Outside the Walls


Thoughts from Outside the Walls, January-May 2003

Copyright Dick Bernard dick_bernard@msn.com

January 2003 Idea
A Learning in the Stratosphere
photo When was the last time you totally overlooked the obvious? It happens all the time. We are all susceptible - well, maybe you aren't, but I am. In early October, 1998, I was involved in a national meeting on public engagement. Our meeting room at the top of the Stratosphere Hotel needle (photo) overlooked Las Vegas and Clark County.

One of the speakers, a young man perhaps mid-30s and a leader of a successful project in his home city, was talking about their local project. At some point, he told us that he and his wife, parents of a two year old youngster, had built a new house across the street from a brand new public school.

They had built there specifically for the benefit of their child, and children to be.

He continued on, and had a very definite "Aha" moment - something entered his mind during the presentation that clearly he had not thought of before. "You know," he said, "they just had the Open House for the opening of that school...and we didn't receive an invitation to attend."

Somehow, in that schools neighborhood, an invitation to the non-school age parents (and others) had either not been issued; or had not been clearly sent.

Our speaker, who lived across the street and obviously cared, would have noticed.

It's something to think about as you plan your local events.

An old sales truism says a message, to be received, has to be delivered "7 times in 7 ways." A single announcement is not enough.

February 2003 Idea:
"Ah, Those marvelous Minnesota public schools"

pinky nelson Nineteen years ago, August, 1984, several hundred Minnesota educators listened to speakers extolling the virtues of public education in their state. Among the speakers was a young astronaut, George (Pinky) Nelson. Pinky was a 1968 graduate of Willmar MN public schools, and was later to fly the shuttle mission before the Challenger disaster in 1986, and the first mission after shuttle flights resumed in 1988. In all he logged 411 hours in space.

Nelson's talk was the kickoff for a year long celebration of public education in Minnesota, called "Ah, those marvelous Minnesota public schools." It was a year of celebration, and the tragic event of February 1, 2003, brings the day and the year and the speaker back to mind.

1984 seems "long ago and far away" in this time of severe belt-tightening at the same time expectations on the schools are increasing. There are those who work tirelessly to damage, if not destroy, the marvel which is public education.

This must not be allowed to happen.

Ever since the publication of "A Nation At Risk" in April, 1983, about a year prior to Pinky Nelson's talk in St. Paul, public education seems to have been constantly (and unfairly) placed on the defensive by its critics.

Public Education needs to go on the offensive, showcasing successes in many ways to many audiences, local, state and national.

Any coach will tell you that a good defense is essential to success. But defense is not enough: "The best defense is a good offense."

You are miracle workers millions of times a day. Let us in on your success.

March 2003
It's Never Too Early
We were visiting during dinner at a restaurant near Cape Canaveral FL. One of those with us was a young professional woman in her late 20s. She and her husband, also a professional man, were expecting their first child in a few months. They had lived in their town for a number of years.

Talk for some reason got around to public education.

The young lady said, "the school closest to us isn't very good; but there's another one in town that is better."

I asked, "how do you know that?"

She said, with no hesitation, "the test scores are posted on the internet, and the closest school's test scores are lower."

And the conversation went on.

I thought to myself: here was a young person without any children, casting judgment on a school solely because of a number found on the internet. She and her friends likely chatted about such topics. It would be five years before her child even reached school age.

Should she be held "accountable" for misapplication of data? I would say, "no" - after all, the state has apparently advised she and her husband how to grade their school, and it is that number on the internet which conveys a negative first impression and as we know, first impressions are hard to change.

Consider the need, the big need, that schools have to consistently and positively market themselves to people like the young lady above: people who are not yet consumers, but will be. And while you're at it, consider the myriad others in the community who are not presently direct consumers of public education. In most districts, these folks make up as much as 80% of the voting age population. They are ignored at great risk.

The young woman at that dinner in January, 2003, was making a judgment of her neighborhood school based on a single piece of data. The local school and school district - has to find ways to help her fill out the picture which may be very different from what she imagines.

