Outside the Walls


Thoughts from Outside the Walls, January - June 2005

Copyright Dick Bernard dick_bernard@msn.com

Idea for January 2005

Several thousand of us gathered in the bleachers of the university field house for a high school graduation in May 2004.

Somewhere down on the floor of the field house in that mass of humanity was our granddaughter, our son, our sister, our nephew, our cousin, our employee, our parishioner, our friend, our neighbor, our probation officer.... We were there because we were invited, and we were proud of someone under a mortar-board down there.

The Commencement went very smoothly - it was very well organized, and on time. Everyone - it was open to all - received a very attractive program. The speakers were on point and on time.

I looked and listened for signs, at this commencement, of 'connections' by the high school to we outsiders. There were almost none. Other than the very significant fact that we were all welcomed to the graduation, there were many missed opportunities.

Thanks were expressed to teachers, and to students and to school board members, but I heard not a single sentence in anyone's remarks acknowledging those outsiders sitting in the bleachers - people who in one way or another had very significantly supported the graduates in their journey towards commencement.

I thought to myself, then, that a small part of the program booklet - there were seven pages of text for content other than lists of names - could wisely have been written to and for we visitors in the bleachers. There was, of course, lots of time to look at this document. Perhaps visitors could have been invited to a special page on the schools website - one specifically designed as a thank you for those everyday heroes who supported the graduates at some point along the way.

Sometimes the best ideas are the most obvious, and really simple to implement. Perhaps this idea can be referred to the 2005 graduation committee at your school.

smiling sun

Idea for February 2005
Working with the obvious:
Lyle and I were visiting before a school event for over a thousand school kids from 21 different school districts in my metropolitan area. He was on the planning committee for the event, and I was there representing a voluntary organization with an affinity of interest to the event. It was a good day.

The course of our conversation led around to an "outside the walls" topic. We knew each other, but not well, and he hadn't heard of my interest in the connection between the public schools and we outsiders. In his work life, he had been a senior pastor at a large church, though now long retired. But as with many people like himself, 'retirement' is only a word representing a new opportunity.

We talked of the schools need to connect with outsiders of all sorts, and he agreed. He also said "we do keep in touch with the schools as our daughter is a teacher." I could say the same. So could we about grandkids in school, neighbors we know with kids, etc., etc.

The potential is there for direct connections with the schools...some would say, it is more than just 'potential' for the reasons just mentioned. But after five years, now, of observing schools from outside their walls, what is done is by no means adequate. Contact from schools to non-school related patrons is for the most part very passive - much like a store which does nothing to attract new customers, or retain old ones, but relies solely on the fact that its salespeople are kids whose parents happen to live in the neighborhood. Such 'salesmanship' just doesn't work.

The 75% who are outsiders need to be treated as essential consumers when it comes to public school public relations attention. Benign neglect is not an option. It is just that: neglect.

Idea for March 2005
A Gathering on the Capitol Steps
It was a breezy and chilly end-of-February day in Minnesota. Still, over 8,000 citizens rallied at the Minnesota State Capitol to demonstrate for increased funding for public schools. It was one of the largest demonstrations at the Capitol in recent years. No doubt it sent a powerful message inside those walls. One observer counted 220 school buses.

The organizers emphasized that the assorted participants had paid their own way to the Capitol: that public funds had not gone into the lobbying effort.

As the week went on, it became obvious that this was an activity whose success flowed from parents of public school students...parents who were frustrated that their children are being shortchanged. A quick scan of the excellent photos of the events showed lots of parent-age adults, and lots of their children.

Of course, this web site is directed towards schools and their outside-the-walls efforts.

So, when excellent photos were provided, I did a quick scan for evidence of people like myself in the pictures. I'm sure there were some, under those scarves and hats, and inside those coats, but I didn't see much evidence of actual people like me on the capitol mall.

I wondered if those who organized the event had put in place any plans either before or after to reach out to those of us outside their walls: grandparents of those kids, uncles or aunts, siblings...all of the assorted others who are part of every family constellation. An organizer of the event said "yes", that they had reached out and in fact a grandmother was one of the speakers. "[Outreach] is working...just not (perhaps) as much as either one of us would like." "Great", I felt. Of the grandmother, another said "[she] did a great job of highlighting the importance of getting support from all citizens for public schools. My teenagers, in fact, said of all the speeches at the rally they liked hers best because she made them laugh - several times!"

The cohort of taxpayers who actually have kids in public schools, or are school employees, is perhaps 25% of the total...not enough to pass those levies or elect those positive school board members or legislators. Three out of four potential voters need a bit more attention about the importance of the needs for sustaining quality public education.

So, an outstanding event, like that gathering on the capitol steps February 28, is indeed an outstanding event...but it represents only a small part of the effort which is needed if schools and the children in their charge are going to get the positive attention they deserve from taxpayers.

