Franklin: It’s a famous name in American history. It’s also the Wisconsin home to the 3,800-student Franklin Public Schools, a suburban district just south of Milwaukee, whose success “can be clearly linked to an active partnership with families and the community,” said Superintendent Gerald Freitag.

“We’re a school-centered district,” said Janay Wittek-Balke, coordinator of communications and public engagement for the district, which has seven schools and a full- and part-time staff of 530. “That means we are constantly listening to students, parents, and staff. It’s all part of our commitment to continuous improvement.”

How does the district stay connected to those it serves? “We hold focus groups. The superintendent conducts listening sessions. We open part of board meetings for public comment. We do some paper and pencil surveys,” Wittek-Balke said. “However, our automated telephone questionnaires are among our most valuable listening tools.”

Franklin schools use a technology called LT Voice Server, from the Everett, Wash.-based Leadership Technology Group (formerly Voice Poll Communications), to tap into stakeholders’ opinions. When respondents dial a special phone number to complete an interactive telephone questionnaire, they are connected with a district server.

“The computer, equipped with special software, does an immediate tabulation and gives us a running total of their responses. We can print that information out at any time and begin our analysis,” Wittek-Balke said.

“Our automated questionnaires have become a part of the culture of our schools,” she added. “Principals are constantly using these high-tech, easy-to-use tools to spot and correct problems, improve student and staff performance, and build even stronger relationships. On a district-wide basis, we’re also getting feedback for teachers in our orchestra program, because they want to constantly improve their instructional strategies, and for our food service program, because they want to offer the best service possible for our students and staff.”

A case in point is Chuck Wedig, principal of the district’s Pleasant View Elementary School. “We make extensive use of the automated questionnaires, which make it possible for those who participate to punch in their responses on their telephone keypad,” he said.

In an interview, Wedig highlighted how he uses the telephone technology:

Students. “We now have telephones in every room of our building. This past year, we asked students in grades three through six to respond to 11 statements using the automated questionnaires.” All 311 students at those grade levels participated in the process, privately entering their responses – yes, no, or not sure–on the phone keypads. The statements included items such as: “I know what is expected of me at school,” “I have everything I need to do my work right,” “My teacher cares if I learn,” and “The principal knows my name.” Overall responses for the school are shared with the principal and community, but specific responses for each classroom are shared privately with the teacher. They are not part of the evaluation process.

Parents. From home or school, parents are asked to respond to statements related to their child’s experience in the classroom and school improvement objectives. Among these statements were: “My child’s teacher has appropriate expectations for student learning,” “My child’s teacher knows and treats students as individuals,” “My child’s teacher cares about my child’s success,” and “Your child participated in a goal-setting process this school year. Do you believe the goal-setting process was effective for your child?”

Parents and staff. Both parents and staff were asked privately to give letter grades ranging from A to F to the school principal, the teaching staff, the overall operation and performance of the school, and the overall operation and performance of the district.

“With these automated questionnaires, we get results immediately. They are instantly tabulated by our computer,” Wedig noted. “The effectiveness of any organization depends on its being measured. Feedback needs to be fed forward so that each of us can respond to it, constantly building a better education for our students.”

Making the general results public has “reinforced our credibility as public servants committed to outstanding education,” Wedig said. “The very process not only helps us build a sense of participation, it also helps us get valuable information at the same time–what some people are calling the ‘partimation effect.'”

The results of this internal and external listening have been a source of positive reinforcement. “We get a lot of positive feedback,” Wedig acknowledged. What’s getting further attention as a result of the process? Quite a number of things. For one, 83 percent of students said, “My teacher cares about me.” “That’s positive, but our teachers are concerned about doing even better in reaching the other 17 percent,” he said.

What about the principal? Wedig volunteered, “Only 73 percent of students said the principal knew their name. We know that can have an impact on student success. I’m working on the other 27 percent.”