By Robert Poppenga
Last Thursday, as community member after community member spoke on the value of the AIM program to their families, we learned again a simple truth: many families move to Davis because of its superior public schools. As home to one of the best public universities in the world and to a highly educated population, our community is acutely aware that a quality public education begins at a very early age and is dependent on parents working closely and cooperatively with our elected School Board, School Administrators, and teachers in the trenches. The diversity of speakers was also impressive: all ethnicities, ages, and backgrounds were represented. A common theme of parents with children in AIM was that the program provided an environment in which their children felt understood and accepted.
Another truth emerged from the comments made: speakers felt blindsided by recent School Board decisions regarding the AIM program; decisions that don’t appear to have been based upon a fair and open process. Many individuals who were not present at last Thursday’s School Board meeting have also expressed concern over the lack of process and an apparent headlong rush to make significant changes to a longstanding and integral District program. The rationale for rushing decisions regarding the AIM program remains unclear to many. One apparent impetus for change, the AIM Report by UCD researchers, has not received sufficient public or peer scrutiny. Although statements have been made that children already in the existing AIM program will be unaffected by any actions taken this year, the possibility of unanticipated consequences harming the program during the transition have not been addressed. For example, would the retirement of a current, well-qualified AIM teacher result in difficulty hiring a properly trained replacement given the intended phase-out of the program?
Restoring trust. Improving transparency in how the District conducts business. Opening lines of communication. Basing policy decisions on sound evidence. All of these were topics discussed at length by candidates during last year’s School Board race. They were discussed because of missteps by the prior School Board and the candidates universally agreed with a need for improvement in these areas. Many community members were hopeful that the new School Board would set a different tone and find ways to work cooperatively with a variety of stakeholders to further improve all of our schools. Unfortunately, recent decisions regarding the AIM program and the AIM coordinator suggest that the need for restoring trust and instituting more transparent processes has not been embraced by all Board members and brings into question how the District can manage other substantive changes in the future.
If a majority on the School Board truly takes to heart the desire of the community for a new way of conducting District business, they should take a step back and develop a comprehensive and unbiased strategy to identify program options that fully meet the needs of all of our students, including those who are high achieving and gifted and talented. Vanguard reader Don Shor, in response to Debbie Poulos’ AIM commentary of June 24th provided a detailed outline of how a school district could go about adopting a new program model. While the process was specific to gifted programs, there is no reason why it couldn’t be applied to any new program being contemplated. Briefly, the steps involve 1) educator/parent partnering to examine an existing program and alternative delivery models, 2) spending time to understand what works or doesn’t work with the existing program, 3) visiting sites using alternative models to find out what works or doesn’t work with the alternatives, 4) determining resource needs for any contemplated changes, 5) weighing advantages and disadvantages of any change, 6) making a recommendation to the School Board and including a rationale, supporting evidence that a change is likely to be superior to the status quo, and a cost estimate, 7) piloting the proposed model and prospectively monitor its effectiveness, and finally, 8) deciding if the pilot was sufficiently promising to implement more broadly.
In my view two keys to success are 1) making sure that members of an educator/parent committee or task force are open-minded, unbiased, and have learning and achievement for all students as the primary focus and 2) ensuring that the community is kept well-informed throughout the process and has ample opportunity for constructive input.
The School Board should be a force for consensus building and compromise; this is the path toward greater community trust. Paraphrasing Cecilia Escamilla-Greenwald’s comments in a previous Vanguard post on June 20th, it’s ok for the Board to admit that it made a mistake and that the issue (AIM) needs to be examined more carefully. She also acknowledged that conducting business “the Davis way” might take more time. However, if a well-reasoned, fair and transparent process is followed, irrespective of the issue being considered (e.g., AIM, junior-senior high school reconfiguration, later school start times, or PE requirements for athletes), the ultimate winners are our children and schools.
Robert Poppenga is a Davis Parent, a Professor of Clinical Veterinary Toxicology at UC Davis and ran for school board in November 2014.