Outside the Walls


Thoughts from Outside the Walls, August - December 2005

Copyright Dick Bernard dick_bernard@msn.com

Idea for August 2005
The Needle in the Haystack
Five years ago when I began looking at public schools from outside their walls, one of the many facts which stood out was that in my state, with over 800,000 students in public schools, there were over 100,000 school employees.

These employees ran the gamut: teachers, secretaries, administrators, bus drivers...the list goes on and on. Schools are, after all, people and community organizations.

Among those 100,000 employees - and the active parent cadre who strongly supports public schools - I thought, at least one percent would have an innate but probably unrealized passion for making better connections between their school and their outside-the-walls constituencies. These were the people who would not even have to be 'sold' on the idea. 1% equaled 1000 such people, just counting school employees, and these folks are spread throughout the state, and not concentrated in any particular district or area.

What if, I thought, these thousand "needles" could be discovered and pulled out of their approximately 350 school district "haystacks," encouraged and empowered and enabled to go to work on the task of developing strategies to better connect with outsiders...and also encouraged and enabled to be in contact with each other, regionally and statewide. What a source of positive energy there would be.

I still think that.

But, as with the proverbial "needle in the haystack", it is one thing to know that the "needles" are there; it's another thing entirely to identify them and put them to work - especially when you're an outsider. It is yet another thing for the administration and school board to take the risk of empowering people to innovate, and to perhaps even give them a budget with which to work. Without some funding, and control over these funds, ideas and people to come up with and implement them, will be sparse.

Every superintendent, every principal, every school public relations person, probably knows at least one of these 'needles' in his or her own 'haystack', and probably many more. The task of engaging them is very simple: to make them aware of this idea, to have a conversation or several, to connect them with each other, and to enable them to go to work.

Doesn't cost a cent.

How about having an internal conversation about this...and setting about to work. A possible starting place is to let your own constituency know about this monthly idea. It's certainly not expensive.

Have a great year in 2005-2006.

Idea for September 2005
"I'm making a list, checking it twice..."

A group of people I've always admired from a distance are in that particular species called "list makers."

I might be sitting next to them at a meeting, and either they're making a list, or checking the list and checking off things they've already accomplished. Sometimes their lists are prioritized, and they actually seem to be following the priority order.

I float into and out of the list-maker group: sometimes I make a list, once in awhile I even follow it; sometimes I misplace it (sometimes on purpose).

Then there are times like right now: I'm typing this Idea, when I know that farther up my list is a vexing project downstairs, that's been vexing me for the last two days. Something I know I need to do, but I'm not looking forward to doing.

So it goes with lists.

Perhaps there's a clue here as to why I see so little actually accomplished in the business of schools working to relate directly with their huge and important "outside the walls" constituencies.

It's not for lack of awareness. For more than ten years I've heard dynamic people speak about the issue, often to large audiences of educators, often repetitively from one year to the next, about the need to start seeing and really working with those outsiders.

Each time there are knowing nods of the "yes, I know" variety. And each time, apparently, it takes about as long as the trip from the meeting back home to put the idea way back on the back burner...to be resurrected the next time somebody gives an inspiring speech.

For me, not following my list may have consequences only for me. For schools, the consequences may be far greater and more negative.

Perhaps the best one can expect is that, at minimum, the idea will go on somebody's list, and go, and go, and go.....

Maybe, someday....

Idea for October 2005
American Education Week: Make it more than just an idea

"A Strong America Starts With Strong Public Schools" is the theme of 2005 American Education Week (AEW). This year, as always, AEW is the week before Thanksgiving, November 13 - 19, 2005.

Why not, this year, make a significant part of American Education Week an effort to truly connect with your Outside the Walls community - the three-fourths or more of your adult citizens (also known as 'taxpayers') who do not have a direct connection to your public schools.

There is time to do this, and a great plenty of resources. www.nea.org, the website of the National Education Association (NEA), is a good place to start. Scroll down at the home page and click on the reference to American Education Week. The door will open on a large number of starting point ideas.

AEW has a long history, which began by acknowledging a serious problem: WWI revealed that 25 percent of the country's World War I draftees were illiterate and 29 percent were physically unfit. Learning this, the NEA and the American Legion met in 1919 to generate public support for education.

