WSSD Strategic Plan Feedback Meeting

I attended one of the community strategic planning meetings this week at WSSD. I’m going to mostly comment on the process rather than the plan itself. The plan hasn’t changed since last month’s survey. Whatever you thought of it before is still relevant. It would make sense that they were waiting for these feedback sessions before updating it.

The first block was an introduction by the administration, followed by a “what’s been done so far” going over the audits that were done in the previous year – equity, communication, curriculum, etc. Then they presented the results of last month’s survey, and finally we spoke in small groups. We’re supposed to go to a link we were handed at the end to fill in a form about our discussions.

The administration spent almost an hour and a half speaking to us. For 3/4 of the community feedback session, the community was listening. That’s the first problem. The last half hour we moved between two different groups to have conversations. While it seemed like we were having productive conversations – at least I felt like I was learning a lot – 15 minutes to dig into complex and hard to solve issues is hardly enough.

This lack of time was exacerbated by the large amount of data they gave us with little time to process it. I’m a guy that’s as good with a stack of data as the next person, but I couldn’t make sense of what I was given in the time we had. Ironically the district says they’ll release the data later this week (at some point the website will have a strategic planning section). If we had this information last week maybe we could have understood what we were looking at and had conversations with others we know in the community. Instead, it was useless for the purposes of these conversations.

This meeting was in the middle of the workday. We had about 30 members of the community. I’m told the evening meeting earlier in the week had double that. So maybe 100 people (some attended both sessions though), demonstrating the community’s willingness to engage. But I noticed that parents of neuro-divergent students seemed pretty heavily represented (for good reasons – the draft plan largely ignores their concerns). The audience was also nearly entirely white and mostly female. And, of course, it was made up of people that could show up to a 2 hour meeting in the middle of a workday. I was at a table with a member of our community whose children had already graduated the district and she pointed out that she’d barely heard about this because there’s no mechanism for the school district to reach out to families without school age children. So, a reflection of our community this group was not. One speaker pointed out that the survey was gathered over about a week – and its not clear to me the district has yet given much thought as to what parts of our community aren’t reflected in the survey feedback. The largest group of responses are from children in grades 7-12 that WSSD surveyed in school. Given the dense, buzzword language in the plan’s text, there were a lot of “I don’t know” responses in the student results.

There was little listening in the feedback session. The administration did not have anyone at the tables I was at, and there were only 2 board members among the 8 tables, so they couldn’t be everywhere. I’d note that due to open meeting laws, more board members probably couldn’t legally attend, so no fault from the board there. But this was billed as a listening session and there was little listening. We were given a QR code to link to the post-meeting survey, which means they expect us to fill out the response on a phone instead of being able to use a device with a keyboard. No web link was given to enable us to use a computer – just a QR code (which, despite being pretty common these days, I still find people not sure what to do with them). Again, another accessibility issue.

We were told toward the end that there would be further meetings we could sign up for at that QR-code linked survey. But what this work was or when it was was left nebulous. That kind of fuzzy obligation is hard to make a commitment to. It’s baffling. Strategic plans are not a new thing, and yet it feels like they’re figuring it out as they go. It feels a lot shakier than the township’s planning, which is going on simultaneously.

The superintendent laid out what he sees as some of the challenges facing the district. He’s pretty focused on the district’s diversity, equality and inclusion issues. He pointed out that there are worse outcomes in our district for students of color, students from lower socioeconomic status and neuro-divergent students. But…the district scheduled a meeting in the middle of the day (one of only two meetings before March), presented slides that were hard for some to read, that were full of acronyms and industry jingo and hard for some community members to process while being spoken to. The administration says we need to make inclusion part of everything the district does at a meeting where the district did little to include people. There’s a surprising lack of self-awareness.

Further, one of the causes of the divergent outcomes in the district he referenced is that parents often have to fight the school district for the services their children need. The administration’s presentations suggested they think they are successful in identifying children in need of interventions and supports but all the evidence I have indicates that unless parents constantly battle the school district – all the way up to lawsuits sometimes – children do not receive the services they need. It’s not clear to me the administration is aware of how grueling this fight can be for parents. Not all parents have the resources to fight those battles. What you end up with is a result where we have divergent outcomes because we have divergent inputs – children of color and lower socioeconomic status are less likely to have parents with the resources to fight these battles. If you’re unlucky in the parent lottery, the district will fail you. The administration seems oblivious to their role in perpetuating the systemic inequalities in our society by continuing to fail to identify students in need of support.

I came away with the feeling that little of the feedback is going to change much given that they provided little time for discussion and none for receiving feedback during the session. It feels like there was an opportunity for good community conversations among people that usually don’t cross paths. But that opportunity was missed. District administrators continue to talk a lot about the need for inclusion without being able to model it or put it into action themselves. The stack of data from the surveys indicates that majorities support the elements of their plan and the district could point to that to claim they are on the right track. But many respondents also filled in comments in the survey, so maybe there will be some changes due to those.

The superintendent said that, with current trends, it will be about 90 years before the equality gaps in the district close. I’m not sure this process will do much to change that.

Categories: WSSD