Reflection on the Listen and Learn: We Are Ann Arbor Tour

Pioneer's Listen and Learn meeting on Nov. 7, 2013.
Pioneer’s Listen and Learn meeting on Nov. 7, 2013.

Everything good in life – a cool business, a great romance, a powerful social movement – begins with a conversation. Talking with each other, one to one, is human beings’ most powerful form of attunement. Conversations help us understand and connect with others in ways no other species can. – Daniel H. Pink, 2012, To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others

As you may know, we have been on a Listen and Learn tour of each of Ann Arbor’s neighborhood Public Schools, visiting and engaging with staff, parents, students and community members in each of our 32 schools as well as in various other meetings across the Ann Arbor community. The tour, which began on September 19 and wrapped up on December 16, has proven an insightful way to engage face-to-face in meaningful dialogue with our AAPS stakeholders.

In these meetings, we have used a World Cafe approach ( to facilitate a discussion of four critical questions:

  1.  What do we celebrate at our school and in Ann Arbor Public Schools?
  2. What areas need our attention?
  3. What do we dream that Ann Arbor Public Schools will be known for in 10-15 years?
  4. What are the top 3 priorities you would like to see the Superintendent address?

In addition to hearing from staff, parents, students and community in discussion of the four questions, we are also coming to understand the individual stories of each of our 34 schools, their unique historical contexts, current challenges, goals and hopes for the future.

Dr. Swift listens to Tappan staff at the Dec. 16 Listen and Learn stop.
Dr. Swift listens to Tappan staff at the Dec. 16 Listen and Learn stop.

What We Heard: A Preview

A number of themes have emerged across the Listen and Learn sessions, and we look forward to sharing an analysis of the data, a report, and a video beginning on January 22, 2014. A team of researchers from the University of Michigan is completing the analysis and report.

In experiencing these many visits, however, I can share a few of the resonant themes that have emerged initially as I have listened in meetings across the city.

Ann Arbor Values Neighborhood Schools

An overarching pattern emerging in the Listen and Learn conversations is the tremendous value our Ann Arbor community places on strong, quality neighborhood schools – I have heard this theme reiterated everywhere I have visited.  In Ann Arbor, there is a fervent desire to ensure quality educational programming within every neighborhood and for every child. In neighborhood schools, there exist strong connections to history, to generations that have attended, graduated, and returned to Ann Arbor, even to their local neighborhoods, to raise children. Ann Arbor residents express amazing pride in sharing stories about the role of schools as the neighborhood ‘hub.’ Parents may deliberately choose housing based on school location, and local PTOs are a vibrant connector within the school community, and numerous connections – such as partnerships to enrich learning – remain strong. Ann Arbor residents pride themselves on maintaining the quality neighborhood elementary school as other districts have implemented a ‘bigger box’ approach to schooling.

Ann Arbor Values: a Rigorous, Broad-based Education of the Whole Child

Also, there is a mantra among parents and staff in Ann Arbor around providing a quality, broad-based education designed to develop the whole child. A foundation in rigorous academics as well as rich arts, extracurricular activities, and Rec & Ed programming are highly valued across Ann Arbor. The commitment to offer the whole package is a value that is widely shared along with a desire to individualize for the instructional needs of each child. Ann Arbor residents value an integrated, humanities, math, and science-focused education; the national trend to ‘narrow the curriculum’ is an approach that Ann Arbor Listen and Learn respondents resist in favor of a broad, rich learning experience.

Along with emerging core value themes, we have also heard about areas in the system where our stakeholders indicate we should work to improve:

Areas Needing Attention: Budget Transparency & Resolution

Ann Arbor Public School stakeholders have reiterated their expectation that District budget processes and decisions are ones vetted through numerous opportunities for community input and feedback. Both staff and parents are fatigued from multiple years of significant back-to-back reductions. Staff and parents recognize that dramatic reductions in funding at the state level have made the task of funding local schools increasingly challenging. Respondents share that, however difficult the decisions, they want strong leadership to be accountable, to communicate, to innovate, and to make courageous decisions with regard to budget. The desire is that Ann Arbor will become better situated to achieve an overall sound fiscal approach, balancing short-term needs, preserving a quality educational experience, and achieving long-term sustainability.

Areas Needing Attention: Assessment Practices

Ensure that assessments to clearly understand and monitor student progress are well balanced with the quality observations of a master teacher in evaluating overall student performance. Ann Arbor staff and parents want to ensure that we steer away from a system of excessive assessment that can result in an out-of-balance approach to quality teaching and learning.

Areas Needing Attention: Challenging All Learners & Meeting the Individual Needs of Children

Parents want to ensure that we attend to the individual needs of students, including those performing beyond grade level, those with special needs, and those who require additional support to be successful while also attending to the needs of all those other students who are learning at levels somewhere in-between.

Areas Needing Attention: Building Upkeep, Cleanliness, and Curb Appeal

Parents also value ensuring our buildings are clean, attractive environments that are safe, warm and welcoming places for students, staff, and community. Caring more attentively to our physical buildings and having the appearance of our buildings as a point of pride in the community is an area where we will need to focus some additional resources.

Community members could also submit individual feedback, which will be included in the data analysis by the University of Michigan School of Education.
Community members could also submit individual feedback, which will be included in the data analysis by the University of Michigan School of Education.

Some Current Next Steps:

1) Assessment Advisory Board

Right away in January, we will post an online request for applications for prospective members (staff, parents, community members) to join an Assessment Advisory Group whose task will be to examine current assessment practices, understand state requirements which are currently changing, clarify thinking, and bring forward proposals to inform an amended Assessment Plan for 2014-2015.

2) Project Sparkle

We are emphasizing, beginning over winter break, the importance of achieving sparkling, clean, well-cared-for learning environments in every school. Staff are investing extra time over this winter break to more thoroughly clean ‘bathrooms and corners’ so that our Ann Arbor pride shines trough in the cleanliness of every building.

3) Listen and Learn Analysis

We are in ongoing communication with our research partners from the University of Michigan who are analyzing the Listen and Learn responses. They will be compiling the many individual and group responses to determine the patterns that emerge and publishing a report that reflects a careful analysis of what our community has shared about Ann Arbor Public Schools.

4) Blue Ribbon Advisory Board

We have begun initial work together with community leaders from across all sectors including partners from business, nonprofit, higher education, and municipal entities. This Blue Ribbon Advisory group will weigh in on our Listen and Learn findings, and will meet from November to June of this year to explore, advise, and challenge the work. The Blue Ribbon Advisory Group serves as a community-based advisory, a think tank, and a sounding board.

5) Listen and Learn: We Are Ann Arbor Report

We will be sharing the Listen and Learn report and next steps with the community beginning on January 22, 2014. We will coordinate meetings across the community as well as share the report via video and online mechanisms so that all have the opportunity to share in what we have learned from this process.

Thank you for your participation in this Ann Arbor community dialogue. We are coming together as a community to better understand specific steps we can take to extend and enhance the quality for which Ann Arbor is already well known. I am proud of the extremely high level of engagement in this Listen and Learn process.

Thank you for participating in this community conversation that will illuminate the ways we can grow together. We have important work to accomplish together – after all, our children are counting on us.

Thank you, Ann Arbor, for the opportunity to serve,

Jeanice Swift

Superintendent of Schools

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