Outside the Walls


Thoughts from Outside the Walls, January - May 2007

Copyright Dick Bernard dick_bernard@msn.com

Idea for January 2007

Special Friend Day: the ripple effect
It rises, I suppose, to the level of a truism: there is no action that does not have consequences, not always intended. A recent event illustrated this rule for me.

A note from my daughter said that our first grade grandson wanted to invite me to his school for a program just before Thanksgiving. I was delighted to accept the invitation, and wondered if Grandma could come along, too. It seemed it would be okay, though in the end Grandma couldn't come.

On arrival at the suburban elementary school, it became obvious why each child was asked to invite only one guest. Even thought I arrived early, the parking lot was already full, and attendants were lining us up in the grass of the ditch. But everywhere there were pleasant happy faces: the people coming into the school; the people greeting us while we waited for the designated time to go to 'our' childs classroom. The school had a welcoming look and feel to it, from the time I entered the parking lot till I left.

On the walls, inside, was 'kid art' arranged by class. I found the group that included my guy, and sure enough, there was his piece of kid art. It made an immediate positive impression for me...even though it was written 'to Grandma.' Oh well, can't have it all!

We went to the designated classroom for the class presentation on this "Special Friend" day. There were four of we 'special friends' by our kids desks. I was a grandpa, there was an aunt, and a neighbor, and a Dad.

One of the 'special friends' - the Dad - was a little late due to a problem beyond his control, which made for some anxious moments for his first-grader. The rest of us helped get things settled, and when Dad came in, the eyes of his son lit up - you could tell Dad was really, really special.

The teacher expertly worked with her charges, as they did some activities for and including us. For the hour in that classroom I felt like I truly was part of the community, even though I didn't live there. It was the kind of experience which will live on for me and the others who were there.

There was the 'ripple effect': While I didn't live in that school district, good feelings about public education left with me when I drove home: a good-will 'gift' to my own public schools. Schools are truly without borders. (For another example of this, see the idea for April 2003).

It would have been fine to end the visit with the completion of the hour, but there was more.

We were invited to a common area for coffee, juice, a donut...and invited to stay for a short program conducted by the Principal.

The Principal had us identify ourselves by show of hands, to show where we were from. We were, of course, from all over creation. In that room were visitors from Japan and Russia, among other far-flung locations. The visitors from farthest away were presented with gifts from the school. As school people know so well, we are an international society. It was good to experience it a bit, by the show of hands. This Special Friend Day happened to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the opening of the school, and the Principal showed us a most interesting video of a school project - a small environmental area near the front entrance. I hadn't noticed it when I came in, but looked for it on the way out. The video was well done, probably produced by a staff person or active parent at the school - school personnel are multi-talented!

On the way home I thought of the benefits and the potential of such a day as I had just experienced: positive public relations with inestimable value. I thought of the old Grandparents Days, which had the same intention, but became impossible, since most grandparents lived elsewhere. "Special Friend" was more all-inclusive. A great idea.

It would be nice if everyone could be invited to such an event, I thought. I know that's impossible. But what a memorable morning I had!

Thank you!

Idea for February 2007
How about "VICKing" we outsiders?

Recently I was pressed into service for a short term babysitting assignment at my daughters.

I arrived at 'action central', and my daughter announced that kid #2 was "VICK" at school that day.

"VICK?" Well, that's obvious: "Very Important Kid" (VIK). A no-brainer. Youngster was bringing a favorite stuffed animal to school, and could have the stage all to herself, as befits a VIK!

Neat idea.

Driving home, I reflected that the previous 24 hours had brought a couple of "VIOG" (Very Important Old Guy) moments in my life: the previous afternoon, the president of the state school PR group in which I continue my membership called, basically, to just say "hello." An innovation of her administration, it seems, has been to divide up the membership amongst the Board, and then to endeavor to touch base with each member once in awhile during the year. She's called me twice this year, and it is welcome...makes me feel an important part of the group.

About the same time, an acquaintance, a local screenwriter with a well-deserved national reputation, knew I had an interest in attending a reading of his next screenplay. All the tickets were gone, but he kept in touch, and finally came up with two tickets. It was something he didn't have to do. I certainly wouldn't make or break his career. Yet, he still felt it important to try to accommodate my interest. Whether I'd come up with tickets or not, he made a very positive impression with me. He very likely gets it, that one of those nobody's will some time be an important somebody for him. He's not sure who that'll be, so he goes an extra mile for everyone (I think he does, too.)

The three events got me to thinking 'outside the walls': the large church I attend often has visitors. Churches need all the PR they can get, and after the service each Sunday, the announcement is made that anybody interested in a tour of the church should come up front. There, a trained volunteer, a docent, gives the one, or ten, or twenty interested folks a tour. I've never been on the tour, but my guess is it is quite interesting. Memo to self: take the tour.

