First, a clarification on something that was brought to my attention… Back in August, the vote to appoint Russell Lee-Sung as Superintendent was 6-1. Trustee Ashley Anderson was the Trustee who voted no.
Tuesday night, I watched and/or listened to all five hours of the school board meeting. Sometimes, I watched the World Series with the volume off and listened to the meeting.
Throughout the meeting, I wrote down several points I wish to cover today, then started thinking about them in a broader context. It was then that I realized that nearly all of the challenges facing the district – including some of the financial ones – are the result of poor communication.
Let’s start with the small stuff. I expect every PowerPoint presentation to be perfect. These communications are created by a school district for others in the administration, for the trustees, and for the public. They are archived and will be accessible for as long as the district or the Internet care to store them.
Last night, I saw “on-going,” “‘in class’ instead of ‘in-class,'” and so many formatting errors (random hyphenations, breaks, etc.) that I was in pain. Though I realize that many or most people watching didn’t notice or care about these things, I did. These mistakes were not signs of people who are ignorant of the proper grammar, spelling, and syntax – these are smart people. Rather, they were signs of loose communications management.
If I’ve already told you this anecdote, I apologize, but it applies yet again: Just before the printing of a banner to be used at a conference, I made a slight change to the headline – minor! – but it still had to go through a proofreading process.
Here’s one I haven’t told… I am the former editor of a national magazine that was published by and featured a famous person. At the last minute, we were told to add a picture of the new television stage set that the star would be using.
My rule for the magazine was that every picture must have a caption. Because we had no time – those deadlines again! – I relayed the caption to the layout artist over the phone and let it go. The magazine was published with the word “gorgeuos” in the caption.
That magazine was not a school district and I’m probably the only person who recalls that mistake. But we must hold district communications in a higher regard. There is no excuse whatsoever for the sloppiness I see month after month.
All district presenters should submit their slide decks to a qualified proofreader in time to make changes. That process starts at the top.
Help is here and more is on the way
I’ve made no attempts to hide my appreciation of the district’s Student Services Dept. This department and these people are conducting the most important business in the district and are doing a good job.
There was conversation last night about the approval of $30,000 for some more support for the department and during the exchanges, I most recall the comments by Board President Martha Fluor. It was compelling, it was personal, and don’t think I could add anything to what she said.
Over the years, I have worked with a lot of doctors – many specialties, all over the country. What I learned is that the podiatrist will tell you that all your pain is due to issues with your feet. The cardiologist will tell you it’s because of your heart, and the neurologist will tell you that it all starts in the brain.
I have no doubt that the math teacher believes that math is the most important issue for students, the history teacher believes it’s history, and the music teacher will extol the many benefits of music over all other subjects. I believe, however, that the mental health of our students is the most important issue these days. It was the most important issue before the pandemic and it is even more important now.
I’m not sure whether the $30K was well spent last night, but I do know that under the direction of Dr. Sara Jocham, the department is being proactive instead of waiting around to fix things that break.
Oh, and if you want to see a good presentation, verbal and PowerPoint, watch Dr. Phil D’Agostino’s from Tuesday night. If I had a checklist for these things, his would be completely checked off, despite the fact that he spilled the beans on the World Series score…
The theater of communications
Back to communications. The board voted to move ahead with the new theater at Estancia High. Fine. Whatever.
The frustration for me is that the theater controversy that has been brewing over the past several weeks was not really about the destruction of mature trees or the location of the theater footprint.
It was all about communication. In this case, bad communication. About a month ago, the district should have had a special presentation on Facebook or via Zoom or wherever, to address the concerns that had been raised by the community. Unlike other meetings, attendees could submit real time comments and questions. At the heart of it, the district could have used Trustee Vicki Snell’s rationale for moving forward. I don’t agree with it, but she presented it well – not only just what she said but how she said it – and the conversation could have started.
This controversy and almost all of the others over the years could have been reduced or silenced through improved communication with the community.
I’m not talking about the fake community meetings to learn what people want in a new principal, or where to put a fence around a school. I am talking about (OK, yes, actually, I am writing about it) a new approach to communications, one that places informing the community at the top of the list of every initiative.
I’m talking about greatly increasing transparency and streamlining access to information so that the public has little if any digging to do when searching for something.
I’m talking about reviewing and scrapping almost all of the old ways of communication and replacing them with processes that reflect the communications habits of the new generation of parents.
