Hopes and Dreams for High School Education

High School 1Matt Couch and Nancy Chmiel facilitated a conversation on “Hopes and Dreams for High School Education” on November 4, 2013.  The goal of the conversation was to facilitate a conversation between parents and educators of Saddlebrook Elementary School students about their perceptions of, concerns about, and dreams for their children’s high school education in Omaha.  At the outset of the project, we explained our purpose:

Children in Omaha are educated in geographically separate school districts.  This geographic divide is widening along socioeconomic lines.  One instance of this widening occurs when families in the Saddlebrook area move out because they don’t want their elementary-aged kids going to Northwest High School when they are older.  This movement may lead to property value and tax revenue decreases, less parental, financial, and community involvement in the Omaha Public Schools, and sharpening the socioeconomic divide in Omaha.

High School 2

Two people who knew each other came to the meeting.  The four of us sat around one table, introduced ourselves, and told our favorite memory from high school.  Matt moved us into a visualization of our “Dream High School” –the one we want to send our kids to.  We charted the participants’ ideas including sites (small class sizes, multiuse (like Saddlebrook where there are lots of places for parents to be like a library/gym); smells (chlorine because there’s a pool, sweaty boys because lots of sports are played); activities (clubs and sports); staff (friendly and know parents of the students); and overall feel (spiritual, welcoming).

The conversation was certainly an interesting experience for both Nancy and Matt.  We had a variety of observations:The children of one participant came in wanting to go home and Mom said, “10 minutes”.  We headed into “What now?” mode as there was still 40 minutes left in the schedule.  Matt changed our agenda on the spot and paired our snowball exercise (meant for a different activity) with our final question of the night, “What can YOU do NOW to help make your dream high school become a reality?”  We encouraged the kids to help us throw the snowballs and had them read the grownups’ responses aloud to the group.  We then set the kids up with their own snowball fight in another area while the adults finished their conversation.

Nancy:  The five facilitation principles – Be present, Listen, Everything is an offer, Support your partner (your facilitation partner as well as your participant partners), and Yes, and – are important to creating a successful interaction.  Matt and I had to think on our feet as we were greeted with far fewer people than anticipated for our pilot conversation and then had the chance to include kids in the program.  The night turned out great because we utilized every one of the five principles.  The principles also work for any library customer interaction – story times, reference questions, problems with the copy machine, etc.  These five principles give me additional language to describe how I handle particular situations.

Matt:   Sometimes participants don’t trust in the process the way we do.  Nancy and I believed that the people who needed to be there were but our participants felt bad that more people didn’t come.  One invitee said later he didn’t attend because of what he feared the conversation would become.  One thing I’m thinking about is “What can we do to invest them in the process?”

Nancy:  High school education is a hot topic right now in northwest Omaha.  The Omaha Public School district held public strategic planning meetings in the weeks before our conversation.  A couple of educators decided to skip our meeting because they worried about getting caught up in politics if the meeting headed toward parents wanting a new high school.  They could not risk being seen to support any one solution within the district.   Other parents did not attend because what they really want is a chance to ask questions of administrators and have their opinion heard by people who make the decisions.

Matt:  One thing that makes these conversations so valuable is they create an opportunity for participants to reflect on and perhaps amend their assumptions/goals/etc.  One of our participants expressed a desire for a small school where staff knows all the students and the class sizes are small.  But she also wants her kids to have the breadth of opportunities that are generally available only at large schools.  Another participant pointed out that there is a tension between those two goals.

Nancy:  It is extremely difficult to get people to think beyond naming a solution to a problem to naming what action they can do to help make the solution happen.  I am no exception.  For example – ask someone, “What can you do to help make walking safer in the neighborhood?” Answer – build sidewalks.  Since, most likely, that person can’t build the sidewalk, she or he has only named a solution, not what role they could play.  A full answer to the question may be that they call the City to request that sidewalks get built.  Naming only solutions that one has no part in keeps the responsibility on others to do the fixing.  No ownership or involvement is necessary.  My belief is that to have true community engagement we, as facilitators, need to help people move to the next level of naming what THEIR involvement could be.

Matt:  For me the answers to our icebreaker question were more telling than anything we heard in response to our carefully crafted questions.  Although, our participants were asked to describe their favorite high school memories, they ended up giving really detailed responses that helped me understand why they want what they want for their children.

Posted by Nancy Chmiel and Matt Couch, Facilitators-in-Training

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