Listening Lessons from Kentucky’s Largest Local Board of Education

By Brad Hughes
KSBA Director of Member Support/Communications Services

Over time, when we have an article in this magazine about a program in the Jefferson County Public Schools, a not-uncommon reaction is, “Well, that’s Jefferson County. They have the resources.” Or “Well, that’s Jefferson County. They have enough students who need such a program.” Or “Well, that’s Jefferson County. They can do it/have to do it because the district is so huge.”

That may be a fair observation on many topics. However, a long-standing JCPS board exercise represents a large-district practice that could benefit any local board in the Commonwealth, regardless of the numbers of students, staff, buildings or buses.

Called Community Conversations, these sessions by board members, and district and school staff, have gone on for years. But the current version incorporates a variety of ways for district leaders to share information, while engaging others face to face in an informal atmosphere.

As I live in Louisville, the Jefferson County Board of Education is my local board. I’ve attended several of these sessions over the years, witnessing the evolution of the process. So I attended one late-winter and one early spring “conversation” to get a sense of how the sessions are being conducted these days.

Structured pitching, unstructured listening
Each JCPS board member conducts two sessions over the course of the school year, meeting not at the central office but rather in a school in her or his district. The meetings start at 6 p.m. and run for between 75 and 90 minutes; light refreshments are provided.

Every session follows a basic format:

The building principal briefly shares the good things happening in the school, followed by an also-brief commentary by the superintendent, and an equally brief self-introductory “perspective” by the board member. This whole section takes 15-20 minutes at most.

The bulk of the time becomes a question-and-answer, open-floor period for parents and school staff. Some of the inquiries are fielded by the superintendent and/or the board member; other times, an attending central office staffer with responsibilities related to the issue may be asked to chime in.
For the two “conversations” I attended this year, the first drew perhaps 40 participants; the second more than 60. Both groups were a mix of teachers and parents as well as teachers who were parents of children in other JCPS schools.

The Q&A period mirrored many issues which, perhaps not surprisingly, had made local news stories during the year: how the district allows/restricts school choice, rules on purchases of school supplies, communications to parents, tight budgets, staffing, calendar issues and others.

A few things that struck me as best practices for anyone trying to replicate these “conversations:”

• You don’t need to answer every question on the spot. Answer those that you can, but resist the desire to come up with a response when you aren’t certain. Promise to look into it and get back with the correct information.

• Be a visible listener. Superintendent Donna Hargens was especially noticeable taking notes, recording inquiries and identifying common hot-button issues after the meeting concluded.

• Board members came prepared to talk about specific things, and didn’t go on the defensive when a tough plea was put on the floor. They calmly explained how the board made its decisions, and some of the factors involved, acknowledging choices often were difficult.

• When both sessions were over, the board members and the superintendent hung around for individual talks – some brief, some extended – which created a controlled opportunity for attendees who wanted a more personal exchange.

The Last Word
One obvious observation is that those who turned out for the Jefferson County Community Conversations are the already engaged.

They cared enough to come to a night meeting to complain or to seek answers. They are among parents and staff who can best share good news, and also be able to rebut claims by others that the board and superintendent don’t care, and won’t listen, and just come to the central office every month and make choices some folks disagree with.

In other words, they are opinion makers and these sessions can help put their opinions in a new light.

And that’s a message worth getting out.

Written for the KSBA Kentucky School Advocate, May 2015. Published with permission.

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