Column: We can learn much from Minnesota’s students, families

By Joe Nathan
Guest Columnnist

One of the best suggestions I heard during the more than 30 years that I taught came from a principal in my first year of teaching. Dr. Wayne Jennings, an award-winning principal about whom I’ve written before, recommended listening to and learning from families and students.

Jennings emphasized that these groups wouldn’t always agree and that I also should use my professional judgment. But he explained that families and students could provide valuable insights, ideas and suggestions. He also noted that families of different backgrounds and heritages might have different recommendations.

As families and educators plan for the coming year, here are a few examples of how that advice helped and an example of unwisely not listening.

– More than 40 years ago, a group of parents and teachers created a new district K-12 public school option in our community. Originally, the idea was that students of all ages would take courses throughout the building.

However, after a month, parents of kindergarten students asked the school site council to design a room for these students. Some of the educators disagreed and explained the school’s philosophy. The parents agreed with the K-12 philosophy but wanted a “safe place” for the youngest students, many of whom were frightened by moving around a building with older, larger students. We did a quick verbal survey of the 5-year-olds, who agreed with their parents.

Fortunately, the site council of parents, teachers, students and administrators listened. We created a kindergarten-only room. Parents and students reported after a month that 5-year-olds were doing much better. We also agreed that after the first semester, if families felt their child was ready, the student could take one or two classes outside the designated room. So education was individualized. Some were ready to do this. Others weren’t.

• Several years ago, the Minnesota Department of Education asked the Center for School Change to help share information with students about dual-credit courses. We asked students to write about dual-credit experiences. We published their essays in free booklets. Then we convened students to discuss next steps. While they liked the booklet, several explained that “YouTube is where it’s at” for many teens. Students also suggested videos in different languages. We followed their advice, writing and producing videos with students from High School for Recording Arts, Migizi Communications, PACER Center and Neighborhood House, all of which are in the Twin Cities.

Parents, grandparents and students also suggested creating a one-page summary of various forms of dual-credit, including differences and similarities, and information about college acceptance policies. We did the summary and worked with a Macalester College intern to create an interactive map describing college policies on dual credit. Feedback has been very positive. (These materials are available here: http://bit.ly/1NuPyaD.)

• Recently Mary Jacobson, director of marketing and public relations at Anoka-Ramsey Community College and Anoka Technical College, told me that Anoka-Ramsey has a new website. She explained, “We started from scratch, using feedback from students and families, to make it much easier to use.” Wise idea.

• Unfortunately, school districts sometime fail to use information that could be valuable. For example, why are families leaving a school or district? According to MDE statistics, the number of students living in St. Paul but attending other district or charter schools has increased from 9,149 in 2009-10 to 13,429 in 2015-16. Many people, including me, have urged the district over the last several years to survey families that left and report results so that the board and community can use this information. The district’s public information director said via email that the survey data would be processed and available by June. As of Aug. 3, a report has not been completed. Several newly elected board members are committed to obtaining this information. Other communities may want to gather, share and learn from this kind of information.

Listening to and learning from parents and students can be very valuable. Professional judgment is important. But wise educators make at least some decisions only after gathering information from students and families.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is a former director and now senior fellow at the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at [email protected]