Site-Based Decision-Making

Chapter 14 - Inclusion: Hearing and Honoring Constituent Voices

Few schools are inclusive or communicative communities. To the contrary, they tend to be isolating in their structures, with the adults working within them separated into small boxes called classrooms and the adults outside the school rarely visiting or participating.

The often neglected challenge of site-based management is the conversion of existing communications channels so that they operate more fluidly. The task of the school council is to establish a clear exchange of information and insight so that planning for the school is informed by the perspectives of the entire community and the planning group does not push too far out into the future without support, accompaniment and enthusiasm. Acquiescence is not an acceptable level of response by the school community to school council initiatives.

What are the steps in reconstructing the communications channels of a school to include all parents and teachers, not just select groups? School councils are well advised to study the experience of Dr. James Comer in New Haven, Connecticut. Recognizing that full family involevement was a critical element in the success of the children, Dr. Comer and his team transformed the relationships over a number of years until the parents were an essential part of the school operation and experience. This process required several years and considerable skill.1

Begin in the school council with values statements. Is there agreement about certain premises? For example, do all members of the group agree to the following?

1) Children do better in school when their parents know and care about their learning and progress, when their parents feel like welcome partners;

2) The school cannot accomplish its goals unless there is substantial support from the outside influencing behaviors such as diet, sleep, reading, discipline and television-viewing;

3) People are more apt to put their support and passion behind a project if they feel they helped to invent it;

4) People can only feel as if they have helped invent if they can see evidence that someone incorporated their ideas, suggestions or concerns into the design;

5) Feelings of involvement are likely to emerge from direct questions, surveys and assorted observable actions which require active, two-way communication, but for listening to count, it must contribute to the ultimate invention of the project in a way which can be identified by the one is doing the talking;

6) Patterns of passivity or alientation can be broken;

7) Most of the assumptions we make about other people are open to challenge and revision.

Several healthy discussions of these values issues will set the basis for some action planning. If the group agrees that longstanding patterns can, indeed, be altered, then let them set about inventing the invitational experiences which will transform the old ways into new ways.

Once the group decides what it believes, the next step is to decide what exists presently. The school council conducts an assessment.

Upon completing the needs assessment, the group moves on to the problem-solving stage where all members brainstorm possible modifications.

"What might we do differently to increase the likelihood that all players feel well connected with us as we explore the future of this school?"

The primary objective of this exercise is to generate a large quantity of possibilities. Hopefully, some of the proposals will promise to push back the walls and limitations of past experience so that a different kind of listening and learning can occur.

Soon after the brainstorming exercise, the school council must attend to ways that the original proposals might be improved upon. Unfortunately, most groups follow brainstorming with doubt and criticism, indulging in an orgy of fault-finding and questioning which soon kills most prospects for radical improvement. By investing first in the task of improvement, half-baked ideas make make it through the oven as impressive loaves.

Criticism, doubt and analysis are actually reasonable partners in the invention process, but only if they are offered in the constructive spirit of quizzing how to improve by addressing weaknesses and limitations. All too often doubt and criticism are employed to block progress and change.

School people too often seek formulas and recipes for success, procedures which have worked for others in other places and other schools. While Dr. Comer's model and strategy worked well for the children of his school, they will only work for others if they are modified.

No one should underestimate the difficulty of shifting the culture of a school from isolated and non-communciative to collaborative. Good intentions will not suffice.

]Members of the school council might divide up the staff and parent community so that responsibility for communication is clear. For a teacher this might mean relating to a dozen or more colleagues on at least a weekly basis. For a parent it means an overwhelming task of communicating with hundreds. Success depends upon the development of novel means of consulting and sharing information.

It is not enough to make contact. Representatives must be reflective listeners demonstrating through their words and actions that they have heard what their colleagues or peers are saying. Later they must further demonstrate the listening through action on the council itself.

In addition to listening, representatives are responsible for explaining the actions and deliberations of the council so that constituents remain closely connected to the proposals under consideration. The possibility of a gap developing between council and constituents is a clear and present danger.

The greatest hope for site-based management is the payoff associated with ownership -- the so-called "buy-in" which results when people feel they have created the project. Without conscious attention to inclusion, basic norms of behavior are likely to undermine this particular promise.

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Copyrighted 1991 by Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved.