How do you feel about the quality of your school district?
In most cases, this isn't answered in a few words. There are a lot of factors involved. Emotional, deeply held, personal factors. Some pride, some disappointment, anger, and exuberance.
Students hold these feelings. So do their parents. So do teachers, support staff, administrators, and community members.
And the Grand Rapids Public School district wants to hear them. Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal, Executive Director of Communications John Helmholdt, Student Retention Recruitment Program Coordinator Kyle Pray, and the Board of Directors want to incorporate them into the district's Transformation Plan that began five years ago.
And they are. Every word.
Throughout two consecutive weeks in March, members of each of those groups gathered at schools in the four different quadrants of the GRPS district to sound off on their concerns, and answer that question in stops on the superintendent's Listening Tour.
Some arrived early.
John Helmholdt"There was a parent who came to Gerald R. Ford Academic Center and he rolled in there hot," Helmholdt says. "He was unhappy and he wanted to vocalize. He had ran into the superintendent earlier, and kind of gave her a piece of his mind, and later, not only did he apologize to her, but he said, 'I want you to know this was one of the most authentic engagements I've ever been involved with because I feel like I really was heard during this and I think that speaks volumes.'"
Some even arrived late.
A local nonprofit administrator and stakeholder in the GRPS district came to the session at Cesar E. Chavez Elementary near its conclusion. Event facilitator Sergio Cira was able to direct her to a "Ventilation Station" off to the side of the gymnasium where she spoke her concerns into a portable audio recorder.
Sergia CiraNo matter when they showed up, those who did contributed to the district's Transformation Plan.
When the plan was first introduced in January 2012, GRPS emerged from a season of turmoil more streamlined and flexible than ever, though not without making some tough decisions. Ten schools were closed and hundreds of staff members dismissed.
“I get that this is really really hard but in order for us to move forward as a district [but] we have no other choice,” then interim superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal told the board in October that year. “I beg you to make those hard choices now. Let’s stay focused on children and do what we know is right."
Teresa Weatherall NealWeatherall Neal engaged the community through surveys, focus groups, and the first Listening Tour, which attracted at least 1,000 participants to a town hall formatted gathering.
Since then, things have been looking up for the district.
"That has been the backbone behind the GRPS success story," Helmholdt says. "We are now gaining state and national attention as an urban turnaround success story and that's because the feedback we had from the community, and the authentic engagement. We took what we heard and we put it into an actionable plan that has been our playbook for the last six years."
And like any good playbook, it needs occasional updates rolled in. The district is now in the final phases of the Transformation Plan's implementation. A $175 million bond was approved in November 2015, which led to several improvements:
The district is experiencing its first period of sustained growth in decades, and graduation rates are up more than 60 percent since Weatherall Neal took charge. There have been six consecutive years of improvement in the district's college career readiness assessments, along with the third highest increase in composite test scores.
With this forward momentum, Weatherall Neal has launched the next chapter of the Transformation Plan, going back to those who helped kick it off in 2012.
Though the intentions were similar, the 2018 Listening Tour differs from the original in many ways. The same groups of stakeholders were still invited, but this time, they all had a chance to speak. Using a design thinking approach, the larger question of quality was broken down into an analysis of GRPS's strengths and weaknesses, potential opportunities for the district, and barriers preventing it from thriving.
And this time, they had help.
"We had kind of heard about this new Public Agency, and had an opportunity to meet with them and it just was such a perfect fit," Helmholdt says. "We wanted an independent organization to help facilitate these meetings, the surveys, and to help us disseminate that information. We wanted to be highly transparent. We wanted to be completely independent, we wanted to be as authentic as possible, and saw that in the way Public Agency uses design thinking with trained facilitators, the Community Catalysts."
Public Agency is a design thinking project created by the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology. It involves a collection of Community Catalysts, sourced from different professional and cultural backgrounds in West Michigan. They apply the same methodologies promoted by IDEO's Kelley brothers and Stanford's d.school, to create lasting change for good in publicly serving systems.
Adam Weiler sorts through responses from the meetings.
WMCAT's Adam Weiler and Kirk Eklund, along with Community Catalyst Sergio Cira, facilitated the four meetings, which took place at Cesar E. Chavez Elementary, Gerald R. Ford Academic Center, Union High School, and Aberdeen Elementary School. Other Community Catalysts served as table hosts, and walked the participants through the process.
"There were four facilitated public events at different schools which gathered 109 community members, parents, staff members, volunteers and students," Weiler says. "We worked with GRPS to facilitate additional meetings with the parent action leaders (PALs), principals, and student council members. Additionally, they had sent out an online survey that reached 241 participants."
In total, over 400 participated, and Public Agency collected more than 2400 pieces of feedback.
