Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Change and Relationship (Part 2)

In solving societal problems (e.g. cyclical poverty, homelessness, school-to-prison pipeline, etc.) we need to recognize the simple fact that it is a process of individual change. This change is not something easily gained, but is many times a life-altering, path-changing, last 15-minutes of ____ [insert popular romantic comedy title] realization.

From my personal experience and study of service programs, I believe radical individual change occurs through three distinct relationships: our connection to God/oneself, others, and society.

Once we understand this process (part 1), we should work backwards to design systems and services that foster healthy relationships to ensure inclusion and adoption which will lead to lasting change (thrilling conclusion in part 2).

Part 2: Designing services to compliment individual change

If you talk to Richmonders about impediments holding our city back, you’ll soon come upon the topic of broken regionalism, with blame being cast upon elected officials lack of political will.

Although public officials do their part to deserve blame, it has been too often used as a scapegoat. To me, it implies that change can only come from the top, and it allows for, what I think is an equal culprit, public apathy.

I start with this example because regardless of the topic, we need to understand that solutions to address long-standing problems will require public engagement and ownership. Therefore, in designing services to complement individual change, movements from the bottom-up (Operation Infiltration) and top-down (Operation Declaration) will be necessary to bring about systemic change in Richmond.

Operation Infiltration, is the classic grass-roots movement where individuals become educated and engaged in advocacy for relationship building in service application. Operation Declaration, details a top-down approach from government and private service providers to re-evaluate and restructure organizations to establish a framework and incentives for relationships with individuals and neighborhood-level service providers.

How does this work in Richmond? What do we need to continue? What do we need to change and how? Keep reading and I'll give you my impression of the RVA landscape and what needs to happen now.

Operation Infiltration

As described in part 1, to be the change you want to see, it must start with defining who your are or “Be.” Next in importance are your connections to others and society.

A great way to get to connect with others is to serve. Find an issue connected to who you define yourself to be and investigate. An easy step could be to look within your neighborhood. Talk to your neighbors or find a local service group and be intentional about putting in the time to develop a relationship.

A great tool to help facilitate this process is The Art of Neighboring. This website challenges individuals to know your tic-tac-toe grid of neighbors. Cities around the US have adopted this challenge and it could be easily started in Richmond, by a person like you. There are numerous online resources for neighbor-to-neighbor interaction from Facebook pages, to create your own webpage with Neighborland or Nextdoor

The Art of Neighboring tic-tac-toe challenge 
As you start connecting with others, you’ll need to get informed. 

A few favorites to review would be When Helping HurtsToxic Charities, or anything by John Perkins. Each of these book evaluate service practices in light of the relationships necessary for individual change. When you start to explore the issues raised in these resources, you’ll start to look at serving differently. Do you personally know the people you are serving? How do you define crisis vs. chronic needs, and are you applying the correct response?

From my experience in Richmond, there are places where this conversation is being had, and the movement is growing. Church Hill Academy and Tutoring (CHAT) started from neighbors gathering together to ask youth in the community what was needed for them to succeed. When the answer was tutoring, families opened up their homes and banded together to create a network of relationships that is creating systemic change in Church Hill today.

John Perkins spoke at St. Pauls Episcopal, May 2014 

Finally, you let your voice be heard. Speak up when serving in these organizations about change. Contact your elected representatives with thoughts and recommendations for solutions (I’ll detail mine next). This is essential to changing the status quo because those you are serving are usually not heard or intentionally dismissed. Help raise up voices and bring stories from these communities to the forefront.

Operation Declaration

As individual change begins with looking internally, so should this be followed in larger organizations by reevaluating their core vision, mission, and values.
Are relationships a priority? How do you facilitate and value the development of long-term relationships? Do you understand individual change?

In answering these questions with your organization, you’ll find areas to improve. Even if financial resources are restrained, orient your system to be as effective as possible in providing the necessary base for relationship development.

How can this be accomplished?

Larger private organizations/government should understand their role and limitations. Speaking more to my experience within the public sector, program efficiency increases as scope of services is targeted, or when action is as a facilitator providing support (e.g. technical, financial, or administrative) to smaller service providers.