NEA's description says this about the beginning of AEW: "The conventions of both organizations subsequently adopted resolutions of support for a national effort to raise public awareness of the importance of education. In 1921, the NEA Representative Assembly in Des Moines, Iowa, called for designation of one week each year to spotlight education.

In its resolution, NEA called for: "An education week...observed in all communities annually for the purpose of informing the public of the accomplishments and needs of the public schools and to secure the cooperation and support of the public in meeting these needs."

AEW was first observed December 4-10, 1921, sponsored by NEA and the American Legion. A year later, the U.S. Office of Education joined as an additional cosponsor. The National PTA followed in 1938."

Today, virtually the entire public education community acknowledges American Education Week...but, paradoxically, in recent years its celebration seems to have become a low priority in the public education community...in a time when it should be center stage, everywhere.

Those "outside the walls" folks? They include taxpayers who no longer have school kids or employees in their home; taxpayers whose kids are not yet school age; taxpayers who don't have children of their own; taxpayers whose kids are in home or other non-public school environments; taxpayers new to the community. In other words: most of the taxpayers of every community, including your own are outside your walls. For one week at least, bring them in.

Idea for November/December 2005

The Bequest.

Recently, a college alumni newsletter on planned giving arrived. The lead article was about a retired elementary school teacher who had attended both the community's public schools and the local college for two years, many years ago. She had then left the state for her work career, and returned to her hometown for thirty years of retirement.

She 'made the front page' of the newsletter apparently because of an unannounced and very large bequest to the college. Among the other gift recipients identified in the article, I saw no reference to the public schools of the town.

Why a bequest to one and not the other? Only this obviously generous and fine person could answer that question.

It occurred to me, though, that there seems to be one very significant contrast between colleges and public schools when it comes to relationships with their alumni, or outsiders like me.

Colleges seem never to let loose of their alumni. Positive relations with former students are central to their survival. One college which I attended for a single summer over 40 years ago still has me on its regular mailing list...I didn't ask to either get on, or get off. From the college's standpoint, they are not wasting their money on me.

Public schools, on the other hand, seem to tend towards the other end of the spectrum. A recently retired school public relations professional was almost speechless when her youngest child graduated from high school. "I felt dropped like a hot potato", she said about the school system, then remembered that the centralized computer system which religiously had tracked she and her kids all through their school years, likely expunged them from the rolls the instant the last one left the system.

Some time before receiving the college newsletter, I had attended an outstanding school public relations conference in this area. The presenters, from business, college and university public relations, and non-school public sector, were outstanding. There was much to be learned.

Among the numerous tidbits I gleaned from the session were these, all common sense, all applicable to constituent relations:

"Word of mouth" is far, far and away the most effective way to transmit information. Everything else is far inferior. This is probably an eternal immutable truth. Unfortunately, this works both ways: negative information can be transmitted as easily as positive, and unfortunately is more durable.

"Work on internal audience" was another message I heard. EVERY employee is the public school's PR department - for good or for ill.

"One size does not fit all" was a third notion I picked up from the workshops. It makes little sense to assume that people outside the walls will be interested in publications whose content is directed specifically at parents of children inside the walls. The speaker from a world-renowned medical facility told of doing newsletters in several languages, with great attention paid to making sure the translation was grammatically correct and would not inadvertently offend. These newsletters went not only to past patients and their families, but others with an interest as well, such as those who would later be able to refer patients for treatment.

"The only time schools push for public support are at times of referendums [school elections]" was another comment I picked up. This one is so obvious as to not even need elaboration. A referendum campaign must be year-round, every day.

When it comes to public schools and their communities, I have concluded after several years of observation, it all comes down to a single word: relationships.

In the article about the benefactors giving, the college's director of advancement said: "I attended her funeral in February...I reflected on the impact she had on our university and our community...I could not help but appreciate the tremendous impact this lady had on her profession, our community, and [the college]."

What he could have said is that in some very significant way, long before she died and he delivered a eulogy for her, the college through its personnel had had a tremendous impact on this lady as well. Somebody, some bodies, developed and maintained a very positive relationship with her, likely without even a hint that she was a potential benefactor. Till she was gone, no one knew how grateful she was to that wonderful school of my own past.

Keep your eyes and ears and relationships keen, 'outside the walls.' They are of immeasurable importance in "Securing the FUTURE."

Have a wonderful 2006.