School community weighs in on effectiveness of feedback
By Isabelle Spence, Editor-in-Chief, Mari Kanagy, Publishing Editor, and Amelia Spence, Reporter
Listening to complaints heard around the hallways, students often make it seem as though the administration’s response to criticism is to simply turn their backs on the problem. Taking a deeper look at the process of giving and receiving feedback within the school, however, reveals that the advice of the community is more heard than what many would first venture to think.
Systems of feedback
The school gathers feedback in a variety of ways. First, the administration conducts a survey every two years to fully understand the students’ perspective on school climate, safety, teachers’ relationships with their students, and more. Additionally, they also send out several more specific surveys or emails throughout the school year that look for feedback about current events or the new implementation of a policy. Both of these survey methods are used to develop and adjust practices of the administration. For example, the data collected using this tactic was responsible for many of the modifications and practices around SMART periods.
“One of the big focal points for Slade [McSheehy] coming in as superintendent for the last year and a half has been to increase our organization’s practices of collecting feedback and using that feedback well,” high school principal Danny Rock said.
The administration is passing this philosophy onto its teachers, and is working to develop a receptive atmosphere.
“Mr. Guss and I work hard to be friendly recipients to feedback,” Rock said. “So we want folks to feel like that when they want to initiate their own personal feedback that they are well received. They see that we do something with the information.”
Rock and the rest of the administration use feedback to shape their decisions.
“It’s not going to be realistic that every time that we ask people’s opinion about something that then we’re going to make a change that reflects their preference, but what is realistic is that we’re going to be able to use their preference to help us make the best possible decision we can for the organization,” Rock said.
Sometimes, this can lead to conflict when the feedback giver doesn’t agree with the decision made on the part of the administration. To combat dissatisfaction, the administration tries to follow-up with the parties involved after a decision has been made.
The high school also hosts Site Council, a meeting space that gives parents the opportunity to meet with members of the administration and ask questions or discuss current issues.
“[When] your student comes to the high school, it’s like, as a parent, you don’t know how to support,” parent Yumi Pringle said “You don’t know how to get the information.”
Parents who have attended these meetings have used them as a way to contribute to the district.
“I really use [Site Council] as a way to get a heartbeat, [and to] get a feel of what’s happening,” Pringle said. “It was good to just hear Danny Rock. It was interesting to also hear other parents and their family, so [it was] informative that way.”
When looking for feedback, Rock considers the different communities within the school.
“There’s three different populations in a school,” Rock said. “There’s staff, students, and parents. All three of them are important and have critical kinds of stakeholder roles in the organization.”
For issues such as new methods of grading, Rock tends to turn to students and teachers. For issues like later start times, Rock would turn to parents and students.
“Depending on what we’re talking about, different stakeholders have different levels of authority to bring to bear on that subject,” Rock said.
Many students believe that, typically, their opinions are not being listened to. Students like junior Roslyn Bellscheidt, however, believe there are options as to how committed students can become more involved in decision making. One such option is the student advisory board (SAB), set up by superintendent Slade McSheehy last year.
“I decided to join the student advisory board because in school, it was really difficult to get my voice beyond somewhere local within the school,” Bellscheidt said. “I wanted to be able to bring my thoughts and opinions up to a higher level of the school district.”
Bellscheidt first joined the SAB because she generally wanted to have a stronger voice in decision making, but she became more impassioned about certain topics as she became more involved with the board. Being on the board, as Bellscheidt puts it, allows students to vocalize any criticism against the school in a more productive way than among friends.
“[McSheehy] is very open to taking feedback, and I think that’s partially why he started the SAB,” Bellscheidt said. “Why I think it’s such a great idea is because obviously it’s very hard for people in the administration to understand what it is like within the school because they’re not students.”
Rock agreed with this sentiment, and wants to facilitate more communication between all parts of the school.
“The biggest problem we have related to folks who have complaints is that they don’t [complain],” Rock said. “They take their complaint to someone who has no ability to make a decision related to their problem, meaning friends, family members, community members, Facebook. … If there was one thing that I wish folks would do more of, it is that they would take their complaints to the person who could do something about it.”
The administration has also received feedback about the school culture, especially around racial equity.
“Three, four, five years ago were particularly challenging years here that had you know, fights in the hallways, kids running around,” Rock said. “Screaming, yelling, police officers in the school trying to get kids out of classrooms unsuccessfully. You know, multiple school evacuations . … It was chaotic. … We had a school cultural problem at that point.”
The administration gathered various sorts of feedback,
“One of the things that we heard really clearly, from our students of color, was that they were feeling targeted, and particularly blamed for the sense that the school was different or, headed in the wrong direction, or there was a problem with culture,” Rock said.
The administration looked for solutions for solutions to this problem, and decided to focus more on race throughout the district.
“Based on that, plus some things going on in the community, we actually launched a district wide focus on racial equity,” Rock said. “And from our district wide focus on racial equity we paid staff to come and work with students and collect their individual feedback.”
One of the biggest issues concerning students and parents alike during the current school year is the district’s switch to standards-based grading (SBG). In early 2019, the district announced that all teachers would be using the new system in the coming years.
“First of all, I’ve listened carefully and tried to make sure that I understand what their concerns and complaints are related to it,” Rock said. “Secondly, is to take the feedback that they’re giving me that will help us make this change more effective … to use it to share with teachers [and] to help it influence decision making.”
ASB co-president Talia Spurlock believes that more could’ve been done to gather student input before making the final decision.
“I think a good example of administration really taking control and not listening to what students have to say is about fully transitioning to [standards-based grading],” Spurlock said.
Because the topic is so contentious among students, Spurlock sees a definite need to involve them more in decision making.
“[SBG] is one thing that students are very split on, and I don’t think the administration took the time to listen to how everyone feels and then articulate that change,” Spurlock said. “Especially with a topic like that — grades — kids are very sensitive about it, so they should be more heard about it, so I think that’s something that [sending out] a survey could really benefit.”
Along with gathering more feedback directly from students, Spurlock believes it would’ve been beneficial for teachers to have direct conversations with students in class. The teachers could then relay some of those opinions back to the administration as means of gathering student input.
Parents echo many of the concerns that students have over SBG.
“We raised very specific concerns, not just like, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t do standards-based grading,’ but ‘these are the concerns that we have with it,’” high school parent Karen Boyle said. “And we never had any specific response saying, ‘Well, we understand that that could be a problem, but we’re going to do this to make sure that doesn’t happen.’ None of that happened. It was just like our work went into a black hole and never came out.”
The administration seems to be aware of the negative responses to the new system, but have decided to go forward with the transition.
“When someone shares feedback, even if it’s in something that ultimately this group of parents [is] still not happy that we’re moving forward with standards-based grading, but some of the feedback they’ve given us has helped us implement it better,” Rock said.