Outside the Walls


Thoughts from Outside the Walls, July-December 2003

Copyright Dick Bernard dick_bernard@msn.com

Idea for July 2003
"We have
good schools in ________."

The older lady from a small California suburban community had been answering the "where are you from?" question for two strangers having lunch at her table in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Her tablemates had never heard of her town, so in the tried and true method, she identified the nearest large city, which had grown around her still independent community. That settled the geography question, but it was clear she didn't want her town to be identified with 'them' - a city with a less than exemplary reputation, especially in her own mind. "Good schools" made the essential difference in her descriptor - setting her place apart from the other place.

So it always goes in the matter of image: "looking good" is important, no less so for schools than for the towns in which they are located.

I have no idea if the schools are actually better in her small town, than in the larger one. It makes no difference: "perception is reality".

I remember some research in my own state a few years ago. Some of the questions related to the very matter of school image. In the survey, people thought their own neighborhood school was pretty good - made no difference where their neighborhood was. The schools in the next town were not quite as good; the nearest big city schools were much less desirable. And, of course, when it came to other states, the respondents own state was clearly "above average" in their perception.

Every local school has an immense opportunity to look good in the eyes of its near neighbors. Indeed, it has to deliberately waste its positive public relations opportunities.

But nurturing and maintaining this good reputation does require effort, and attention to the folks outside the walls is a critical part of that effort.

A caveat: build your own reputation without tearing down the reputation of other schools, whether in your town or not. And help the other school do better. Another's soiled reputation will reflect on your own. Working together leads to success for all.

Have a great 2003-2004 school year.

Idea for August/September 2003

Taking the "Missed" Out of Missed Opportunity.
In mid-August we participated in the local summer festival. It was one of those festivals which take place in innumerable communities around the country and even the world. A pleasant interlude for citizens of the town: Rides, food, booths... We attended to help staff a booth.

There was ample opportunity to walk around and see who else was exhibiting there. It was the usual assortment: realtors, political parties, assorted clubs, specialty businesses.

I looked for something sponsored by the local school district, even asked at the information booth...nothing. It seemed a missed opportunity.

School has begun again, and once again this year there will be innumerable opportunities to connect - or disconnect - with your communities outside the walls population. The possibilities are endless: For example, in my files is a 1984-85 list of ideas generated by a Minnesota committee for "Ah, those marvelous Minnesota schools." The document lists 216 ideas, 42 specifically apply to those of us "outside the walls."

The problem is not coming up with the ideas; rather, as the saying goes, "the devil is in the details." The best idea, unimplemented, is of no value whatsoever.

Resolve to do at least one new thing this year to connect with those outside the walls in your school district. And measure your success not by the list of possibilities you generate, but by the accomplishment of at least one new thing.

Have a great year.

October 2003 Idea of the Month
A Time to Celebrate Success
American Education Week November 16-22, 2003
"Great Public Schools for Every Child"

World War I revealed an alarming weakness in literacy and physical fitness amongst Americans: 25% of the draftees were found to be illiterate, and 29% physically unfit.

In 1919 the National Education Association and American Legion met to generate public support for public education and beginning December 4-10, 1921, a week was designated as American Education Week (AEW). In recent years numerous organizations have joined as co-sponsors of the week. (Much more information is at www.nea.org/aew. For links to all the co-sponsoring organizations: scroll down at www.nea.org/aew/history.html).

AEW has been an annual event every year since 1921. A personal perception, however, is that as the years have passed, actual attention to publicizing and celebrating the week has diminished.

"Outside the Walls" is devoted to connecting to the non-public school constituency, and offers two suggestions to help connect with the many populations in your community who are not directly involved in your public schools:
  1. Literacy and Physical Fitness programs have improved dramatically since 1919. AEW is an excellent week to showcase how local public schools have changed and improved over history, and continue to improve children's (and adults) lives.
  2. The very recent school violence tragedy in Minnesota is paradoxically an excellent opportunity to point out an oft-overlooked fact: that there exists no environment safer for America's children than their public schools...this is a truly remarkable fact, given that over 46,000,000 young people spend most of their waking hours within public schools.
Have a most successful American Education Week.