Facilitators can aid, not supplant or duplicate, services being provided within local networks where relationships are being cultivated. Coming alongside to provide essential accounting, legal, or marketing needs - which is a stress on all service providers - will help alleviate operational burdens, thus allowing more time to be spent applying services and building relationships.

In Richmond, a great resource for all non-profits is ConnectVA. Through their website, social gatherings, and technical training they are working to increase the service provider network in Central Virginia.

Another terrific resource is VCU’s CreateAthon. What started as an annual 24-hour marketing blitz for non-profits is now a standalone entity. In their 8 years operation, they've provided 68 area non-profits with an estimated $1.3 million in branding and marketing pro bono services.

Fiscal incentives are necessary because _____ [insert a million reasons]. But honestly, in building relationships for rehabilitation, incentives are necessary because we are creatures of habit and want to adapt to the system of rewards in which we live. I’ve seen relationships being built with those in recovery, but if there are not tangible rewards along the way (e.g. job, loan, etc.), relapse is almost a given. Lasting individual change is built incrementally.

Government and larger organizations have resources available to reward those completing the time intensive task of developing relationships by providing grants or loans to financially reinforce social development.

The cost wouldn't have to be extensive. The City of Richmond’s Neighbor-2-Neighbor initiative offers small grants ($500-$900) to reward cooperation among neighbors for improvement projects. These small cost measures go a long way in helping recognize and support local relationship networks.

A second more drastic change would be to restructure these organizations to place relationship development as the top priority. This would involve a new approach to allocating time and resources, training workers, and services offered.

For City of Richmond government, I’d start by consolidating Departments of Planning Development and Review (PDR) and Economic & Community Development (ECD). Currently, these departments operate in a traditional, horizontally aligned, government bureaucracy where staff is trained in a specialty field or program.
The problem is that specialization is gained on a task, not on relationships with an individual or geographic level where relationships are fostered (e.g. neighborhood). For example, ECD administers neighborhood-level incentives and programs separate from PDR’s development regulations and long-range plans.

In my reorganization, one person would be assigned to a neighborhood as the single point of contact for all city incentives, development regulations, long-range plans, etc. This could be accomplished with the same number of staff, but would involve extensive retaining as individuals would be specialists in multiple areas. Specialists would still exist within city government, but would be a reference resource for the neighborhood contacts.

Next, I’d work to realign Social Services, Police, Health, Education, Housing (RRHA), and Parks & Recreation departments to establish neighborhood-level contacts. These services would be more effective if they had a physical presence in neighborhoods. Examples such as community policing concentrate resources on geographic areas with the goal of strengthening relationships.

Ladner Police Station, Chung Chow 2011
In talking with a police officer in the City of Hampton, I remember his story of working in a neighborhood community center, which housed health, police, and social services, where people were more forthcoming with information because they could build relationships with police in an informal setting.

To give order to this reorganization, I’d use the neighborhood master planning process to help plan and coordinate services. The city’s current neighborhood master plans are out-of-date and include details considered in traditional plans (e.g. land use, housing, environment, transportation), but not a wider range of social elements. By opening this process to include the community and departments, we can begin to design services that are planned and coordinated with local citizens.

Private service providers need to gain an understanding of chronic vs. crisis need. I’ve seen organizations undertake the self evaluation process to reflect upon current practices and ask hard questions. Once healthy relationships are recognized as the end goal, it permeates throughout every action. Administration reframe their mindset on time and resources, workers start asking questions about how to apply services, and greater responsibility is desired from those being served.

In Richmond, I’ve personally seen this in Area 10 Faith Community, and believe it is common practice at the Peter Paul Development Center, Northside Outreach Center, and Boaz and Ruth. What we need next is for national philanthropic organizations, similar to Salvation Army, take charge to ask hard questions about relationship development in the way services are applied.

Next, I’d challenge the faith and non-profit community to use their social capacity to start a relational movement. From history, Quakers and the Second Great Awakening of Christians that started the abolitionist movement to end slavery. During the civil rights era, social movements were organized and driven by this community with campaigns like “each one reach one, each one teach one” that challenged individuals to connect with others to increase awareness.What if we were to apply “each one reach one, each one teach one” to a need in Richmond? (It’s already in Charlotte) Could we have a mentor for each student in RPS? Could every homeless person know someone, or a group of people, in the community
to work alongside?