6-year old Michael T. catches the essence of the importance of positive relationships in this 2001 painting seen in a local business. Schools must nurture positive relationships with their many "outside the walls" constituents.

April 2003 Idea
What do these three dates have in common?
April 20, 1999
September 11, 2001
March 21, 2003

photo If you answered, "on each date, terrible and graphic events occurred which deeply impacted on school children in every school in this country," you'd be thinking along my line.

These were the dates of Columbine; of the Terrorist hijacking attacks; of the beginning of the "Shock and Awe" bombing in Baghdad.

Each event happened on a school day, and monopolized television and radio. It was impossible for school kids, their siblings and parents to not be directly affected.

Of course, there are differences in the three events. But in each, the public schools were those who had to respond to the needs of over 45,000,000 public school children and their parents.

Schools came through for kids and their parents in a remarkable manner at each time of tragedy. Schools and Churches made the difference in helping kids and their parents cope and get through trying times.

Without question, the vast majority of America's schools have well thought out crisis plans in place to deal with the probability of future events which, in this media age, cannot be hidden from student view. Almost certainly, parents have been informed long in advance of these policies.

But what about the 80% or so residents who are outside the walls of the public school, and may have legitimate needs for information as well?

Just for a single example, the young lady pictured is a granddaughter who lived one mile from Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. Her grandfather, who took the photo on "Cross Hill" above the high school on May 1, 1999, was 1000 miles away when the news came of the tragedy in Colorado. A school tragedy in Colorado was by no means an abstract and irrelevant event to a grandfather in Minnesota.

Is assisting non-parents cope a part of a public schools role? Should it be? Can it be? This is one citizen who thinks that the answer to all three questions is "yes," and who believes there are simple solutions IF people from inside and outside the walls sit down and talk about appropriate ways for school and individual to really connect.

The next crisis will happen. The only question is when. It is best to be prepared.

Butterfly art
6-year old Naiyma completed the above table tent for a place setting of a charity donor luncheon this summer. Nice touch.. Look for equivalent opportunities to showcase your most important costumers - your students.

May 2003 Idea
Two Observations in April:
Flotsam and Jetsam: Early in April, the snow disappeared along my favorite park path.

Of course, the end of snow revealed assorted trash thrown there through the winter.

I picked up the trash, and chose, this year, to write the mayor, city manager, and the school principals in the town with an idea: why not consider having school kids design simple "do not litter" signs that could be posted at the entrances to the city parks?

It was just an idea, and I didn't expect that it would even be doable.

But I did notice that none of the nine people who received my suggestion, even bothered to acknowledge receipt of the constituent letter.

It was a very simple, and lost, public relations opportunity for all of these civic and school officials to a single taxpayer. A simple "thanks for the idea" would pay dividends at essentially zero cost.

For more on the unpleasant reality of lack of acknowledgement to a citizen's request, note the article "A Letter from the President".

High Jumpers: At the end of April we volunteered to work a middle school track meet in a neighboring school district. I drew the 7th and 8th grade high-jumpers.

It was a very positive afternoon, and the kids were marvelous...

It was especially gratifying to meet really good kids, full of enthusiasm and spirit. The supervising teachers, too, were great to work with.

But the assignment was also three hours of pretty hard work. Volunteering is not for everybody coming from "outside the walls." It takes a special personality to work with the constant energy of young people.

Volunteering might be an option given to people outside the walls...but it is an option that may not be sought out or embraced readily by most people, for very good reason.

Give "outsiders" the opportunity to volunteer, but let them choose. And if they do volunteer, be certain that their service is formally acknowledged in some way.

Seven-year old Olivia has a particular talent for sculpture with modeling clay. Many "outside the walls" homes celebrate the works of art of their kids, grandkids, nephews, nieces... Keep in mind these natural ties to public schools, and think of ways to enhance relationships using these natural ties..