Education expert advises MAUSD
(School) districts that succeed do so not because of a smarter plan but because of a smarter process.
— Nate Levenson
BRISTOL — After spending the first half of his life in the private sector Nate Levenson got involved in public education as an angry parent in Massachusetts.
“I got involved in local schools as basically a school board member’s worst nightmare,” he told the Mount Abraham Unified School District board last week. “I was that angry parent who came to board meetings — hate to say it — who screamed a whole lot, thought everything the board was doing was crazy.”
When he joined that school board he realized he didn’t understand half of what was going on, he acknowledged. Then he became a superintendent “and realized that even as a school board member I was not very thoughtful and not very helpful.”
Since then, as a consultant, Levenson has worked with more than 250 school districts around the country, and he’s authored four books and dozens of whitepapers and articles about education.
So he approaches public school challenges from a several different angles, he said.
The particular challenge Levenson was invited to speak about for two hours last Tuesday evening, via Zoom, was MAUSD’s declining enrollment.
THIS IS HARD
The MAUSD, like many other school districts, found itself in the middle of a “perfect storm,” even before the pandemic hit, Levenson explained.
What we’re expecting schools to do keeps expanding, he said. To the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic we added “critical thinking,” then “21st-century skills.” But then skills weren’t enough and we asked educators to take responsibility for the social and emotional well-being of our children — and for their behavior issues.
At the same time, resources allocated to education have not kept up.
On top of that, when enrollment declines, as it has in the MAUSD and many other Vermont school districts, a vicious cycle begins: spending cuts, followed by people moving away to find better-funded schools, which accelerates enrollment decline and further cuts, Levenson said.
Over the past year, MAUSD officials have wrestled with the district’s declining enrollment and increasing staff costs and in December Superintendent Patrick Reen unveiled a proposal that would consolidate the district’s elementary students into its Bristol and Monkton schools; repurpose its Lincoln and Starksboro elementary schools as innovation centers, and repurpose its New Haven elementary school for both early education and a central office. A second phase of Reen’s plan calls for merging with the Vergennes-based Addison Northwest School District.
In part because of strong opposition from Lincoln and Starksboro residents, the MAUSD board delayed its vote on Reen’s plan until August. In the meantime, it will also be considering a handful of alternative proposals submitted earlier this month by district residents.
Levenson cited several common responses to school district plans for addressing declining enrollment, including:
• Hurt feelings. Residents feel hurt when people don’t want to live in their community.
• A sense of loss. The number one reason plans fail is insufficient focus on minimizing the loss to the community.
• A lack of trust. There will always be people who don’t believe the district’s facts.
Levenson noted that these are “issues of the heart” and the heart tends to be about “process” (whereas the head is more technical — think spreadsheets).
A good plan has to be 50% head and 50% heart, he said.
“Districts that succeed do so not because of a smarter plan but because of a smarter process,” he said. “We could lock ourselves in a room for three days and come up with a couple of good plans — but that would be a terrible process.”
“It’s really important that people trust you,” Levenson said.
The key, he explained, is to focus not on converting the entrenched opposition but on convincing open-minded non-supporters, and there are two effective strategies for building that trust.
First: Win over the school principals, he said. They are often the most trusted educational leaders in the community. If they aren’t convinced there’s a problem then engage them in joint-fact-finding projects. Often they will also come up with the most practical alternatives possible.
Second: Wrestle with ideas. The district should go down paths even if they’re not likely to be successful, just to show people that they’ve been heard.
For example, “there’s something to be said for formally asking the state legislature for more money and having them say ‘no’ — and telling you why,” he said.
It’s not uncommon for a district to have to research 10 or 12 alternative ideas, but it’s an important thing to do. Districts that succeeded in addressing declining enrollment had better processes for generating and considering those alternatives, he said. Belief that alternatives have been considered helps build acceptance.
One thing that typically does not work: Presenting draconian options that are intended to scare the community into action. This usually backfires, Levenson said.
Throughout his presentation, Levenson interacted with the MAUSD board and together they explored ideas that might make sense for the district going forward.
Afterward the board agreed it would like to work with Levenson again in some capacity and directed Reen to begin exploring that possibility.
NEW BOARD MEMBER
At the same meeting, the MAUSD board appointed a new member — Brad Johnson of Starksboro — to fill the seat vacated last month when Caleb Elder resigned.
Johnson was the only Starksboro resident to submit a letter of interest for the seat. He will serve until Town Meeting Day 2022, at which time he will need to run for election if he wishes to serve out the remaining year of Elder’s term.
Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.
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