Informally, these faith networks within the region exist. Richmonders Involved to Strengthen our Communities (RISC), a interfaith coalition of 16 diverse congregations, identified education improvement as their primary focus at their 2014 Community Problems Assembly. What needs to happen is for these groups to come together and rally behind a central goal. I’d agree with Scott Bass, writer for Style Weekly, who would questions why the current Mayor and Pastor, Dwight Jones, has not challenged the faith community to do more. If change were to start from faith leaders, neighborhood coalitions could be organized and focused on addressing local needs. An example to follow could be East End Fellowship’s community group training model which is training church members to lead relationship based service teams in Church Hill.

Pastors Don Coleman and Corey Widmer of East End Fellowship 

In the end, it starts with you.

For lasting change to occur, it’s got to be personal. Know yourself and be sure to connect with people close to you in this journey. Then, get engaged by intentionally starting relationships with people in an area you are passionate about.

For me, I’m going to act on my passion for education improvement in Richmond by serving students in RPS through mentorship/tutoring. Working with administrators and the Communities in Schools coordinator for Thomas Jefferson High School, I’ve got an opportunity to aid teachers by helping coordinate community service projects. 

If you’d like to join, because I’m going to need the help, please email me at garet.prior@gmail.com. My long term goal is to help inform and gain students input on the improvements needed for RPS.

For you, I’d say if you read this far I owe you a coffee or beer. Next, you need to start investigating your connections to God/oneself, others, and society. What are your beliefs? What do you need to change? And...how about starting now?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Change and Relationship (Part 1)

Change and the power of relationship:

By understanding how individuals change, we can design our programs and systems to create locally-driven, lasting solutions.
In solving societal problems (e.g. cyclical poverty, homelessness, school-to-prison pipeline, etc.) we need to recognize the simple fact that it is a process of individual change. Furthermore, this change is not something easily gained, but is many times a life-altering, path-changing, last 15-minutes of ____ [insert name of popular romantic comedy] realization.

From my personal experience and study of service systems and programs, I believe individual change occurs through three distinct relationships, our connection to God/oneself, others, and society.

Connection: A relationship in which a person, thing, or idea is linked or associated with something else.

Once we understand this process (explained in part 1), we should work backwards to design systems and services to foster healthy relationships, thus increasing engagement, adoption, and lasting change (part 2, the thrilling conclusion).

Part 1: How people change
Why are relationships so important?
True, lasting change only occurs from a relationship. Think to yourself, when is the last time I made a major change and what spurred me to do so? I bet that almost every story involves a relationship or connection with something other than yourself.

“But, Garet we live in America where only two things matter...you and bootstraps!” - early 20th century caricature

While I do agree that personal ambition will keep you moving, you need perspective to make sure you are on the right path.

I’ve heard it explained that there are three types of knowledge: what we know about ourselves, what we know about others, and how others perceive our actions. The latter piece, perspective, can only be obtained through a relationship with another.

A problem with our current service providers (public or private) is that programs are developed and services applied without a clear understanding or emphasis on fostering healthy relationships.

Part of this problem can be attributed to massive underfunding which spreads resources and limits time with individual clients. Another factor is in how large organizations develop into horizontally aligned bureaucracies with specialists working in their own silos. A prime example is in our healthcare system, where a major push is to reestablish the role of a single primary doctor, as opposed to the sea of medical specialists. 

Finally, all too often, whether we are talking about the entire system or individual, we look for quick-fix, external solutions to fix internal long-term challenges. Have a problem, take a pill. 

To help end this negative cycle, we need to refocus well intended service providers to what they are intending to do, help individual change. To do this, they should evaluate their services in how it helps to foster one’s connection to God/oneself, others, and society.

Relationship #1. Connection to God/oneself
One of the most simple and impactful philosophies I’ve discovered is Be-Do-Have. By defining who you are (Be), you will inform your actions (Do), and end up with the things you value most (Have).

This is opposite to our modern view of achievement where we define ourselves by the things we have. In this backward system, we end up doing things to obtaining items, that we hope will define who we are.

