Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Starting at the top: Collaboration at council's like this blog has psychic powers! For the past few days, we've discussed collaboration and the critical role it plays in creating and maintaining a fruitful organizational culture. Well, I've just returned from the JIS school council meeting, and I can report that "Grease" isn't the word at our school -- it's COLLABORATION.

I heard it over and over tonight: What's the key to a successful council? Collaboration! What will next year's professional development program focus on? Collaboration! It's all about collaboration, collaboration, collaboration. We'll have so much talk at JIS about the mantra of collaboration that soon we'll all be group-hugging and singing Kumbaya!

There's only one problem: collaboration is more than just a word. It's an action. It's a state of mind. Either it's a genuine component of an organization's culture, or it's not. Just saying the word doesn't make it so....

Collaboration requires (as you'll already know, if you've read the past few postings) actual planning and hard work -- and then, a reality check.

Tonight's council meeting was my reality check. There was a great deal of talk about "norms of collaboration" (which some JIS campuses use to ensure that group discussions are productive and respectful). Excellent! These are good things!

But at the very same meeting, no one other than council members, the headmaster, the business manager, and the curriculum coordinator were allowed to speak. When the issue of removing the PTA's right to sit at the council table came up as part of a review of the JIS bylaws, no one asked for the opinion of the PTA representative, who was sitting right there. Now that's irony. Norms of collaboration at a non-collaborative meeting!

But the bigger, sadder irony is that only two parents attended the meeting, so even under the best circumstances, there wasn't going to be much collaborating. After all, collaboration implies teamwork, working together toward a common goal, and considering different ideas and opinions -- and that's hard to do with such a limited group of voices.

Now I know council is swimming into uncharted waters with the issue of collaboration. Historically, its monthly meetings haven't been well-attended by parents, nor structured in a way that encourages dialogue or discussion. (If you don't believe that, see if you can answer this question: what does it take for a parent to get an item on the agenda for a council meeting?) True collaboration -- that is more than just lip service -- can be messy, unpredictable, and even frightening.

But we should ask the JIS council to review again John Carver's wise words about the structure of board meetings from his article, "Remaking Governance: The creator of 'Policy Governance' Challenges School Boards to Change" (American School Board Journal, March 2000):

"Board meetings are spent learning diverse points of view on what is most important for schools to produce, differing projections of future needs of students, and any other wisdom that helps in making wise long-term decisions about ends. The public is integral to these meetings, but carefully organized so the board gets representative input."

While much of tonight's meeting centered around creating mechanisms and processes for managing and controlling the "regular Joe's" participation in council's monthly meetings (e.g. What constitutes a delegation? How many signatures are required to get an item on the agenda? What types of issues can a parent bring forward at the meeting? How long does someone have to speak? At what point during the meeting?) -- precious little was spent talking about how to bring people to the table. And that's a shame.

So we're back again to the quadumvirate of adults at JIS -- the administration, council, teachers, and parents -- and we need to ask ourselves, are we moving in the direction of true collaboration? This is more than just a theoretical question. As a community, our success or failure directly affects our children and the education they receive. Actions speak louder than words. Here's to hoping that council will lead the way -- as it has begun to do with its series of six open forums on the focus-group research -- as we move forward towards a better JIS for our students.

(P.S. Tomorrow's posting will get back on track to discuss collaboration and culture change beyond just the school council. But my mind was all twisted up in a knot after tonight's meeting....)


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