Each of the above examples well fit the public school: How about public schools doing some strategizing about a "VIK" like series of programs for citizens-at-large; something that doesn't involve the usual routine? Or perhaps doing something after school hours like my Church does after church? I know that school staff are creative, and it would be cheap and positive PR.

Perhaps, for one example, have a 'school after hours' tour, conducted by someone from the maintenance or kitchen or other staff, delving into the myriad of unseen things that are needed to keep a big school functioning. Or perhaps a session at the school bus garage, to see the equipment and hear transportation officials talk about the ins and outs, ups and downs, of student transportation. Or with the Business Manager at the business office to talk about money matters.

There are likely infinite varieties of possible seminars for those interested. A program like this would probably start slow, like most any program, but given time, and repetition, might catch on.

And all would be great Public Relations opportunities: the people who would attend are, after all, people who have an unusual interest in that place called 'school.'

Just a thought.

Now, how about making a "VIK" of us?

Idea for March 2007
TMVW: Visiting the (Uncomfortably) Obvious
Recently I was in conversation with someone who just knew they should be engaged in a particular endeavor, but had a familiar lament: "Time, right now, is what I struggle with. I can barely manage to keep the household going while managing [demands of work]. Perhaps I'm not efficient (and I'm willing to acknowledge that as my major flaw right now.) To be honest, cleaning the bathroom takes priority over writing to my legislators. Do I need to reprioritize, or are there other things I can do to show my concern? There are many of us (my generation in particular) who find ourselves in this same situation. We want to be a voice, but we have family and jobs and only 24 hrs in a day."

My correspondents issue was TIME The "T" in the acronym is, obviously, TIME, and my correspondent defined a real problem. More on that in a moment.

Very early in my observations of public schools from Outside their Walls, I became aware that there seemed no room in School District budgets specifically for outreach to outsiders like myself. I remember vividly the very first workshop I did on the topic in 2001 in a district that was very heavily senior citizen: I asked the nearly 30 people in the room to estimate how much of the local school district budget was allocated to reaching out to people like me. There was a very painful silence. Somebody mentioned that Community Education might fit, but the consensus was that the budget nowhere reflected working with a very major and influential community constituency. That simple question had its downside: it was an uncomfortable one, and people don't like feeling uncomfortable.

So, the "M" above is MONEY. If anything, it is less available for public schools in 2007 than it was in 2001. For the purpose I identified as a need back then, money probably remains invisible, even though the need for it is greater now than it was then, and the need will continue to increase, rather than decrease.

"V" and "W"? Later.

So, what might this mean?

I very well understood my correspondents concern about the TIME issue. She's a busy professional in her latter 30s with two young kids, one just beginning school. There are only so many hours in a day.

But I did respond to her, in part as follows: "There are 168 hours in every week. Every one of us has a 'budget' for the use of every one of those hours. 168 hours from when you read this sentence a new week will begin. I'd suggest thinking in terms of 'a week'. You know I'm interested in _____. A ______ advocate group came up with what I think is a good idea, and they keep at it: They started an e-mail feature called "a Half-Hour for _____", and each week give an idea for what can be done to use that half-hour. How about "A Half-Hour for your Future"? Just a thought. You'd have to carve it out of those 168 already allocated hours, but maybe there's room somewhere for it."

"A Half-Hour" a week is about one percent of an ordinary work week.

Can your school district afford to commit one percent effort by all of its employees towards 'outsider' outreach? What is the cost of the lack of such an investment?

The same analysis can easily apply to the issue of Money. "What is the cost?"

Granted, the 'pot' that is the total school district budget is viewed from the outside as being very, very large; you know the reality: not only is it all spoken for, but it is inadequate, you feel, for even your basic needs. But...

This time of year is well into the time of really active budget discussions for the next school year. Is there, should there be, talk of a specific 'one percent' allocation of the District resources to reach out to the immense majority of residents who have no particular day to day connection with schools? Your district will choose.

So, that deals with the T and the M. What about the V and the W?

To me, those words represent the really crucial components: the VISION and the WILL. Perhaps there are other equally expressive words, but without someone with the Vision and the Will to move a 'new' agenda, the status quo will always win.

Speaker and Counselor Earnie Larson said it best at a workshop I attended more than 25 years ago: "Nothing changes, if nothing changes." You're an education leader. It's your district's choice.

Idea for April 2007
Championship Calibre
Last month the local high school basketball team went to the State Tournament. Unfortunately, it didn't come back with a trophy, but in a real sense, the 'trophy' was getting to the final eight, a very significant accomplishment all by itself.

Not everybody makes it to State.

For each individual or group who makes it to the spotlighted competition, there are different ingredients combining to make for success. One can easily make a list of these ingredients to success.

There seems one element, however, that seems a constant to achievement of consistent success, and that is something called 'coaching'. Regardless of the raw talent assembled, somebody has to bring to that talent the essential extra which makes the difference between the team being simply a group of players with varied talents, or a winning aggregation whose individual skills are melded into a winning unit.

