Opinion: Finding unity in community | PostIndependent.com

Opinion: Finding unity in community

Dan Dougherty
Free Press Opinion Columnist

As Mesa County Valley School District 51 transforms into a modern district producing graduates ready for college or careers in the 21st century, we need to emphasize the important roles parents and the community play in the process.

What happens in a child’s life outside of school directly and indirectly impacts their successes inside a classroom. Parents instinctively know this and generally serve as strong advocates for their children. However, in some cases the advocacy for their child can put parents at odds with schools, teachers, administrators, or the various rules and regulations imposed on the district by law. The district does understand that, in many cases, we haven’t done a great job of communicating either, causing parents to feel like they have to “fight” to be understood. We’re working on getting better.

It is imperative for parents and the district to collaborate as partners in the preparation of our community’s youth. We are on the same side and are motivated by the same goals: helping students succeed. Working in collaboration doesn’t mean working without disagreement. Rather, it means starting from our common ground, the child’s welfare, and listening to one another to arrive at authentic solutions to what can be complex problems.

A great example of parents and the district working together is our efforts to reform state-mandated testing. In November of last year, we asked parents to come out and voice concerns with representatives from the state. You turned out in record numbers and engaged in an impassioned and productive discussion. As a result, there are half a dozen bills being discussed to bring about reforms. More recently, many parents have sent a further signal by refusing to have their students take the exams this year. The district finds the testing data useful, but we have supported parental rights to either having students take the test or not.

The school calendar is another example of collaboration. The district polled parents, staff, and high school students regarding their perspectives on the school calendar. The polls expressed why the district moved to a blended calendar — to act on research that indicates doing so will help student achievement — and asked stakeholders if they perceived any benefits yet. We also asked if they would support the current calendar another few years to allow enough time for student improvement to show up in a statistically significant way. Finally, we asked which calendar was preferred. We had mixed results, but more than 50 percent of each group perceived benefits in the new calendar, thought it would lead to improved results, and were supportive of keeping the calendar long enough to see if those results could be measured. These factors led the school board to pass the blended calendar for another two years.

We know in complex matters like this that not everyone will be happy with the outcomes of collective decision-making. In these types of challenges, every positive decision has a negative outcome for some other part of the group.

What we hope parents and the community will recognize, and be happy about, is the change in our approach. We are asking for input ahead of making a decision. We are openly discussing the complex challenges and details of a situation. We are considering collective input. This approach invites our stakeholders “behind the curtain” so you can participate in your district, and we can become more unified.

Unity is essential. While it’s a bit of an overstatement to say, “it’s us against the world,” there is some truth to the sentiment. Your school district has to abide by the laws and mandates of the state. At the same time, we’re tasked with implementing those laws according to the local nuances of our community.

This is not exactly how the Founding Fathers thought of education. It’s not by accident that education is not explicitly in the Bill of Rights or Constitution; the country’s founders saw education as a “local control” issue. Over time, politicians have wrestled much of that local control away from communities. More recently, efforts have successfully made education a “state-controlled” matter with heavy financial influence from the Federal government. The school district cannot vote. We need our community to vote in ways that swing the pendulum back toward the middle, or even better, toward more local control.

Ask yourself, who is Mesa County Valley School District 51? Many are lifelong Mesa County residents. All live locally. We want the same things our community wants. And we have to work together, from the same side, to achieve the change our students, your children, deserve. Together, we will achieve monumental success.

Free Press columnist Dan Dougherty is director of communications for School District 51: Mesa County Valley Schools. Comments and feedback are welcome at dan.dougherty@d51schools.org.

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