A final note: who are we outside-the-walls types? In this writers opinion, we are in five general groups: 1) the grandparent age folks; 2) those who don't have children; 3) those whose children go to parochial or are home-schooled; 4) those whose children are pre-school age; 5) those who are newcomers to the community. Each of these groups is very different, and there cannot be a "one-size fits all" approach towards us.

To play on the oft-seen bumper sticker, truly "Start Seeing Us Outside the Walls".

Three good websites to visit: www.parentsunited.org; www.parentsunitednetwork.org and www.mnpta.org.

Idea for April 2005

The Human Community
We knew each other only by our e-mail addresses, and we were disagreeing, pleasantly but firmly, about a particular issue. We agreed to meet face-to-face for coffee in a neighborhood restaurant in one of our cities, and described ourselves the same way: 'gray-beard.'

We had a pleasant conversation, learning we were both Grandpas. It took little time to come to some consensus on the issue which brought us together.

But then the conversation turned to something of far greater importance. Just a week earlier, tragedy had struck the Red Lake community in northern Minnesota. On March 21, 2005, a student had killed eight others and himself in one of the deadliest school rampages in American history.

My new friend told about a local neighborhood initiative he was actively participating in, helping to raise money so that local people who had few resources, and whose origins were with the Red Lake community, could at least pay for gas money and lodging going back home for the funerals of family and friends.

I asked him for details, and he had another friend e-mail me with the needed information. Then I distributed the notice to my own e-mail lists.

It occurred to me that what my buddy and I were now doing was contributing to a distant school community of which we were not a part. Because Red Lake was over 250 miles away made no difference to us; that we weren't actually parents of school age kids there or anywhere didn't matter either. Nor did it matter that we didn't have family there. We were simply engaging as part of the greater community of humanity, helping local families cope.

The conversation also emphasized again the value of direct person-to-person communication. Had we not met face-to-face, odds were about zero that helping Red Lake would have been part of our discussion that day in late March, 2005.

Being outside the walls does not mean there is a lack of interest. But the school district has to exhibit active interest in those of us no longer part of the actual school community. It's not an expense, it's a benefit.

(A personal memory of Red Lake is at here. A memory, and idea, flowing from the Columbine tragedy of April 1999, is at here, note idea for April.)

Idea for May 2005
Coming down the pyramid:
"Rules minus Relationship = Rebellion
Rules plus Relationship = Respect"
More on that in a moment.

The speaker, a well known public relations and marketing consultant, had finished his very dynamic talk, and asked for questions from the audience.

One of the first questions went something like this: "About 80% of the school district population has no children in public schools. What should we do?"

The speaker hardly missed a beat: "Build a relationship with the business community." By "business community", he seemed to clearly mean the leadership of the business community - the top of the pyramid.

I cringed a bit. Wrong answer, I felt, but from the speaker's perspective, a very natural one: most of his clients were likely businesspeople, and of course, having a good relationship with local business is important.

But...what percentage of your community is made up of local business people? Would it be fair to say that your district has long-held memberships in the local chamber of commerce, or professional service clubs? Likely, to the first question you would answer that only a very small percentage of your citizens belong to the business leadership cohort; to the second question, you would likely acknowledge that for years the district has been very well known to, and a participating part of, the local business community, and in fact attends business-oriented organization meetings regularly. And, of course, the revenue which flows to the district is directly and indirectly spent locally and elsewhere for things which business provides.

But keeping a good relationship with business leaders is not enough. This is what I would call a 'top of the pyramids' relationship: the top of one pyramid relating most comfortably and frequently to the top of some other pyramid, Superintendent to local business owners, and on and on. This tends to dismiss the voters, the really important people, mostly found on the lower levels of this pyramid. There is a difficult paradox to confront here: 'key people' in all lines of endeavor for the most part seek to climb the power pyramid, but have to remember that their ultimate strength is at the base, not the top. A pyramid without a base would not be a pyramid, after all.

The key constituents among those 80% outside the walls don't belong to the service clubs; don't go to meetings; but are the same people who vote for or against issues, for or against candidates...or don't vote at all. Some of these people, if sufficiently angry, can organize negative votes on important issues. Or, if energized, can work actively for passage of those same issues. But positive activism has to be nurtured long term.

The mass at the base of the pyramid, so to speak, requires your major outreach efforts constantly.

The quote at the beginning? I heard an elementary principal repeat it on his retirement from education in 2001. He had first heard it at a national school public relations conference in the late 1980s, and he'd never lost sight of its importance in his own professional life.

Public Education needs to follow the "Rule of Relationships" message more...in relating to the outside world.

Have a great summer. This is the final Idea for 2004-2005; the next idea on the web will come mid August, 2005. Consider finding someone(s) from your school district into at least checking into these ideas, once each month.