So, how does this apply to the Outside the Walls population?

In my years working with teacher unions, one of the constants in bargaining, always, was the Extracurricular Salary Schedule - the schedule for paying coaches of many different extra and co-curricular activities. Always at the pinnacle for extracurricular compensation were the head coaches for the major sports, one of which was basketball. The compensation was never enough, of course, but it was a given: recognition that there had to be some financial effort to attract someone who'd be willing to mold adolescent talent into winners. This was not a role for a volunteer. Some money was the 'contract' between the coach and the school district.

There was much more, of course. 'Coaching' has common elements, but is not a generalist role: an excellent soccer coach did not necessarily qualify for football coaching, for instance. Depending on the complexity of the sport, there might be assistant coaches. A coach is given both responsibility and authority. Most everyone who works for a public school system anywhere knows the elements of success or failure, and responsibilities for coaching.

Shouldn't the same elements which apply to coaching apply to the 'coach' for relationships outside the walls?

If one is going to develop a winning program for improving the image with the folks outside the walls, it makes sense that there should be some 'coach' who is not only hired, but is given authority, responsibility, compensation, budget and visibility to do the job effectively. The talent to do this job - the potential 'head coach' - is very likely already within your own district, now, either in the existing staff, or in the local community.

Give it some thought. Make your district one of those shining examples who, like my neighborhood high school, 'make it to State.'

Little Rock Central High School, May 8, 2007. Fifty years ago, September, 1957, Central High School became the symbol of the conflict around school desegregation. Today, as then, the building is an imposing place. Change came hard to Little Rock and other places, and more change is still needed, but the student body at Little Rock Central High School more reflects the total community than it did fifty years ago.

Idea for May 2007
The Importance of Two Little Words
Earlier this month we took a long driving vacation through mid-continent USA. Part of our objective was to visit assorted museums and historic sites. Because our trip was during the school year, we saw plenty of kids and their teachers and chaperones at the attractions, and of course there were the school buses, and the occasional school building teeming with young lives along our routes. Public Schools are everywhere, and you regain an appreciation of the hard work school personnel do when watching them shepherd youth at public, and fun, learning places.

The experience caused me to think back a month when I happened, in a single week, to do three separate volunteer stints relating to schools. Within the three lie a message, I think.

Volunteers have always been and will always be essential to the survival of public institutions. They provide countless hours of free service for ad hoc duties. As a guide mentioned at one of the museums we visited, "this place would have to close its doors if it didn't have volunteers."

But volunteering is not a coveted duty for most. There is a very limited pool of potential volunteers since there are no wages, or tangible 'benefits' beyond the volunteer feeling good for having helped out. Volunteers are 'hired' and can be 'fired,' but it's not the same as for regular paid employees. Volunteers resolve their personal 'grievances' by not volunteering again...the 'care and feeding' of volunteers is a task not to be taken lightly.

My April experiences were diverse, in three separate districts/settings, and in their own way hold some lessons.

The first was simple: I spent two hours on a Middle School site being 'potty monitor' for middle school students during testing. The site was in another town and school district than mine, but not a long distance away. The assignment was not as casual as I had thought it would be. There was a certain level of awareness and attention required.

The second was also simple, traveling over 100 miles to a place, then watching, and being discussion leader after, a film being shown to students on a subject about which I had some expertise.

The third was more complex, working with adults in conflict, requiring preliminary and follow-up work, then a full day to/from/at a place over 100 miles from home. I did a written de-brief for the persons who had engaged me for the task, including providing a publication I thought would be helpful to them for future such activities.

All three activities were pro bono: no payment for service. This was known up front. In two of the three assignments, there was payment for mileage. As I thought about these volunteer duties, it came clear that there were very limited, but distinct, options for the persons who brought me to their settings, but there was a lesson to be learned.

In one of my experiences (these are not listed in the order laid out above) there was a fairly generous mileage reimbursement. But other than receiving a check in the mail, there was no formal acknowledgment of the service I had provided. There has been, in other words, no 'thank you' from the person who had 'hired' me. This didn't have to do with the quality of my service. I know from other sources that my time spent was considered useful. A formal acknowledgment simply did not seem to be a priority for the person who had engaged me.

In the second experience, there was a less generous mileage check. Shortly thereafter in the mail came a homemade thank you card with a brief typewritten message from the student who had been the person working most directly with me on the volunteer activity.

In the third experience, the next day in my mailbox was a brief handwritten thank you note for my taking the time to help out at the school. It was the only compensation received for the duty at the school.

These are simply three experiences as a volunteer.

If you guessed that I felt best about the second and third assignments, you'd be right. The reason was simple: they took the time to acknowledge my service to them.

Volunteering is not easy, but volunteers are easy to take for granted. Don't.

Have a great summer.

NOTE: This is the final idea for 2006-2007. The new series will begin in August. Have a great summer