I’ll admit I have been caught up in doing. In my passion to help others I would get caught up in over committing my time. In the past I used to rationalize that it was acceptable because my actions were well intentioned and not for personal gain.

Eventually I hit rock bottom. My lowest point came after about 4 years of constantly doing. I found myself feeling lost and without a true purpose. What pulled me out was reconnecting with others others in the church I had been attending, Area 10 Faith Community. In attending a men’s small group on leadership, I was turned on to this concept of Be-Do-Have. Immediately I realized that although my actions were not misguided, they were misinformed. 

Chris Barras, Senior Pastor at Area 10 Faith Community 

Over the next few months I worked on digging deeper into questions of personal belief. At the end of this process, I was better able to define my core values and beliefs by an anchored relationship with Jesus.

Honestly, I would not have thought I could have written and believed that sentence a few years ago. I’ll write more about this journey in another article, but regardless of what you believe, I would challenge you to ask questions and look into your beliefs. It is really that important.

Relationship #2. Connection to others
Once you establish who you are, next, try to connect with one other person.

The importance of connecting with others is paramount to personal development in that only another person can hold you accountable. Programs like Alcoholics Anonymous have tapped into this by connecting each individual with a sponsor to walk with them on their journey to recovery.

In my time serving people in poverty or experiencing homelessness, I’ve seen that a lack of connection with others is a major impediment. Many of these people come from broken families and loneliness. They've just got out of jail or need medical help, and they are all alone.

Carolann Pacer-Ramsey, former director of Hilltop Promises, showed me that at the start of a relationship, especially where you are providing services to another, you must must humble yourself, listen, and do for the other person first. In the book, Toxic Charities, Robert Lupton describes this as meeting another’s crisis need. By meeting this initial need, you place yourself in the position of servant and acknowledge that much can be learned by each person, thus implying that a relationship, not just a handout is to be gained. 

Hilltop Promises on Broad Street 
By focusing on one relationship at a time, we can start to develop deep, lasting relationships that will break barriers of misperception.

Relationship #3. Connection to society
Through self-definition one can begin to develop healthy relationships with others, and the interconnected network of these relationships becomes a society. But, figuring out one’s position can be a daunting task.

A major hurdle to connecting into society is the misperception caused by labeling of the “other.” By labeling people as homeless, disabled, felons, or immigrants, we relegate the fact that these are people first.

To combat this we should intentionally seek out relationships (see step #2) with the “others” of society. As a follower of Jesus, this is a pretty easy sell because of the “what you do for the least of my brothers and sisters” thing. But what I’ve experienced in serving, is that after you develop relationships with people (Jerry, Steve, Sarah, etc.), the preconceived notions from their societal labels (e.g. sexual offender, felon, mentally disabled, etc.) are seen in a totally different light.

The next pitfall of our system is is the misunderstanding that a relationship requires sacrifice...from each person.

Going back to Robert Lupton’s book Toxic Charities, a crisis need is that initial emergency response to stabilize a situation. This is opposed to a chronic need, which is an on-going, ingrained, action that requires a longer-term solution.

The problem of our current system, although well intentioned, is that we apply crisis responses to chronic needs. Mr. Lupton explains this as, “A crisis requires emergency intervention; A chronic problem requires development. Address a crisis need with a crisis intervention, and lives are saved. Address a chronic need with a crisis intervention, and people are harmed.”

This can be seen in services that offer only one-way handouts. Although the free clothing closets or sandwiches in the park have their place, they are too often used as an excuse to “give a little and say its all we can do.”

We need to replicate relationship-driven services like those happening at the Peter Paul Development Center (PPDC). I’ve had the pleasure of hearing director Damon Jiggetts speak and visited the center this past summer. In all of their programming they carefully apply services to ensure that chronic issues are being met with chronic, not crisis, solutions.
Damon Jiggets, Director of PPDC
Finally, for those looking to reconnect into society a safe environment for learning new skills is paramount to recovery. 

At Hilltop Promises, after developing a relationship with individuals coming for service, Carolann offered counseling and workplace training skills. This allowed individuals going through recovery to train in a safe environment. This understanding of safety can only be gained after an initial relationship is established.

