District taps community in school reform

A Kentucky school district superintendent has taken community involvement to new heights with a bold program that asked parents, supporters, and other stakeholders to help redesign the district’s curriculum for the 21st century.

Fayette County Public Schools (FCPS) Superintendent Stu Silberman’s 2020 Vision program began with a simple idea and evolved into an effort to improve schools in every facet, aiming to provide students with a “world-class” school district within the next 15 years.

“We asked people in the community to take a look and see where we want [the district] to go in 10 or 15 years and what it should look like then,” said Silberman, a former eSchool News Tech-Savvy Superintendent Award winner while he was superintendent of the Daviess County, Ky., Public Schools (see our 2002 “Tech-Savvy Superintendent Awards,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=3551). “I know that when you put great minds together from a community, they’re going to come up with some pretty powerful recommendations on how to move forward.”

Using technology as a way to facilitate collaboration among stakeholders, FCPS officials created community-led task forces to address 21 key areas ranging from school safety to the district’s use of technology.

The district’s charge was to provide a world-class education for every child, and Silberman took that charge one step further by wondering what a world-class district actually looked like.

“When Stu came in, he brought this fresh sense of enthusiasm,” said Lisa Deffendall, director of communications for the district, who helped coordinate the 2020 Vision project.

Deffendall joined the district in December 2004 and, along with others, offered to help Silberman when he asked for volunteers to help him involve the community in school improvements.

“We wanted to come up with the very best ideas for kids based on what research has told us,” she said. “When we’re in decision-making meetings, we ask how things will affect the kids–that’s the focus, and the community was so thirsty for that.”

Deffendall helped take charge of the effort, formulating 16 topic areas that the school board would take to the community. Each topic area would have a working group that would strive for six months to develop concrete recommendations for improvement.

Silberman got the community involved last May. “Stu wanted to begin with a community summit, and we sent an open invitation to everyone,” Deffendall said. Volunteers ran ads in local newspapers, canvassed neighborhoods, contacted faith-based organizations and neighborhood associations, and sent letters to elected officials. Thus, “2020 Vision: Transforming Education in Fayette County” was born.

Held at the Lexington Convention Center, the summit attracted 1,300 participants who wanted to offer their ideas for creative improvements in Fayette County education. Additional working groups formed, resulting in 21 total groups. Each group met several times to develop recommendations for changing education in the district, based on proven ways of building children’s capacity to learn.

Working groups had three leaders–a community leader, a staff support member, and a specially trained facilitator to ensure that things worked democratically. Group leaders were chosen based on their expressed advocacy for children and an approachable personality.

“We asked the groups to focus on three things: the current situation and existing recommendations, possible resources in the community for those recommendations, and … research [on] best practices nationally [to] see what other districts were doing,” Deffendall said. “Then we asked them to make their recommendations on what would improve that specific topic area, what would help us raise the achievement levels of every child, and what they envisioned for the children in Fayette County.”

During the meetings, each working group focused on a particular area of education, such as science and technical education, music, literacy, technology, student leadership, and service learning.

“It was very refreshing to have a superintendent who didn’t feel obligated to do something for the district, but who did something because he wanted to,” said Ray Forgue, who joined the Financial Literacy group. Forgue, a family financial management professor at the University of Kentucky, was elected as one of the group’s leaders.

“We concentrated on what can be done to get more financial literacy education, and essentially the idea was to form, within each school, a group of teachers who had an interest and some aptitude for this, and they would serve as the mentors, leaders, and coaches for the rest of the teachers to adopt the curriculum,” Forgue said.

“We recommended that [financial literacy education] be incorporated into math, social studies, science, and wherever it can be brought in, starting with the kindergarten age,” he said. “One of the biggest problems in this area is that teachers don’t feel real comfortable and confident themselves in teaching the material. You have to feel comfortable.”

Each working group held a brainstorming session, asking people what they envisioned for the children in Fayette County. Each group defined its goals for the next six months and then defined goals for the class of 2020–those students who will be entering kindergarten this fall.

