility for addressing whatever is at stake.”
Last evening, Paul Pendleton called me regarding my blog on Wednesday entitled “Need More from Our Public Engagement.” A former school superintendent, good friend and colleague in our work with the Kettering Foundation, Paul said he strongly agreed with the Colorado State University professor who stated that providing opportunities for people to express their opinions is simply the first step to generating public ownership of the challenges facing our public schools. Paul explained that empowerment, not engagement, is what really generates ownership. I can’t agree more. Over the past two decades, we’ve both learned that when citizens are empowered with the responsibility for fixing a problem, they nearly always step up to the plate and make a difference.
I recently read a powerful quote about public engagement that is timely and relevant for the grassroots movement being led by the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network to provide Ohio’s citizens with a stronger voice in shaping education policy in our state. The quote appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of the Kettering Review from Martin Carcasson, professor of communication studies at Colorado State University and founder and director of the CSU Center for Public Deliberation. He states: “Based on our knowledge of wicked problems, we know we need much more from our public engagement. Providing opportunities for people to express their opinions is simply the first step. Beyond that, we need our public process to allow people to develop mutual understanding and trust. We need processes that help us elevate quality arguments and expose weak or manipulative ones. We need processes that incite learning and refinement of opinions. We need processes that spark creativity and innovation, and ultimately lead to co-creation and collaborative action.”
Tom Dunn is superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center. A strong advocate for public education, he is helping to lead a grassroots movement (Ohio Public School Advocacy Network) to provide Ohio’s citizens with a stronger voice in shaping statewide education policy. His column on January 17 in the Troy Daily News, entitled “Taking Care of Our Children,” is thought-provoking, heartfelt and well worth reading.
In Ohio, entering kindergarten students are required to take a state-mandated Kindergarten Readiness Assessment (KRA) exam. In recent testimony before the Ohio Senate Education Committee, Jessie Rindler, a veteran kindergarten teacher for the Kettering City Schools, didn’t mince words in sharing how KRA testing is negatively impacting the academic growth of her students: “This test is not used to inform my work with my students. It is getting in the way of my very intentional work of authentically instructing and assessing the needs of my students. It is of little value because it takes so long to administer. The time used to administer it could be used to provide critical interventions. I question the developmental appropriateness of that much testing for young students, some of whom are four years old, have never been in school before, and may not speak English. Many students, especially fragile populations of students, show signs of stress and fatigue during testing. Some are unable to effectively use technology or appropriately seek support for technology problems as they arise. The downfalls are many.”
A champion of public education and author of Schools Cannot Do It Alone, Jamie Vollmer discusses how the mountain of social, psychological, and medical responsibilities that have been heaped upon the schoolhouse door has become an ever increasing burden on America’s public schools. John McKnight has reached the same conclusion but from a different perspective. Codirector of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at DePaul University and a Kettering Foundation senior associate, McKnight reports in “The Educating Neighborhood: How Villages Raise Their Children” that in one or two generations villages have lost their power to raise children and their functions have largely been transferred to the schools. He explains that these transfers have created teachers who often feel overwhelmed by all of these responsibilities and, as a result, diminished their capacity to teach those things for which they were prepared. His article appeared in the 2017 issue of CONNECTIONS, an annual journal of the Kettering Foundation.