All great things happen through conversation.
A great school, in part, is defined by a relationship between the district and its community. Without a conversation between the entities, there is misalignment.
“I don’t want that for this district,” Superintendent Brad Saron said Thursday.
This conversation began with a forum Thursday night at the Avalon Hotel in Chippewa Falls. The intention, Saron said, is to define the district’s goals through public feedback.
The three-day Community Conversation for Educational Excellence was the first of its kind for the district, as far as Beverly Garrison could recall. Garrison was the executive assistant to former Superintendent Robert Halmstad in the 1960s, at a time when only one struggling student in need of extra assistance applied for help.
Maybe nothing shows the changes in the landscape of education more so than an historic viewpoint from a former educator.
But that was all by design, too.
The committee charged with arranging and designing the forum formally invited 350 community members who could deliver a wide range of viewpoints on the subject of education.
From families to service groups like police- and firemen, the committee set its sights on variety. And of those invited, about 130 people attended.
Lisa Gibson, executive assistant to Saron and the school board, said the goal was from there to 150 participants.
“This is fantastic,” said Drew Howick of Madison, who is in charge of leading the conversation. Over the last three decades he has assisted more than two dozen districts in Wisconsin.
“There are two dimensions to participation,” Howick said. “One is the number of participants. What’s more important is who’s in the room.”
In his opening speech, Howick told the participants that they were the right group of people, since they made the decision to attend the forum.
Gibson mentioned that about 40 percent of those involved are parents.
“That is remarkable,” Howick said, adding that this was one of the largest groups he has seen for any K-12 district, especially for the size of the community. “It says a lot about interest in the district.”
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One of those parents is Dan Lea, who attended schools in the Chippewa Falls School District, and whose mother taught in it.
Lea’s own children are now enrolled in the district, And he said that was a factor in his decision to attend the forum.
“I appreciate what (the district) did for my whole family,” he said.
Chad Burger, too, used to be a student in the district and now is a business education teacher at Chippewa Falls Middle School.
“I feel like the district has opened a lot of doors for me,” he said. “It’s unbelievable what they offer here.”
Thursday night’s event prompted dialogue between the seated guests at about 15 tables. Focusing on the past, table members were asked to recall major global, individual and district-wide events from each decade, dating back to the 1960s.
The younger generations with no insight into the earlier decades were expected to learn from their forum peers, all in an effort to build community.
“Participation is a key word,” Howick said. “You can’t just attend this type of event.”
Even the opening performances from Chi-Hi’s Harmonics group hinged on the theme of building community.
After participants were given a few minutes to jot down ideas for each decade, each table was dismissed to large butcher block sheets taped to the wall to publicize some of their memories.
By the end, color from the permanent markers was splashed over the blocks with phrases from, “Monica (Enough said!)” in the 1990s global section, to “Pure Water Days” in the community section of the 1960s block.
Friday’s events pivoted around the present, and Saturday’s around the future.
The information retrieved from the forum will eventually be compressed into goals that will inform district priorities for the upcoming year.
The priorities haven’t officially been modified since 2005, and engaging the community in a forum to determine these goals was part of Saron’s entry plan that he presented to the school board last year.