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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Home-Schooling 330 Learners

*Some of the content of this Blog posting has previously been published as part of an article I prepared for a statewide journal a few years ago. I have adapted it to personalize my experience at Green Island.

                  How to Home-school 330 Learners

Public schools are confronted by multiple threats to their customer base. Charter schools, parochial schools, and various forms of private schools have attracted growing numbers of children. Parents have become more conscientious consumers in seeking opportunities to further the education of their children. Additionally, there is another educational option exercised by an increasing amount of parents. According to a 2003 study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics there are approximately 1,100,000 children being educated at home, a surge of over 600,000 more children since 1996. (NCES July 2004)

Despite the statistics presented above, the number of children receiving instruction within their home is fairly invisible. That is, these children are learning in individual houses blending inconspicuously in neighborhoods everywhere as opposed to learners attending non-public schools in buildings that by their size distinguish them unmistakably as schools. However, public schools, like any business hopeful of remaining viable, should not overlook the potential of home-schooling as an alternative available to parents. 

According to research conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, there are three primary reasons that parents elect to home-school their children. First, 31% of parents choosing to home-school cite the environment of public schools as a motive. Second, 30% of parents identify religious or moral reasons for their choice. Third, 16% of parents state that their decision was based mostly on a lack of confidence in the quality of instruction at their local school. (NCES study July 2004)

Rather than ignoring the loss of learners or indulging in a defensive response, public schools could benefit by examining the critical attributes presented by competing learning programs. In particular, this Blog post addresses the primary reason parents elect to home school their children as reported in the NCES study; the environment of the school, and suggests features that we have introduced or emphasized at Heatly in an effort to simultaneously improve our performance and thwart the loss of learners to home schooling –-- or charter/private/parochial schools.

How can we position our school to prevent a continued loss of learners from impacting public perception of the school, decreasing state and federal funds, and reducing programs and staffing?

We must make a concerted attempt to address the reason that was most often referenced by survey respondents who had decided to withdraw their children from public school and deliver instruction at home. That is, their perception of the public school environment as unsatisfactory.

The Heatly School of Green Island is a very small, single structure school district with a professional and support staff of approximately 60 serving 330 learners of all ages, at all stages, between Kindergarten and 12th grade. Every learner lives within a fifteen minute walk of the school, which enhances the feeling of community that exists within the school building. It is not much of an exaggeration to employ the time worn cliché of “one big family” to describe the school atmosphere. I know, I know, everyone says that - but let me explain.

How many other school districts can say that the office staff knows each and every one of the learners? Not only by name, but in almost every case they also know the back story of each individual. That degree of familiarity engenders a sense of care, compassion, responsibility and engagement between adults and children. It’s a relationship that reflects a personal investment. I particularly enjoy observing this dynamic whenever I witness people passing in the hallways. There’s an overt acknowledgement and acceptance found in few other school districts.

I recall how impressed I was when, during my tour of the building as part of the extended interview process; the 12th graders leading me around the school were greeted warmly by the children in the elementary grade classrooms we entered. They referred to each other by name during these exchanges. That demonstrative rapport was very appealing to me as a candidate to lead the school system.

How many other districts can report that the learner population is greeted almost every morning by the superintendent as they walk up the sidewalk to the entrance of the school? Or that any learner in the school, together with three friends of their choice, can sign up to have lunch with the superintendent in his office? Do parents of children in other districts see the superintendent at every home varsity athletic game or Parent-Teacher Organization meeting? Would they even recognize the superintendent of their school district? Have they ever received a personal letter or phone call from the superintendent of their district? (I’ve even made a few home visits)

My commitment to engage with the learning community isn’t just common sense, there’s a real benefit to this illustrated in an example from the business world. One characteristic, among many, that a tremendously successful retail giant uses to distance itself from its competitors and thereby gain economic advantages is to employ a greeter at the main entrance to their store. This individual is congenial and cordial, oftentimes retired or semi-retired people the age of grandparents who likely evoke fond thoughts of our own grandparents. The original purpose behind the greeter was to deter theft. The reasoning behind the practice is to personalize the initial interaction between customer and corporation. This brief introduction, a welcoming gesture of a hearty hello, a simple smile, and a comment on the weather… puts a face on a store.

We’re a public school and the superintendent must be public. I’m the leader who has to stand before the community in times of need or when difficult budget decisions have to be made. I want the residents to know who it is that’s delivering the information and decisions. Maybe some will disagree with what I have to say, but these are often emotional issues and require personal communication and interaction, from someone they know, not from an empty suit.

Let’s return to that same giant retail store mentioned earlier in this Blog posting for another example of the value of relationships. This same store has an expectation that all employees acknowledge and offer help to any approaching customer who comes within six feet of them, and sustains the relationship as the customer moves about the facility. Would be thieves are usually thwarted by the interactions and innocent customers appreciate being acknowledged and assisted. The environment of schools can be nurtured with the same method.

Learners at Green Island receive instruction in small classes. This accentuates the potential for a deep and enduring relationship between teacher and learner. At the high school level, where parents of learners in much larger high schools worry about their son or daughter feeling lost amid the mass of humanity at a crucial juncture of social and emotional growth, our teenagers are not only known by the teaching staff, the learners receive more than one class and one year of instruction by the same teacher. Furthermore, since we are a single structure school learners can regularly connect with their former teachers who they see as they traffic in the hallways and in shared common areas of the school. Again, this familiarity enables the teachers to gain a deeper understanding of the strengths, weaknesses, and interests of the individuals.

The same is true of our support staff. The learners routinely interact with the lunch monitors, custodial staff, nurse, and secretaries over an extended period of time as they progress from grade to grade. A number of our staff members live within the district and therefore harbor a significant personal commitment to our success.

Board of Education members welcome reports from both elementary and high school student council groups, as well as representatives of other groups. The fact that the members know the learners and their families only heightens the meaning and relevance of the presentations. These are not ephemeral and disposable moments, but instead contribute to the fabric of the organizational culture at Green Island.  

Though it may strike some as an odd reference, one of the more interesting connections I’ve observed is the manner in which learners and adults intermingled during home basketball games. At other schools where I’ve worked the adults and learners are often seated in separate sections of the bleachers and East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet. However, at Heatly, while there are groups of learners located here and there, these groups are interspersed with pockets of adults. And the groups don’t just sit in proximity to each other, they interact.

That may be among the most notable signs of a caring school district atmosphere but definitely the most exceptional is the ritual of graduating seniors departing the building after the ceremony and forming a receiving line on the front lawn of the school. Pictures are taken and the community members form a long line that snakes along and allows congratulations to be extended to each graduateincredible experience.

I suspect quite strongly that my observations would surprise some at Heatly because it’s always been like this. They may perceive these perceptions as normal and assume that all school districts present themselves similarly. Unless they’ve lived elsewhere and attended other schools, how would they know and understand what a unique school environment they have in Green Island?  

Finally, years ago when my wife and I were preparing to sell a home we scheduled an Open House to entice buyers. The realtor stressed that people buy homes, not houses. The Open House encourages buyers into your house, making the buyer feel at home encourages them to sign the check. The realtor advised us to bake a loaf of bread or an apple pie just prior to the event so that interested visitors would smell the familiar aromas and think of a home rather than a house. It works!

There are a lot of school buildings and a lot of schools. One is a pile of bricks surrounded by a parking lot; the other is a secure and comforting home away from home where children spend much of their waking hours each weekday with adults who commit to their development. We want visitors to our school district to detect the difference between a building and a school. We feel confident that we can help visitors distinguish between the two by presenting a caring environment where people really matter.

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