From Battle Ground to Common Ground in Washington State
Summary: Bringing in a new approach to communication this superintendent turned her district from one of divergent priorities, lack of trust, teacher dissatisfaction, low student achievement, and dismal community support to one of improved parent satisfaction, low teacher turnover, raising achievement scores, and declining need for disciplinary actions.
In 1996, Washington State’s Battle Ground School District was unfortunately living up to its name. One school board member was suing the board for violating the state’s open meetings law. Board members' priorities were diverging; shared reservoirs of trust and respect were nearly empty. Teachers were set to strike. Student achievement was low; ditto community support.
Today the district still has its ups and downs, but of a different sort: Achievement scores are up; expulsions are down. Graduation rates are up; teacher turnover is down; parent satisfaction is up. How did the district turn itself around? With the help of a new superintendent, a new philosophy and new approach to communication.
According to Superintendent Rochonne "Shonny" Bria, by the time she arrived on the scene, “There was a lot of distrust throughout the district.” On top of board woes, teachers decided to strike over pay issues. The district responded with an injunction forcing them back to work. Three levies failed to pass, the district was a few thousand dollars short of bankruptcy, and it used a bond to build a different school than originally planned.
To make matters worse, poor student achievement plagued the district. “We knew that to progress we had to get all of this resolved,” said Bria. “To get the best education for students you have to engage as many people as possible.” And that’s exactly what Battle Ground did.
A new approach
To bring about vital change, the school board needed a new philosophy—one that would guide district employees, teachers, administrators, central office staff, and even school board members to communicate, solve problems, and negotiate in an effective manner. A new approach was also needed that included the philosophical concepts everyone wanted and the practical communication tools they needed.
Getting started required the assistance of an expert. That’s where Bria came in. A former Arizona superintendent, she had broken ground there with the Interest Based Approach (IBA) and had gotten good results. She saw Battle Ground as a “wonderful opportunity to try the philosophy elsewhere.”
The Interest Based Approach, originating from the Harvard University Negotiation Team, is a non-adversarial method for reaching decisions and for understanding and being understood throughout the decision-making process. IBA helps people think holistically about issues rather than focusing on particular problems. By encouraging disputing parties to explore underlying interests they are, in effect, defining the problem and giving it new dimensions. Only then can they discover shared interests and possible solutions. While it seems like a simple communication tool, IBA brings about a cultural shift that gets everyone to think about issues differently and collectively.
Reprinted with the permission of the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding. © 2007, Center for Parent/Youth Understanding
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