Stop the messes before they begin by making everything front and center. Stop the progress of controversies already in play by addressing the with the community in an honest, straightforward manner. Sometimes, that means saying, “We made a mistake,” which is one of the most effective communications statements anyone or any entity can make.
If I had one request of the incoming board, it would be to create a task force or committee – one that is not stocked with the usual crowd, we need younger, more tech-savvy people who are parents of kids in the district – to come up with specific recommendations to improve community relations through improved communication. And implement them.
Then there’s this
It’s called G4 EA H1N1. It’s a new virus that was discovered in China last June and it is being positioned as having the capability of causing another pandemic. The findings have been reported in the Journal of the National Academy of Science but only marginally reported by the U.S. media. CNBC reported it in late June. Here’s the to the CNBC story:
We all want to return to “normal,” whatever that was for each of us. We want to be able to walk around without a mask, enjoy a meal inside a crowded restaurant, and bump into a stranger without worrying about whether we’re going to wind up in the ICU.
Predictions, however, are increasing that this coveted return may never happen; that we are moving into the virus age and that some of the habits we dislike but find necessary are going to be part of our new way of life.
That’s not me talking, that’s the conclusion of many people a lot more qualified. Go ahead, Google it.
As I write this, 40 states are reporting increases in COVID-19 cases. And if you believe that everything will be right once we get a vaccine, please contact me – I have a beautiful bridge in Brooklyn that I want to sell you, cheap.
It seems to me that one of the most irresponsible and financially reckless things that the district can do right now is proceed with the construction of a new theater.
The main reason for halting this project is that right now, we just don’t know whether we are building a theater or a very expensive storage shed for old desks, computers, and whatever else is laying around the Estancia campus because the theater was not designed for the virus age.
And if the district is going to proceed, it would be a good idea to pause for a time and re-think the design. Ask these questions, based on the strong possibility that we are entering the virus age:
- If the virus age is real, what should this new theater look like ?
- Does social distancing need to be incorporated?
- Do we need space for a virus screening stop before entering the auditorium?
- Do we need to boost the air circulation capabilities inside?
- And more…
No one is asking these important questions. Someone should.
The problem is that the well-meaning folks in the administration who are overseeing this project are not wired or inspired to think beyond their to-do list. Oh, you want a new theater? OK, let me get my new theater checklist out – the one that was created thirty years ago – and I’ll get started.
We need new minds, new ways of thinking, not just for the theater but with everything else we are doing. If ever there were a time for a district summit meeting to discuss the future of education in the virus age, it is now.
But no one is recommending this. It’s just business as usual on Bear St.
Oh, yeah – this
So we have a student board member voting on some agenda items. This started a short time ago. The student’s vote does not count, nor should it, but it makes me wonder about yet another lost opportunity – a great one.
One of the long-term shortcomings of past school boards and administrations is their failure to tap into the vast wealth of information that our students can provide.
We sit around day after day making important decisions for these young people and only rarely ask them what they think.
That is the wasted opportunity. In the case of the student board member, the trustees should be asking him or her their thoughts on the agenda item each time it is applicable. And even when it is not. Ask all of the student board members. Stop guessing what is good for them by asking them what they think.
When the new board is seated, I hope that they will create a system to make student input a mandatory item for many of the projects, programs, and policies that are considered. It’s not a Herculean task – just ask any of the younger trustees who grew up with the technology.
A final word. Soon.
This has been a trying year for all of us. At the age of 65, I am still blessed with good health, even though I’ve had a few recent setbacks. Nothing life-threatening, just some serious reminders that I’m old.
I’m old and out of touch with the new generations of students and parents. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just the natural order. My parents were out of touch with my crowd, their parents with them, and so on.
It is time for the younger people to take the reins, not just here in the N-MUSD, but all across the country. The problem is that the old folks don’t want to let go. It’s hard, I know, but it’s their turn. It’s their time to succeed or fail.
I don’t want to write this blog anymore and I will no longer be watching or reporting or worrying about what happens in the district. In one sense, perhaps I’ve been an enabler – doing something that people much younger than me should be doing for themselves. Maybe a young parent will have a more efficient, tech-savvy way of doing this.
It’s time-consuming, too, and I’ve got things I’d rather be doing, such as trying to figure out how to rid my backyard of that one bully hummingbird that chases away all the others.
My last post will be sometime just before next Tuesday, Nov. 3.