Educators wisely listen to parents, students & community members

This column originally appeared in several of the APG of East Central Minnesota newspapers, including the SunThisWeek.


Educators Wisely listen to parents, students and community members

Families, students, staff and teachers have a lot to say about issues like cellphones, class size, parent-teacher conferences, sports and school start times. One of the most important things that educators can do is listen and learn.

This may seem surprising because we usually see educators as people who teach students and lead schools and districts. But the most effective educators don’t just teach and lead — they also gather information about what they are doing well and what could and should be changed.

Fortunately, many Minnesota district and charter public educators understand the value of using input to improve. Sixteen Minnesota educators recently provided me with examples of what was discovered from listening and how they applied this information.

It’s not enough to ask people what they think. Unquestionably educators can’t follow every request or recommendation; no school has the resources to do everything people request, and sometimes suggestions conflict. But wise educators follow up on at least some of the advice they receive.

Here’s part of how Minnesota educators are using information they gathered from families, students, community members and fellow educators.

Tony Taschner, director of communications at Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan Schools, offered these examples of changes based on feedback:

“In 2004, two of our elementary schools were labeled racially identifiable schools. Part of the district’s plan to address the racial imbalance at these schools was to convert them to magnet schools, the first in our district. As part of that process, we surveyed parents and guardians of all preschool and elementary school children to determine which magnet themes were most popular. Based on those results, one became a STEM-focused school and the other has an arts and science focus.

“Several years ago, we surveyed parents and guardians on preferences related to start times and the school calendar. There was not consensus to change start times (it was about 50-50 on the question of moving high school start times back) but there was consensus to set the last full week of March as our spring break week. Previous to that, spring break moved based on the timing of Easter.”

Les Fujitake, superintendent of Bloomington Schools, wrote: “In response to parent climate and satisfaction surveys, our district created a Safe and Secure Schools Plan. In addition to the surveys, we had conversations with parents and staff, based on those findings. Our Safe and Secure School plan took a multi-layered approach to school safety that includes structural improvements, hardware, software and positive behavioral and intervention programs.”

James Skelly, director of communications and public relations for Anoka-Hennepin Schools, explained that in 2019, the School Board used feedback data from an annual survey of district residents to work on “discipline and chemical health issues, two items the survey reported as increasing concerns. The district launched a coordinated parent outreach awareness anti-vaping campaign as a result.”

In addition, “The district added 60 new teachers in core subject areas K-12 to address concerns over large class sizes. Large class size was the highest reported concern from residents in the most recently completed survey, at 19 percent reporting it as their biggest concern,” Skelly said.

Monticello Public School District Superintendent Eric Olson told me: “I believe in what you are talking about so much that I do not wait for end of the year surveys to make changes based on suggestions. I meet with parents one time every six weeks. I call these sessions Coffee Chats. We conduct them at the Community Center. I spend half of the 75 minute scheduled time listening to parents suggestions. … I had a Spanish interpreter at our Coffee Chats too.”

North Branch and Stillwater schools districts use software called Thoughtexchange. Carissa Keister, Stillwater’s community engagement manager, told me that the software “allows us to hold an online conversation where stakeholders can share thoughts and ideas with school district staff and School Board members. Participants are able to share their ideas, read and consider other people’s ideas, and help establish priorities for district leaders to consider in their planning for the future.”

Richfield Superintendent Steven Unowsky explained that in 2018, “We spent an entire school day engaging with our students, listening to their voices and participating in an event we called Reimagine Richfield.  We additionally held numerous parent events gathering input in person and through district wide feedback surveys.”

Wise educators gather information from parents, students and others in various ways: direct meetings, surveys, sophisticated software, etc.  Those educators recognize the value of listening, learning, and using at least some suggestions they receive.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is director of the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at Columns reflect the opinion of the author.