“The folks involved are extremely passionate about their work group areas, and it’s pretty exciting to see their enthusiasm,” said Silberman. “Our board has set some pretty hefty goals in terms of moving our student achievement forward, and I believe that & for us to make big gains, it takes a full effort between schools and community–that’s why we called for the summit.”

Each working group held a required monthly meeting, and the district set up an interactive web site so that community members could register to participate, get eMail updates notifying them of upcoming meetings, communicate with project group leaders and guests, post ideas, and read previous meeting minutes, as well as final reports. Each working group has its own extensive page on the project’s web site.

On Oct. 31, the groups submitted their recommendations to the school board. Every recommendation from every group was compiled into a single document that was posted on the 2020 Vision web site.

“We’re certainly not going to be able to roll out every suggestion, because the recommendations are more than 650 pages long,” said Deffendall.

“People took this task to heart,” she added. School staff and community members assembled to read through the recommendations from each group and analyze how much each idea would cost, whether additional staff or professional development would be needed, and if a new curriculum would be necessary.

The technology group’s site includes a document recommending 10 areas of focus, from choosing new software to making access to computers ubiquitous for all students. The site also includes recommendations from community summit participants.

“A set of technology standards will not be enough,” recommended one attendee. “Without detailed and reachable examples, teachers are afraid to integrate the skills necessary into their lessons.” Other suggestions echoed this sentiment, with one summit participant writing that teachers must learn how to use and integrate technology into their curriculum effectively “so they are comfortable with it.”

Participants also suggested including elementary schools in the technology planning process and ensuring that inner-city schools have the same access to technology as schools in the suburbs. One comment read: “See and understand the necessity of all students being given the opportunity to have all technologies available in the school systems to benefit students regardless of socioeconomic divides.”

After the initial October presentation, each group took its ideas and publicly presented them to the school board over two days in mid-December.

About 900 people have participated in the project in some way, and 400 to 500 actively contributed in working groups, Silberman said.

“To get those kinds of numbers in a community gives us a tremendous amount of momentum,” he said. “If you can imagine each of the 21 workgroups presenting to our local board over a two-night period, and that resulting in a 600-page report, that’s pretty overwhelming.”

Some recommendations cost nothing and will be easy to implement, and others will take more time. “The music work group suggested that we start every board meeting with some type of student performance, so we did that at the very next meeting,” Silberman said.

Meetings resumed again on Jan. 10, where staff and community leaders began discussing what a 2020 Vision elementary, middle, and high school will look like in terms of professional development, staffing, facilities, curriculum, and community collaboration.

After volunteers make their recommendations for what a 2020 Vision school should look like, the district will create a model.

“We’re going to take a room in our district office and turn it into an interactive visual, pictorial, video, and computer center, and somehow link it all,” Deffendall said. “Once we establish this room, we’ll have input sessions where we invite targeted audiences, along with the public, to come in, spend time, ask questions, and get information.”

After identifying stumbling blocks, the project team plans to assemble a task force of staff, teachers, principals, community members, and parents to come up with an action plan to present to the school board for the fall of the 2006, 2007, and 2008 school years.

The 2020 Vision program’s budget is being zero-based, Deffendall said, which means that a separate finance committee has taken control of the budget and is determining what certain program aspects will cost. It’s similar to building the budget from the bottom up, she said. The community summit was financed entirely through community donations.

“We are building this plane as we’re flying it,” Deffendall said. “We know this is going to be a multi-year, multi-step process. This kind of community input, dreaming, and monitoring current trends shouldn’t be something you do every few years, it has to be an ongoing process.”

FCPS schools are not required to implement every recommendation that comes out of the 2020 Vision program, because the district’s council law leaves schools free to decide if they’d like to participate, Deffendall said. “We have to package this so that people will want to do it,” she said.

She concluded: “The best minds came together for this, and I can’t help but believe that we’re going to get the best result. One thing we recognize and really expect is that change happens best when people take ownership, and we’re trying to find ways to implement these new ideas but still be respectful of everyone involved.”


2020 Vision Program

Fayette County Public Schools

Laura Ascione

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