It takes a village to raise a school

30 Nov

Coburg Hills, Autumn 2010

For years, the people of Coburg, Oregon (population 1,080) have heard that their elementary school will close because it’s not economically viable. For years, they’ve reacted with formidable presence at public hearings, fighting by the hundreds to prevent school closure.  They’ve argued that losing the school would irrevocably change their proud, civically engaged community into a lifeless commuter suburb. They’ve stressed the local school’s critical role in attracting and retaining working-age families, employers, and tax income to support basic services and infrastructure. They’ve advocated for the school’s intimate scale and well-honed integration with the rhythm of rural community life as a unique regional asset. Finally, they’ve pleaded for fairness; why should the smallest community in the regional school district lose its most precious asset? Again and again, they’ve pressed these points.

This past June, 4J regional school district officials again warned that Coburg School would likely close within the year.  City leaders and parents were once again discouraged about the future of their school. A small group of parents started strategizing.  By November, when 4J Superintendent George Russell confirmed the closure as one of his recommendations to address a gaping budget deficit for the 2011 school year, the community reacted differently than it had before. Something remarkable had happened in the intervening months.

In fact, during the same November week that the regional school district held its budget hearings, there was a celebration in Coburg. Why? With active input and support from well over one hundred local people, as well as judicious use of outside resources, the community had completed a giant first step toward converting the soon-to-be-shuttered elementary school into a public charter school. In under three months, they completed the vision, curriculum planning, governance structure, budget and community input needed for a complex two-inch thick application for charter school status. While the application is just the first step, it represents a powerful shift of energy in the community that’s worth highlighting.

Here’s some ways an initially small group of concerned parents moved this massive project forward:

  • Making a conscious choice to be pro-active and positive in focus: They shifted from the old starting point of  “Why are they doing this to us, again?” to “What can we do to create a positive future for our children and our community?” In all their outreach to the community and regional leaders, they carried a consistent message. While acknowledging the community’s grief about losing its current school, the core group of parents also emphasized the importance of developing viable alternatives rather than waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop.
  • Authentically engaging the community: The planning group initially asked me to help them develop a community-wide planning process to identify and prioritize alternative mechanisms for sustaining a viable community school, including such options as such as aligning with another district or merging with another school. However, as the planning group discussed its ideas, it became clear that one promising option, converting the existing school into a public charter school, would require an intensive, immediate focus to meet state deadlines.  The small group chose to change the public outreach focus to develop a vision and strategy for a charter school. At the first large community meeting in September, they presented this option as their recommended next step: because they did so with transparency, they attracted many supporters and helpers. They also used many formal and informal ways of communicating back and forth with community members between meetings.
  • Building on strengths and shared values: Charter schools can be controversial in some communities, because they have an image of being “alternative” and potentially too “nontraditional” for many families. In Coburg, the planning group didn’t advocate for the charter school structure as something that in and of itself would be better by virtue of being new. Instead, they organized charter school conversations to bring forth community values about education and school-community connections.  As a result, the focus of the proposed charter school is on “academic excellence, character development, and community immersion” in a rural school setting. They aim to improve upon what already is a strength for the school and the community.
  • Creative use of resources: Instead of establishing a new 501(c)(3) non-profit to govern the charter school, parents reached out to their peers in the existing nonprofit parent school fund raising group to merge their missions and leadership. Again, frequent transparent communications were the foundation for this success.
  • Checking their assumptions: As the project moved forward, the people who’d been heavily involved recognized that they held untested assumptions about the overall level of community knowledge and support. Their fast-turnaround email survey provided important evidence of strong community support and generated additional public interest.
  • Celebrating– even though the application is just the first step, the planning group organized a community information update and thank you event to mark the milestone and organize for next steps. Here’s a picture which shows the range of people involved!

I am proud to have been able to work with this remarkable group of volunteers who exemplify the power of a small group to move a big idea forward! I’m excited to see the future successes that are sure to unfold from this experience!