The Blaine County School District made good Monday night on a commitment to listen to the public as district officials and patrons talked face-to-face about quality education.
"What makes a great education and how do you define it?" asked school board Chair Julie Dahlgren in stating the theme for a "listening session" at the Wood River Community YMCA in Ketchum.
The meeting was the second organized effort this school year on the part of the district to engage the public. A "town meeting" to discuss communications with the public was held last November at the Community Campus in Hailey.
Monday night's meeting took on a different format than the earlier meeting, which was primarily a large group discussion. Instead, breakout sessions were held, facilitated by district teachers, to tackle five topics as defined in the district's strategic plan on quality education. The meeting format allowed attendees to participate in two different discussions with a short mid-point break for refreshments.
About 80 people attended. About a third of them were district employees or board members, and the rest were parents and other district residents.
Teachers Kate Parnes and Jana Fitzpatrick facilitated a discussion on "teaching/classrooms" while district Superintendent Lonnie Barber kept notes on a flipchart.
"I've always thought the most important thing is the teacher—the teacher sets the tone," parent Millie Reidy told the group.
That's especially true in elementary school, she added
Parent Lia Johnson said she is mostly pleased with the education her two children receive in the district, but added that there is more need for parental involvement.
"I think it's nice when parents are invited to be in the classroom, and I've had varying degrees of that," Johnson said. "I think parents should be invited in and really serve as a resource."
In response to a question from Johnson, district Assistant Superintendent John Blackman, a former teacher and principal, said parental involvement is lacking at the high school.
"It's a little tough at high school because they don't want their parents around," Blackman said. "We need more interaction for sure, but it's very challenging at that level."
Barber took off his superintendent's hat, so to speak, for a moment and commented as a parent.
"I have a daughter in the fifth grade in Bellevue and I think it's very important for a teacher to know where each individual is coming from," he said.
Participants seemed to agree that keeping student-teacher ratios low was a good idea.
"I would say 20 is a good number," Johnson said.
Parent Amy Nilsen, in the second group to discuss the topic, agreed that low student-to-teacher ratios are desirable, but "may not be possible in this economic day and age." Nilsen stressed that parental involvement is crucial.
"Teachers need to be open to suggestions from parents because I think I know my daughter better than she does," Nilsen said. "Do parents want to see a difference? Go talk to a teacher—get on a first-name basis."
Elsewhere at the YMCA, group discussions were held on four other topics: rigorous curriculum, 21st-century skills, technology and educating the "whole child."
District officials intend to compile the suggestions and incorporate them where possible into future plans and policies.
Board members briefly discussed what they'd learned when attendees convened at the end of the breakout sessions.
"As I leave the school board, I get more impressed about how smart our community is," said Dahlgren, who is not seeking re-election this year.
Trustee Steve Guthrie said the meeting confirmed his belief that education needs to be a communitywide endeavor.
Trustee Kathryn Graves said more listening sessions will be held in the future.
"Technology is a great tool, but it will never replace teachers," Trustee Paul Bates said.
"I think we've learned something—we've got a lot of notes to review and we'll move forward," Barber said.
Terry Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org