Friday, January 21, 2011

The difference a community can make

It seems that recently criticizing and complaining about the public education system has become a hobby of sorts.  Politicians make calls for reform (Condoleeza Rice spoke on my campus this week and commented on the "disastrous state of our K-12 education system"), parents berate school boards, and bloggers like me make claims for how things might improve.  But, truth be told, not very many of us take the initiative to do anything very productive (so, in some sense this post is a declaration of my personal resolve to complain less and do more).


Every once in a while, however, someone will identify a problem, rally support within their community, and make a real difference.  I learned this week about a group of parents in Northern Utah who did that very thing.  The school their students attend was recently designated as a "walking school" by district officials, which means that all students live within 1.5 miles of the school and don't qualify for state-funded busing service.  Not surprisingly, parents were concerned because it meant that they either needed to find a way to drive their kids to school each day (a big problem for some working parents or families with limited access to vehicles) or let their kids walk to school along a route that includes busy streets and very few sidewalks.  A typical “concerned parent” response would probably include highly visible (and audible) efforts to convince someone else to own or fix the problem (angry letters to district officials, impassioned pleas to “remember the children” at school board meetings, or even protests outside district offices).  While those sorts of things are part of a democracy and likely have some indirect impact upon systems, they don’t do much other than let officials know that people are unhappy.  They make no attempt at a solution. 


What impressed me most about the story of Ty Haguewood and his group of parents was that they took a much different approach.  Recognizing that the district’s hands were tied and realizing that there were enough parents interested in coming together to develop a solution, they decided to create their own busing system.   They bought a used school bus for $6,000, worked out insurance, hired drivers, and set up a busing system complete with formal bus stops and a plan for storing a huge yellow bus in their neighborhood.  The 83 participating students pay an annual fee of $206 (about 60 cents per bus ride), which seems like a pretty economical deal for parents (not to mention the convenience factor of letting someone else drive) One parent summed up the groups mindset very well:


“This experience has been very empowering,” she says. “We often get into the mindset that everything is the school’s responsibility. … But sometimes when you have a problem, you need to try to be creative and come up with a solution on your own.”


Stories like this are refreshing because they remind me that everyday people can make improvements in their communities.  But, there also seem to be some critical elements of these stories worth mentioning.  There seem to be some important reasons why this group of parents was successful and able to bring a new idea to fruition:


1.  They cared.  This seems to be obvious and is probably the first step in any kind of community action.  A less committed group would have given up as they encountered challenges along the way (e.g. the reality of finding insurance for an LLC, paying for fuel, working out storage, etc.).  This group was successful because there was a critical mass of people that really wanted to make a difference.


2.  They made sure to generate support from a broad base of interested parents.  Had there only been a handful of parents behind the plan, not much would have happened.  But, the leaders were smart.  Before moving forward, they made sure that there were enough interested parties that they knew they would have backing.


3.  They had resources.  The reality is that the bus cost $6,000.  Had Haguewood and Bruce Jones (another parent key to the success of the project) not had the money and the connections they did, the project wouldn’t have made it very far.  And, it’s not just financial resources that are important here.  Someone (and likely multiple participants) had sufficient time to spend conceptualizing the idea, garnering support, handling administrative concerns, etc. to make this all happen.  A group of concerned parents without time and resources wouldn’t have been successful. 


4.  The group included parents with expertise in key areas pertinent to the project.  A randomly assembled group of equally motivated parents in another neighborhood may not have had the same success as did the Sunset Elementary group.  They were able to make this work, in part, because they had parents with particular skill sets and experience.  Haguewood is a real estate agent and likely familiar with navigating things like insurance policies, sales, and bureaucracy.  He also has a commercial driver’s license and past experience as a bus driver.  There are probably other parents not mentioned in the article that brought unique skills and experience to bear in playing key roles in the process as well. 


What if this problem had cropped up in another neighborhood where parents don’t have time, resources, or expertise?  Are there things that can be done to bring together concerned parents and facilitate change in those places?

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