It is a risky and courageous thing to step out of a usual way of doing things to engage others, engage community, differently and this is exactly what the Halifax Regional School Board (HRSB) is doing as it embraces a new school review process. I had the pleasure of being the facilitator for the Eastern Passage School Options Committee (SOC), with the support of Susan MacLeod with graphic facilitation, in what HRSB Board members and the Metro News called “an historic first recommendation under the new school review process”. (There is another process ongoing at this time for Citadel High.)
The whole experience has been a beautiful example of the classic dynamic tension that emerges when an organization or group makes a decision to move to more collaborative, engaging processes from more traditional, top-down driven processes where there has often been little room for strong collaboration to emerge or community voice to truly be heard.
The biggest question, the biggest learning is around what does leadership look like now? The biggest unknown is how much guidance, support and structure to provide so the process and the committee is well supported and has expertise and data to draw on when it comes to making evidence based decisions and how far to back off to let the SOC do its work?
The SOC was mandated with reviewing four schools in Eastern Passage – one junior high school and three elementary schools – to look at grade configurations and school usage. This review became necessary because of previous reviews that recommended a new high school be built in the area with boundary changes to support that development. The new high school will take Grades 9-12, removing the Grade 9s from the junior high, resulting in an underused school and an opportunity.
It was clear that HRSB was committed to acting differently. Staff came to SOC meetings and community conversations when invited. Even the first meeting was different. Well, the very first one was just the SOC. Meeting each other in a new way, reviewing the mandate and beginning to imagine what engagement could look like.
When HRSB staff were invited, it was a meeting of curious equals. Where are we, where do we want to go, how will we get there? HRSB staff answered questions (lots of them), and shared knowledge and expertise that was critical to decision making about optimal school utilization. They provided excellent behind the scenes support on many different needs – publicity and meeting space being two. And they stepped back to leave the decision making process in the hands of the committee. The committee stepped up.
There were three community conversations. Your Voice Matters was the theme. Before, in between and after, the SOC met to design process, plan meetings, review data, provide options and ultimately a recommendation. The purpose of the first community conversation was to present the process and ask community members what they wanted to see included and considered in the process. A world café process was utilized. The second community conversation presented several options and utilized a modified open space format. A recommendation was presented at the third community conversation, which used a full group conversation process that invited the spectrum of opinions and perspectives that existed in the room.
The SOC realized early on that the decision they needed to make would be influenced by a number of factors outside of their control – projected enrolment numbers, English, early and late French Immersion programming considerations and the number of classrooms available in each school. And they operated with a set of principles, two of which were predominate in the discussions: more optimal and balanced use of the school facilities and minimal disruption to students and the community.
The SOC was also as transparent as possible, posting SOC meeting notes, Community Conversation reports and evaluation results and other information on the HRSB website. Members of the SOC felt the responsibility of making the best decision possible on behalf of the community, recognizing that not everyone would be satisfied with the final decision. The second and third community conversation reports included an FAQ section addressing the most common questions and concerned raised by community members.
The SOC also operated clearly with shared leadership and shared responsibility. Each member of the committee played a role in hosting the community conversations and in presenting the final recommendation to the HRSB board. On more than one occasion, there was a tremble in someone’s voice or tears in their eyes, demonstrating the passion they carried for this work and their decisions. A passion which caused them to review data on more than one occasion, be as responsive as they knew how to the questions and concerns of community members and to be fully conversant and committed, as a team, to the final recommendation put forth.
All of this was recognized, acknowledged and affirmed by the response of the school board members. For sure there were questions – good questions – and even more there was a strong validation for the SOC of the many hours and clear commitment they put into a recommendation created by and for community.
Very proud of this mighty group of committed volunteers. And it was an honour to be part of a long established organization stepping into a new pattern of community engagement.