The problem is that workforce development programs are rarely tied to other counseling or relational-based services. Many times people are left on their own after they got a job or completed the class. This idea that a job solves all almost never lasts without other supports (e.g. relationships #1 and #2) in place.

In part 2 I’ll delve into best practices and thoughts on how we can better design our services and systems to compliment this individual learning process. Let me know your thoughts and experiences with serving others. How has this changed you? What happens when it goes right, and more importantly what have you learned from when it goes wrong?

Continue reading for Part 2, the thrilling conclusion. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Partnerships and RPS (Part #4: Marketing)

If you haven't checked out Partnership #1: NeighborhoodsPart #2:Business, or Part #3: Technology, then be sure to do so. If you have, then you're awesome and continue to read on.

Key Partnership #4

Marketing and Promotion: How to change perception (and reality) in RPS.

Beds, baths, and schools.

This past June at VCU I listened to Jeanne Jehl, senior consultant at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, list these items as the most important factors that families ask for when purchasing a home. The day-long symposium hosted by Housing Virginia, focused on examining the close, yet many times unexplored, connection between housing and education.
The direct economic impact of schools on housing was a fact I first discovered in conducting a market analysis for the City of Hopewell. As seen in the chart below, this regional consumer preference survey found that quality of schools was rated just behind safety as the top factors in neighborhood importance.
Neighborhood Importance
Safety and Security
Quality of Schools
Cost of Living
Neighborhood Appearance
Church and Social Groups
Recreation and Entertainment
Ease to Get Around Town
Access to Green and Open Space
Distance to Work
Small Town Atmosphere
*Scale: 1 (least) - 4 (most)
I reference this fact to say that although neighborhood safety or school quality can be backed by measurables (e.g. crime data and test scores), they are factors that are highly affected by perception.
For RPS, and the city as a whole, changing the current negative perception of schools should be central to any reform effort, as its has wide-ranging economic implications and is essential to change reality.
How else does negative school perception hurt Richmond?
Negative perception pushes families of choice out of the schools. Since these families never engage with the school, perception continues and new solutions to the current problems are not explored. This is not implying that current RPS families, with a high number of working class and lower income parents, are not pushing for positive change, but in reality, they could use a hand.   
When families of choice choose to send their children to other schools, they may also move out of the city, taking with them the prized tax dollars in property investment and disposable income that Richmond’s economic development is focused on attracting. If school perception were flipped, more middle and upper income households would be retained, thus increasing revenue to address systemic problems and creating a local market to spur continued business growth. This is why education in Richmond is the linchpin to sustainable neighborhoods.   
True change is necessary to improve RPS, but where do we start? Changing perception can be a starting point that will create momentum and further current reform efforts. To create an authentic and engaging campaign, school-neighborhood level teams would develop content, hold local events, and begin to develop relationships within the community. The role for RPS or City administration would be to facilitate this system by offering coordinated fundraising drives and marketing of locally derived initiatives or events.
How can this happen?  
RPS, through school action teams, should start by identifying existing resources, successes, and assets of the schools. In the best case scenario this would be conducted as part of a larger strategic planning process for each school (as I have advocated before). This assessment process would help engage local partners in developing teams to meet schools needs, as is developing with Area 10 Faith Community’s work alongside John B. Cary Elementary.
"Your existing assets equal your best opportunities" 
- Della Rucker
Once these community assets are identified, the school should have a local branding and logo competition. Bryce Lytle’s Curious about Westover group has a terrific “Eager Beaver” tagline and logo created by members of the group.
A next step might be to compile a list of key community contacts and information to develop a marketing packet for the school. Examples of this can be seen in the Greater Richmond Partnership’s education recruitment packet or VEDP Community Profile. These recruitment packets could be used to hand out to new families in the neighborhood, but could also aid in attracting new teachers and administrators.
Eager Beaver
Locally created mascot for
Westover Hills Elementary 
External promotion of the schools is important, but essential to this effort will be to celebrate internal successes, and those administration, teachers, staff, parents, and students who have been working to make RPS schools a better place.
A project to encapsulate a love for the current system would be to have a celebration around welcome back week to school. The school could reach out to past attendees, parents, and local community groups to hold an opening day celebration competition. The superintendent of schools would have a prize for the best celebration (e.g. 3 prizes for $1,000) to be awarded at the end of the day. City-wide the mayor and members of council would authorize all of the city personnel and resources to support this day. An all-in effort would truly give backbone to statements made that education improvement is a top priority.
Examples of collaboration to hold fundraising/neighborhood-school celebrations are already happening in multiple places. While living in the Fan, it was always great to see yard signs posted for the upcoming Fox Elementary Strawberry Street Festival.
As for events throughout the year, activities where students, teachers, administration, and staff are recognized should be promoted further. Fundraising efforts from RPS, city administration, or pooling efforts from private resources, should create a fund to creatively recognize individuals from within. For example, Communities in Schools awards their top students a free summer camp of their choice.
Key to these celebration programs will be to ask the recipients what they value as a reward. Too many times we have adults designing reward systems for students that don’t meet or incentivize as expected. Remember, $40 for a class pizza day could go a long way.
Also, we need to better embrace the history and stories associated with these schools. By looking to our communities for local residents to share their story about the school, we can better display the historic beauty of Richmond’s neighborhoods and education system. Websites like StoryCorps and Neighborland make it easy for one to collect information, conduct interviews, and post it to a website for community engagement. Having a local schools page for each neighborhood in Richmond would be a great place to start.
As stated previously, the central emphasis of an improved marketing campaign should be at the school-neighborhood level with help from central administration to facilitate the process. An example of a locally driven, centrally facilitated model, can be seen in Boston’s Main Street Foundation. In this system, the central organization supports locally run main street organization centers through common marketing and fundraising campaigns.
To see how this would work specifically in Richmond, read Ryan Rinn’s 2012 thesis which examines the main street model in Boston, and how it might apply to Richmond.
Richmond Forward: The Next Steps
RVA Forward is a movement of change in Richmond through focusing on issues of faith, education and neighborhoods.  In this 4-part series on education reform, I detailed my thoughts on how private-public partnerships can address key gaps through the following goals:

