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Notes from Northbrook

James M. Rohner | March 2017

    For the longest time, I never visited the local elementary school. In our small district, created from the corners of four suburbs, the elementary school was well-hidden on a lightly traveled side street. One day, out of curiosity, I pulled up Google Maps and solved the mystery.
    After marrying and becoming the stepdad of a 4-year-old, my interest in the school district naturally grew. When the Superintendent sought volunteers to serve on a committee to develop a new strategic plan, I saw my chance to get involved. I had no idea what a strategic plan was, but I intended to find out.
    At first, the meetings, which often lasted six hours, were a bit intimidating. I thought I was well-versed in educational jargon from my years as an editor and tenure working for the U.S. Senate. I was wrong. As our group of parents, school board members, administrators, and teachers met, I quickly realized that the parents were not in on the secret code. Terms like RTI, SWOT analysis, and Professional Learning Community were tossed about frequently. Fortunately, there was plenty of time to learn the new language.
    One of the most revealing parts of the experience was hearing the concerns of classroom teachers. Their biggest wish was to have more time to plan and coordinate with other teachers. They felt that after all of the flowery language and lofty ideals in a strategic plan were written, there was insufficient time devoted to practical ways to implement the vision. They wanted more time to collaborate with other teachers at all grade levels. There was wide agreement that the ambitious district had too many initiatives.
    Some problems did not lend themselves to the committee approach. I recall one meeting where most of an hour was spent trying to devise a new motto for the school district. The goal was to come up with a phrase that could be chanted at school assemblies and printed on t-shirts. Countless variations of “Do your best!” were considered without finding a satisfactory answer. Some in the room believed that students should decide and vote on several choices. The teachers warned that an election would be time-consuming and might lead to hurt feelings for the losing side. In the end, the committee punted on the motto.
    I particularly enjoyed an all-day data retreat that allowed us to sift through a mountain of surveys, test scores, and budget items. I was amazed to learn that a majority of parents surveyed felt their kids had experienced some form of bullying at school. I discovered that the State of Illinois had managed to make its test scores incomprehensible by repeatedly changing the tests and scoring system. In the budgets, I saw how burdened local districts were with costly repairs and upgrades.
    However, getting a chance to see behind the curtain actually made me feel even more confident about the schools. I met dedicated teachers who I hope will teach my son in future years. The administrators, far from being defensive, showed how carefully every dollar was spent. I met busy parents willing to miss work to help make their schools better.
    Although I didn’t say much in the early committee meetings, I eventually found my niche. I discovered that my magazine work was valuable when working on a document that required obsessing over every word. Whenever we were tempted to gloss over a cloudy sentence I would ask, “what does this even mean?” I looked forward to reading assigned articles with goofy titles like “Window or Mirror” and “The X Factor is Why.” I was prepared to advocate for music during the meetings but found that the district takes great pride in the arts, particularly a thriving string program.
    When the committee finished its work, I missed my new friends and our time together. An email arrived recently announcing a new group addressing communication and community engagement; I replied at once.