Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Atlanta's Scarlet Letter: A Call for Community Dialogue

The cheating scandal in Atlanta's public school system is both painful and embarrassing for all of us who call this region their home. We're scared that we'll be stymied in continuing to cultivate the enormous investment of time, energy, money and hope that's been invested in this system and these children. In the nation's full glare, this adversity has thrown all of metro Atlanta into a crisis of faith – that we indeed have the will and trust in one another to come together on behalf of our children.  The decisions we make today will have long term implication for the region's support of public education.
"Many, many voices"
Historically, APS has never had great success in garnering timely, authentic public engagement with its constituents. As a result, information about school progress has been one-sided, and, until very recently, we were told that things were good. In our compliant acceptance of the message and the messengers, Atlanta lost the "public" in its public education system…opening the door to the past decade's unrealistic targets, undeserved accolades, limited connection points and lack of public accountability. And, while I applaud the school board's swift actions to address the institutional problems, I agree with a quote in Sunday's Atlanta Journal Constitution that "It will take many, many people and not just one man"… to move us forward.

Most of us are familiar with the wisdom, "It takes a village to raise a child". For Atlanta in this time and this place, this requires our understanding that public schools are, indeed, our schools. They do not belong to the superintendent, elected officials, or even parents. They belong to the community. Right now, kids are hurting, parents are worried, civic leadership is embarrassed, teachers are scared, funders are concerned, and the broader community is dismayed. The scandal is being discussed all over the community in groups as small as 2 and as large as the number of "friends" or re-tweets possible.  And many of these are atypical stakeholders, reflecting the city's changing demographics, and they are linking via ever-expanding social media networks. Many are teachers. Many are students.
There's an opportunity to move from what is now, too often, siloed, ill-informed, anger-tinged clamor to real conversation--but we need to do it together. To declare. To question. To understand how and why and if new requirements from Washington could cause such upheaval in Atlanta. To learn about how the best systems hold staff accountable. To understand school governance – at the neighborhood and board levels. To realize all the good that continues to occur within our schools. To affirm what we think and be open to gaining new perspective.  Most of all, as a community, to agree together on a vision for our children and the leadership that we need to achieve this vision.
Community Healing through Community Conversation
Atlanta needs transparent community-wide conversations about the future of our children and our schools.  Major objectives of the conversations would be increasing public understanding and engagement; providing focused input and support for moving forward; and, perhaps most importantly, reinforcing and reinvigorating our faith in one another -- as we remember that this is not about our image but rather about each other and about our children.  Remaining open and authentic, these conversations would
·         Have clear intent for input needed on critical issues
·         Be led and conducted by diverse and credible individuals/groups
·         Include the ability the "think high" (strategically and with the city's best interest in mind) and "reach low" (identifying tangible impacts on students and families)
·         Ensure mutual respect and tolerance for differing opinions
·         Use multiple tools and strategies, particularly social media, to engage traditional and new stakeholders
·         Bridge communities (civic, public, private, community-based, students)
·         Be able to move a group from dialogue to consensus decision-making

Public engagement of this nature is messy. Yet we now see – poignantly – what can happen when the public is not actively, consistently engaged in a reciprocal dialogue. Atlanta is a come-back city; we'll absolutely get through this. Yet right now, how we get through it matters as much as what we do --- and doing it well means opening up and reaching out further than we ever have before. Without this, we may gain forward progress but lose a rich opportunity to secure our community's heart and commitment on behalf of children.   
The village needs to talk -- everywhere, anywhere and with everyone possible. And we need to talk soon.