Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Video v. F2F

As my participation has increased in LO United--a group of parents crowdsourcing solutions to our school district's $6.5M shortfall--I find I'm leaving more and more digital traces of our work. Collectively edited letters, notes and comments on FB, videos to articulate LO United positions to the broader community.  I speculate that these digital artifacts have turned up the heat on a local debate that was already moving from simmer to boil.

It's a David-and-Goliath story, this small group of parents pooling their expertise to challenge what had looked until a couple of days ago a fait accompli: closing 35% of our elementary schools and moving 6th graders to middle school, a one-two punch that now seems to have been in the works for months before its official announcement last December.  But the smooth thing in David's hand isn't a rock.  It's a smartphone.

As of two nights ago, the district is officially considering Scenario A, which closes just one elementary school and leaves intact the 6th graders in elementary school while our district studies the academic literature about moving 6th graders to middle school and otherwise assesses the suitability of that proposed move for our learners.  This is a HUGE shift in both tone and process.  For months, it had seemed, LOU had been knocking its head against the brick wall: presenting a metric tonnage of alternate budget cuts, academic research, and, most crucially, an interactive data enrollment model designed by LOU dad Jeff Carpenter that allows one to forecast precisely how many seats will be available in a given classroom in a given school in various scenarios of growth (0%-5%).

If there's one thing responsible for the district's willingness to entertain Scenario A, it's Jeff Carpenter's interactive enrollment tool.  It demonstrated unequivocally that the proposed six remaining elementary schools would not have sufficient capacity to house our learners, even at a 0% growth rate.  (In fact, district enrollment has grown by 8.3% in the last four years.)  District officials availed themselves of it, and backed away from the proposed three-schools closure scenario.

AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by miss_rogue; via Flickr

As of two nights ago, when the district directed Consolidation Committee members to review the feasibility of closing just one school, it would seem that the LOU message finally resonated with district leadership.  They deserve serious kudos for listening.  They must be exhausted.

The Lake Oswego community places a strong value on face-to-face meetings, and there have been many and many and many of them.   Brown-bag lunches, informational bits at PTA, Consolidation Committee, Site Council, school board meetings, city council meetings, and lots of private meetings.  Face time big time.

I wonder if the introduction of video into the social media mix on Feb. 28th might have shifted the perception of the "face":  facing our choice because knowing we are being watched, in-your-face, the intimacy of a screen and face time.  The first video I made took people by surprise.  Volunteering for art lit the next day, several women approached me to discuss it.  The principal, who has always been friendly, snubbed me.  The video's very existence seemed to excite strong reaction: effusion, revulsion.  I'm not sure why, beyond the idea that perhaps I was taking what was construed as a family matter in a small town and quite literally enabling anyone in the world to see and judge it.  I've been told this gesture is "negative" and have been advised to "go the parent meeting. Get yourself informed locally." So I did.

I've just returned from a Q-and-A with the principal at the junior high school.  On the plus side, the science curriculum would flourish in the lab setting with science-specific teachers.  On the minus side, many many elements of implementation have yet to be determined; and 6th graders will certainly lose the formalized leadership opportunities that exist in our elementary schools (Green Team, school store, planning graduation--even the cherished Outdoor School program.)  Class sizes and student:teacher ratios vary widely.  While I appreciated that principal Dr. Ann Gerson nimbly and honestly responded to questions, it's clear that moving ahead quickly with 6th grade middle school configuration would make for a bumpy ride.

I didn't Tweet the meeting because I've not encountered anybody in LO on Twitter.  I took notes on my phone.  From what I could tell, that notetaking was the only digital record of the meeting.  Which is the problem when a community relies on f2f to transmit major developments: working parents or those otherwise occupied get stranded on the shores of the information stream.  This creates little klatches of people who have not just different kinds of information, but even different content.  The lack of a consistent digital stream has made it harder to foster consensus.  We may not even agree on basic facts because we aren't swimming together in the digital stream.

The vacuum left in FB and YouTube seems to have advantaged LO United.  It's created space for David's smartphone to find the soft spot around the temples, not to strike, but to linger there and whisper in people's ears.  Videod faces--on demand, declarative, Panoptic in their implication that people were watching--perhaps has leached some energy out of the closed-door meetings.

"Fiscal responsibility" may be a tattered mockery in D.C., but here in our small town it means real dollars and deep accountability.  One disappointed Consolidationist at a meeting two nights ago presented the steep cuts to schools and the precipitous 6th grade reconfiguration as "fiscally responsible." I knew we would need faces countermanding this claim, because it's a potent political cliche: "making hard choices."  In this case, it seems the hard choice is to question authority: however respectfully and armed to the teeth with facts.  Hence.......


Lee Skallerup Bessette, PhD said...

I am fascinated by this debate and how it is unfolding (in terms of virtual vs real spaces). I would be interested to know how the students themselves are reacting, or if they are even being encouraged to participate in the way they feel most comfortable? At the end of the day, these are the people who will be most impacted by the decision, and it would be a wonderful lesson in activism, but also in how to formulate an argument. Might also show their parents a thing or two on how to get a message out there.

I've been reading these posts with great enthusiasm. I find it interesting the resistance to virtual spaces, as well as the limited definition of what it means to have "participated."

I hope that in future posts we get to hear, one way or another, how the children who are impacted are (or are not) getting involved.

Jeff Carpenter said...

Thanks for continuing to push on this front. LO can be proud of the work you are doing.

My only comment would be that the Board and Administrators, once they realized we were be supportive, not just loud parents, have really embraced our support. They deserve a big piece of the credit as they have spent a great deal of their personal time meeting with us to understand our modeling, research and financial analysis.

Biggest issue on our front is the kids that are impacted are the youngest in our system. Some have begun to get active, but most are so young the parents are working to try to shield them from it. If we were closing high schools, that would be a completely different discussion.