Facing incipient school closure
Last April I found out late on a Friday evening that my school had been unexpectedly listed in a San Bruno Park School District governing board agenda for closure at the end of the 11/12 school year. Up to that point only one other school had been recommended for closure by a consultant firm hired by the district. To say the least, there was a strong reaction from our school community. At the next board meeting dozens of parents and students lambasted the board and district administration. The final vote was 5-0 to not close any school in the upcoming year. However, knowing that with the the state and federal budget crisis, the potential failure of Proposition 30, and the uncertain success of a district sponsored parcel tax (it did not pass on November 5), as a school community we knew that we had to do something to fend off closure for the 13/14 year.
For the last couple of years, the former PTA president had wanted to establish our school, El Crystal, as a charter school. We looked at the district policy but quickly decided that none of us had the time to invest in that endeavor. However, with closure on the near horizon, Vince (the former PTA President) and I sought school and community members to create a mini-task force to discuss and consider other alternatives. By June of 2012 we had a group of between ten and twelve regular participants that met every other Thursday over the summer to strategize a plan. Eventually, we settled on becoming a Magnet School for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). Our site has been designated by the district as a Demonstration School for the Integration of Curriculum and Technology for the last four years, so this move seemed logical. The staff had considered this notion during the school year, so it met with their overwhelming support.
Creating a proposal
We created our Magnet School Proposal throughout the summer. Just before school began, four members of what the district soon labelled “the delegation” met with the superintendent and one board member to present our proposal. The delegation was asked to come back with answers to a number of questions posed during the meeting. The district asked that I as principal, should serve as the liaison to the parent group. We met one more time to offer our responses. Our proposal was put on the board agenda in October as a presentation item. The board voted to place our proposal as an action item for the upcoming November 14 board meeting.
Whether or not our proposal gains the needed wind to take flight is in the hands of the governing board. But what I want to share is the extraordinary relationships that were established within the parent group known as the delegation. Ten regular participants composed the group:
- Parent and former PTA President who is a property manager
- A nurse
- A real estate broker
- An architect from the community
- Manager of a major department store
- Director at a bio-medical company
- Self-employed illustrator and author
- A former parent and community activist
- Director of fundraising at a public television station in San Francisco
- Webmaster for a non-profit organization
A model of collaboration
I have been an administrator in public schools for almost 25 years. I have facilitated, met with, and participated in numerous parent groups including PTA, ELAC, School Site Councils, and special committees designated by the governing board. Those meetings are usually agendized, focused on support for a specific school or school system, and driven by interest or protocol. Folks can participate or just ‘sit on their hands’ and let others do the talking and decision-making.
The delegation turned out to be a much more intense, personal, and gratifying experience. The participants were open-minded, candid, task-driven, solution-oriented, focused, and respectful to the perspectives brought by each member. The STEM idea was offered by Vince and myself. The group took this notion as a great idea, did research away from the meeting, brought their individual experiences and perspectives into the discussions, read everything given to them, and asked driving and well-thought out questions. In other words, they were the ideal collaborative group. They were a model for what any teacher would want to see students achieve at any level in any classroom learning any subject.
Invest time with parents in open-ended problem-solving
I said at a recent conference that every principal should figure out a way to invest time regularly with a group of parents and an open-ended problem to solve. From this experience I gained insight to how parents perceive my behavior as an individual and administrator, how they perceive the goals of our school, how they perceive classroom activities, and how they perceive the intended culture of the school. If you asked folks to give you this insight straight up, you would receive nothing. In many ways, these participants were the faces behind the survey questions you send out about your school. I learned that some people perceive me as sometimes too frank and honest, that I could be more tactful, and that there was tremendous respect for how we care for the students in our charge especially with the technology we offer throughout the curriculum. In the final analysis, I learned that collaboration is an essential condition at all levels if any system if it is going to function at its maximum.