  1. Develop key workforce skills to fill market gaps and non-cognitive or coping skills, necessary to develop resiliency.
  2. Engage students with their local community to give them a sense of place and perspective.
  3. Instill a life-long love for learning and seeking out diverse experiences and opinions.

Future articles on AGiRVA will detail thoughts on faith and neighborhoods:

Neighborhood: Asset based planning to build local capacity (social, fiscal and environmental).

Faith: Any movement of change must start from within. Defining your values and the search for faith is the most important process in your life.  

“Watch your thoughts for they become words. Watch your words for they become actions.Watch your actions for they become habits. Watch your habits for they become your character. And watch your character for it becomes your destiny. What we think, we become.” 
- Margaret Thatcher

In the end, my articulation of ideas for reform are meant to spur discussion around solutions and action. What I want most is for you to join in on the conversation with your thoughts on faith, education and neighborhoods in RVA. 

Sign up to follow this blog on the homepage, email me at garet.prior@gmail.com, or follow @garetprior or #RVAForward. 

This fall I am hoping to have an interested peoples’ gathering to talk about actions that can be taken. Initial thoughts could be to advocate for increased education spending in the upcoming budget, supporting regional bus rapid transit (BRT), or capturing stories in historic Richmond neighborhoods.   

The ball is now in your court, what do you think should happen next…

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Partnerships in RPS (Part 3: Technology)

Room 107, Overby-Sheppard Elementary (2014)  

If you haven't checked out Partnership #1: Neighborhoods or Part #2:Business, then be sure to do so. If you have, then you're awesome and continue to read on.

Key Partnership #3

Technology we need (and can have) in schools today.

Yes, technology in education is needed. I know someone needed to say it. 

But where much of the tech-education discussion is on big spending in eLearning (e.g. Florida’s big push on technology), I want to focus on the two areas that highly impact student achievement and can be solved with simple tech solutions:

  • Increased transparency of accounting and financial records
  • Data gathering and analysis of student assessments

Increasing transparency in financial records may be the very first step that we need to take in Richmond, because if we are to increase funding for schools it needs to be transparent and used effectively. Per pupil spending in the City of Richmond is already the highest in the region, $4,564 more than the closest locality, Hanover County.  