Listening Tour attendees contributed their concerns by speaking in small groups, filling out comment cards for each prompt, and recording their voices in the Ventilation Stations. Outside of the tour, stakeholders at large were given a chance to participate by way of an online survey. The data was gathered and coded using an hierarchical inductive inference method—a way of extrapolating future trends from recorded observations—arranged in a report, and sent back to Weatherall Neal, Helmholdt, Pray, and the Board of Directors.
This Listening Tour marks a big change in both the approach and potential to engage stakeholders, both for GRPS and Public Agency. Weiler says the group has worked on smaller projects in the community, but the work demonstrated at the Listening Tour has tremendous possibilities. Bringing the Community Catalysts in to guide participants, he says, "felt like we were scratching the surface of what kind of impact we can have in our region by fusing equity and design thinking."
"I was so excited by GRPS’s openness to try engaging their community in a different way," Weiler says. "We’re proud of the way the Community Catalysts facilitated their tables and the report that we generated. We love creating formats that allow people to share their stories and gather feedback in less traditional ways—that’s definitely something we’re going to do more of."
Cira played a special role in the Tour, translating for Spanish speaking attendees who might otherwise feel marginalized because of a communication barrier. He even helped spread the word in the Latino community, through his professional circles; Cira spent six years working with Sibley Elementary and the West Side Collaborative, and maintains a Facebook Group called "Westside en Español," in which he invited stakeholders.
He says he's especially proud of the work Public Agency is doing, not just by forming a diverse group of Community Catalysts and sending them out to do good, but by creating a level playing field for Listening Tour participants, where everyone has a chance to speak, and everyone is heard.
Community members write and share their opinions at a community meeting.
"I've been to multiple community meetings and people do tend to get worked up and other people might tend to monopolize the conversation, especially in groups where there might be negative feedback," he says. "This process allows for every single person at the table to speak and the table facilitators are able to take those expectations, give people time to think about what they're going to say, and give everyone a chance to say it. To me, I think that really respects the time of everyone in the room."
For Catalyst Alexandria Polk, taking part in the Listening Tour not only resounded with her sense of civic duty, but also her identity as a stakeholder in the district.
"As a GRPS parent, I was eager to participate in this important stakeholder engagement event," Polk says. "We have an amazing, diverse, and progressive urban school district worth continued investment, but we as a community have to engage if we want our voice to be heard. With a diverse group of participants from parents, teachers, students, and community members, there is an incredible amount of potential for accomplishment and to be an exemplary school district."
But just like any design thinking project, there's always room for improvement. Takeaways from each stop on the listening tour were considered in the following ways: after the first session, the main presentation was streamlined, and Catalysts were able to adapt their approach to guiding attendees through the prompts. And the adaptation will continue until the next project is planned.
"There’s always something to learn when you do new things like this," Weiler says. "We have a saying, 'Everything is a prototype.' It’s a constant reminder that regardless of how good (or bad) something goes, the posture is always one of learning something from the experience and improving the next one."
Weiler says he and Eklund, with Public Agency, are now in talks with the City of Grand Rapids regarding community engagement sessions for the Housing NOW! zoning amendments; another potential opportunity to blend empathy, equity and human centered design.
What happens next?
The data that was collected for GRPS will help Weatherall Neal and her team focus the Transformation Plan on critical improvements. A description of these improvements is yet to be seen, but they will undoubtedly stem from the concerns raised by stakeholders in the Listening Tour—concerns of quality, safety, resources, behavior, and even marketing. It's all being examined to learn where GRPS is heading next.
"It's everything from those positive things that are happening in the district to the challenges and barriers, some of which are nothing new," Helmholdt says. "There have been some challenges with transportation. There have been challenges with special education and even customer service.
"I think the community and our stakeholders, they have a good sense that GRPS is back and that we are sincerely working to restore stability and growth to this district," he continues.
It's just an outline, and there is yet so much work to be done, but just like the individuals who would offer Weatherall Neal a piece of their mind on where the district is headed, there's noticeable momentum. Even Interim City Manager Eric DeLong, a Lean Champion in his own right, was inspired by the Listening Tour, and showed up for multiple stops.
Eric and I were observing as they were facilitating these meetings," Helmholdt says, comparing the 2018 experience with 2012. "I said, this is how it needs to be done. They have a way in which they help to ensure those voices are heard. It's not just your typical town hall meeting where people line up to the microphone and just unleash. That's not productive and in a lot of cases that doesn't accomplish anything. It's not getting to what is truly needed: constructive healthy feedback that's going to actually be actionable and be implemented or incorporated into a Transformation Plan."
The next steps will be taken by Weatherall Neal, Helmholdt, Pray, and the GRPS Board of Directors as they roll out Phase 3 of the plan.
Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected]
Photography by Adam Bird Johnson of Bird + Bird Studio.