Justin, who painted this sailboat, participates in a program for disadvantaged youth run by Catholic Charities in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul MN.

November 2003, Idea of the Month
A rural community school board member and I were having lunch, discussing school life in general, and the topic of a recent school board hearing came up.

The district was facing a future referendum and, very wisely, was already having hearings to let the community know about the identified needs, and receive community feedback. The district, like all others, is faced with diminished resources. One of the ideas floated out was the possibility that all students would have to pay a technology fee to cover the cost of computers, etc.

The school board member noticed a couple of older ladies sitting in the audience, and noticed them nodding "yes" to this proposal - their obvious inference was that the users should have to pay the cost: that these seniors should not be burdened with sharing the technology cost through their taxes.

This vignette, repeated in countless ways in countless places, is a vivid reminder of the need to somehow connect those of us outside the walls with our responsibility to the young people of our communities; while at the same time, teaching us about the long-term benefits accruing to us from better educated students.

The task is challenging, granted. But it must be done. Unanswered about these two older ladies are many questions: are they are grandparents or maybe even great-grandparents of school age children somewhere? Are they someone's aunt or great-aunt? Do school-age kids and their families live in their neighborhoods? They may think they're disconnected, but they really aren't. They just need some help "connecting the dots."

Look very actively at your "outside" populations: empty nesters; people with no kids; people with kids in private school; or with pre-school kids; or the new arrivals who have not yet built a relationship with the local schools. Each of these groups are critical to the success of your next school referendum, or electing candidates who are favorable to public education. Start "seeing" them much more actively and personally!
Ameena, a young person in inner city Minneapolis, sends us a little sun for these fall days. Happy Thanksgiving.

December 2003, Idea of the Month
"School" and "Community" as synonyms
In December, 1985, then-Grand Rapids MN School District teacher, June Johnson, wrote her memories of a long-ago Christmas in a one-room North Dakota School. This article first appeared in December, 1985, Top of the Range, the publication of the Iron Range Minnesota Education Association.

"From somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind, I have plucked a Christmas memory which will be forever important to me.

Christmas on the North Dakota prairie was a time of anticipation and joy, a welcome respite from the hard times and unrelenting toll of everyday existence. Families were extremely impoverished and no "store-bought" gifts were imminent for most of the children who attended Souris #1. Excitement filled the air as mothers baked once-a-year "goodies" and sewed and baked and built gifts to be opened on Christmas morning.

The Christmas program at school was a yearly social event for the entire community. No special lights or decorations were needed to enhance the appreciation of this day. The kids had planned, practiced and revised every noon hour for a month and were ready. A tree fashioned from prairie junipers decorated with strings of popcorn and thorn apples, and various homemade decorations was in place and a few small packages were already under it.

All year I had tried to get Frederic, a reticent second grader, to talk to me. An unusually polite youngster, he always had his work done but spoke to no one if it could be avoided. After the program was over, gifts were distributed and I was singularly impressed the ingenuity displayed in the homemade gifts which were given to me. Coffee, hot cocoa and cookies were now being enjoyed by all. At this point, I felt a tug at my sleeve and found Frederic looking up at me. As I knelt down, he quickly placed a package in my hand. While he looked on, I opened it and found a sling shot and a bag of smooth stones. As I held out my arms, he hesitated only a moment before coming to me. Then he said, "I made it for you because I love you."

In my cedar chest (which holds all my "treasures"), I have box which holds a sling shot, a bag of stones, and the memory of a very special little boy."

POSTNOTE: A short while later, after this article appeared, I asked Mrs. Johnson if she knew what happened to Frederic. To the best of my recollection, she said she thought he had become an important government official at the state level.

As generations of teachers know so well, it is most often the small things, and not the great, that make the difference - whether from teacher to student, student to teacher, community to school, or school to community. Never forget the small things: they make all the difference.

Thank you for caring for the youth of this nation.
The Prairie Juniper, mentioned in the story, is a common evergreen shrub. Pictured above is a portion of branch and berries of one species of Juniper.