Per Pupil (FY12)
Richmond City
 $ 13,730

Hanover County
 $ 9,166

Henrico County
 $ 9,041

Chesterfield County
 $ 8,755

Source: Superintendent's Annual Report, VDOE, Table 15 

Further evidence of financial waste can be seen in reports released by the City of Richmond auditor on RPS transportation spending and procurement practices. Recommendations from these reports could save the schools much needed revenue that would be better allocated towards the classroom.
Also, by making these records more transparent, community members would be able to help oversee the system as seen just this spring when Carol Wolf identified uncollected funds for city schools from the Redskins deal.

The tech solution for this need could come from a few different sources. If a top-down government approach is your flavor, then look to Transparent Utah for an easy to use accountability site for public spending. Although this type of change to the system should happen in Virginia, it would involve action at the General Assembly and would eventually filter down to the people, which is obviously not a quick process.

In the meantime, let’s be the change we want to see.

By constructing a crowd sourced, spending accountability site, we can develop a public-private partnership and leverage community investment to bring accountability to education spending. A great example of this concept in action is can be seen in Oakland, California with Open Budget Oakland. Led by members of Code for Oakland, this website receives, disseminates, and presents data in an easily accessible way to citizens and public officials.

Open Budget Oakland (2014) 
If you haven’t heard of Code for America and their mission to crowd source solutions to our nation’s biggest problems then you need to check them out.
Locally, it just happens that Code for RVA is currently working towards a solution for improving school transportation. Sometime in the near future this group will release an app to track school busses to better inform parents and provide information to officials to increase accountability and efficiency. 

The second major need to be met with a simple tech solution is that of data gathering and analysis of student assessments. Whether you agree or not, what will be with us for the foreseeable future is standardized tests.

As a teacher, one of the most time consuming activities was student data input and tracking. So much time was spent in these tasks that quality of classroom instruction and test validity suffered at times. Paper book test scores were kept for administration, online grades for parents, scanned paper tests for the county, and online scoring for state tests. With all of these different types, it was practically impossible for any cross-platform analysis of an individual student’s achievement of the standards.

What we need is technology that allows for teachers, parents, and students to spend more time on data analysis, and less on data input. Any tech solution should aid the teacher in doing their job better and not get in the way of instruction.    

Private technology developers have already jumped into this market with technology firms developing software tracking systems for student data tracking and input, which is termed “Big Data.” Creating partnerships with companies across the research, commercial, and educational sectors to co-design the best tools possible was a recommendation from the Department of Education’s report on educational data mining and learning analysis.

The school board and RPS administration could look to partner with companies in the VA BioTech Park to develop an improved data input and analysis system. This should be a long-term partnership where continued training and support is given to teachers in applying this new technology, as the common practice with education tech purchases is to dump and run. Applied Predictive Technologies (APT) partnership with DC Prep in Washington, D.C. is an example of a partnership in action.

With the generation of data and analysis, details on how this data will be used and applied will be critical. There are high rewards and risks associated with the power of metrics as a tool for decision making. 

What can be done today?

Well, if you have awesome coding or graphic design skills, then contact Code for RVA and attend one of their Hack Nights. The current project is on the bus tracking and I know they would welcome another hand. Also, if we are going to build out an open budget website like Oakland, then more minds will be needed.

For those less tech savvy people, like myself, a good start might be to read over one of the four reports conducted by the City auditor on RPS within the past year. Know what these recommendations are and contact your school board and city council members to make sure that these findings are being implemented.
Finally, be an advocate for increased technology spending in education to aid teachers and administrators. Hopefully this will one day involve a key partnership with a technology firm that will provide long-term training and follow up.

In the short term, a great first step would be to listen to teachers by conducting a survey to determine actual technology needs. For example, a trend I experienced in education was spending on Smart Board technology. In the Ohio middle school where I taught I used one, and really did not see that great of an impact on the effectiveness of my instruction. When it came time to possibly purchase one as a high school teacher in Virginia, I recommended to my administration that I did not need one and that dollars would be better served in another capacity. By starting with the individuals who will most use the technology on a daily basis, teachers and students, we can learn how to more effectively target investment of limited resources.

In the end, what we need is more effective use of technology, not just abundance.

Continue reading for Partnership #4: Marketing!