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Learning to listen

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    Photo: Harvey Finkle

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Although I have been writing about the School District of Philadelphia for more than 20 years, this is my first attempt at blogging. By temperament and training, my inclination has been to keep my opinion out of things. Sure, I decided what to write about and sought out particular sources. But never did the words “I think” ever appear in anything I wrote. That didn’t stop some people for criticizing me for what they thought I thought; others, though, actually sought out my opinion.

When I was at The Inquirer, in the pre-blogging era, such conversations were verboten for a beat reporter, and they still are. But The Notebook is a different journalistic animalpart newspaper, part advocate. While I’ve been writing articles for The Notebook since I left The Inquirer three years ago, and have been on staff for one year, I’m still getting used to the advocacy part. In some ways it makes me uncomfortable, in other ways, I find it liberating. After a lifetime of sitting on the sidelines and writing about what other people did, I now have the chance to be a little more involved, to make a bit more forthright use of the expertise and the knowledge I’ve accumulated.

What I’m hoping to do in this blog, however, is not just sound off. I will try to monitor coverage of the School District in the dailies and draw attention to interesting stories about reform efforts elsewhere that could be relevant here.  I also hope to use this space to  break news now and then, to hold people to account, and to be provocative.

So, in the interest of provocation, my first topic is community engagement. This is a topic, I must say, that in hindsight I realize I gave short shrift to at The Inquirer.

I was still working there when the Philadelphia Student Union and Youth United for Change began working on plans for reforming Kensington and West Philadelphia High School. I had written, over the years, many stories about attempts at high school reform. I knew that this was a good story – one about students trying to take control of their own education, doing research, making decisions, agitating for their rights. But somehow, I never got around to writing it. Other things kept coming up, more “important” things about politics or the outrage of the day. The editors weren’t all that interested.

I bring this up as a cautionary tale to the District’s current leadership: don’t make the same mistake. Don’t brush aside the importance of bottom-up efforts at change led by the people whose lives are most affected by policies, initiatives and upheavals.

The school district is about to unveil a whole new strategic plan. Community members have participated in working groups along the way. Supt. Ackerman likes to talk about transparency, and, as these things go, this process has been relatively transparent. I’ve just written about one of the nine working groups. And the process isn’t over. Groups are going to be given the chance to come to a few meetings and say what they think. What happens after that, we’re still not sure.

Since coming to The Notebook, I’ve been forced to think a lot more about what community engagement really means. It doesn’t mean just asking for opinions and then taking them or leaving them. It doesn’t mean creating a plan and then expecting a rubber stamp because a few people and groups have been allowed to sit at the table. Even here at The Notebook we have to work very hard to make sure that student and other grassroots voices are truly heard.

Listening to community voices – really listening – doesn’t mean that District leaders must cede their decision-making authority. By contrast, such listening and responsiveness is a characteristic of visionary, confident leadership.

Since PSU and YUC began trying to influence what their high school education looks like, a generation of students has come and gone. But they are still at it. That says something. District leaders would do well to ask themselves whether they are really paying attention.

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Dale Mezzacappa

@dalemezz
Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.