When Pedro Garcia, Nashville’s top public school leader, says he wants more input from parents and the community, he means it.

In a gutsy move that might be a first for the nation, Garcia recently invited the entire community to grade his performance via an online survey.

For three weeks, parents could rank Garcia on everything from parent communication and collaboration to creating clear goals and the quality of their children’s education. Nearly 2,400 parents responded.

The brainchild of parent volunteer David Kern, the online survey was developed by the district’s Parent Advisory Council at Garcia’s request.

Modeled after one developed by Garcia for use with district principals, the survey took about an hour to develop and post, Kern says.

In keeping with the earlier principal survey, the online version focused on the key leadership dimensions outlined by education researcher Robert Marzano in his book, What Works in Schools: Translating Research into Action. Additional questions were added by the parent advisory group.

Although the survey was linked to the district’s home page, Kern used a local web hosting provider to give the results greater credibility and assure anonymity.

“We wanted to keep this totally separate from the district,” says Kern. “That way, no one could say the district influenced the results.”

The survey included 22 questions, all but four of which required only a quick click to answer, and were analyzed using spreadsheets and pivot tables in Microsoft Excel, according to Kerns.

The four open-ended questions garnered 8,000 total responses and were still being tabulated at press time.

Not surprisingly, results were mixed, with those working most closely with the school director (the Nashville school system’s equivalent of the superintendent) expressing the most positive responses.

For example, 65 percent of advisory council parents said the district was headed in the right direction, compared with only 35 percent of parents who don’t interact regularly with the school director.

“What I found surprising is that the parent advisory council responses were virtually identical to the principals’ responses,” says Kern. “People who spend a lot of time with the administration, who are very involved in the changes going on, pretty much agree with each other, regardless of whether they’re on the staff or the parent side.”

This raises an important issue for superintendents and public information officers of large school systems, whether urban or suburban, where even simple school visits take two to three years to complete. How do you connect with parents in a meaningful way? How do you personalize a large bureaucracy like Metro Nashville Public Schools, which serves 72,000 students?

In terms of what Marzano calls “transformational changes,” Garcia scored better, with 48 percent of parents indicating strong responses to “shakes up the status quo where appropriate” and 58 percent indicating he “operates from strong beliefs.”

Parents also ranked Garcia strongly in terms of proposing new ideas, creating explicit goals for change, and defining success in terms of goals. Weaker areas included tolerating ambiguity and dissent, and talking about research and theory.

Kern acknowledges that the survey responses, while interesting, aren’t necessarily representative or statistically valid.

“It takes some time and effort for parents to do this, so typically they’re either strong supporters or they have an axe to grind,” says Kern.

While the value of such surveys is hard to measure, the exercise of simply asking parents and community members their opinions conveys potent messages about the district’s seriousness in increasing parental involvement, he says.

“Parents go into school and think that what they do makes no difference,” says Kern. “This is a way for them to get involved, dispel a lot of myths out there, and give parents more of a voice in the system.”

By providing another tool for garnering parental and community input, Kern hopes to encourage more active participation in the district’s 126 schools.

Looking ahead to next year, Kern says he hopes to generate stronger parent participation by sending notes home in students’ book bags and school newsletters, rather than relying on the district web site and local media to notify parents. “The better you publicize it, the better your results will be,” says Kern, who hopes more district superintendents nationwide will adopt similar strategies.

“This is a tool that can be used to solicit parent input, and in this day and age, that is very important,” he says. “[Parents] are the customers, and customer satisfaction is an important thing to measure.”

Nashville’s daily newspaper, the Tennessean, agrees. In a November 11 editorial, the paper saluted Garcia for seeking input in such an open forum and encouraged parents and other citizens to participate.

“For the last few years, Nashville school officials have emphasized their commitment to accountability,” wrote the newspaper. “Part of the accountability is reaching out for the ideas and opinions of others. On that score, the online evaluation is already a success.”

See these related links:

Metro Nashville Public Schools

Metro Nashville Parent Advisory Council

Nora Carr is senior vice president and director of public relations for Luquire George Andrews Inc., a Charlotte, N.C.-based advertising and public relations firm. A former assistant superintendent for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, she is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications and marketing.