Twenty Tables

What sort of event would bring over 150 students, teachers, parents and administrators to the Boston Latin School cafeteria on an unseasonably warm Monday night? A holiday concert? the hypnotist? a basketball game? free pizza, courtesy of the Boston Latin School Association? a student play?

Any of these could well have been the case, but on this past Monday night that many people sat in groups at 20 round cafeteria tables to provide visionary input to the school’s strategic planning process. Why strategic planning? Isn’t that a navel-gazing exercise that only a consultant could love (and get paid for)? Doesn’t the strategy of a 376-year-old institution plan itself?

Maybe, but the Boston Latin School Association (which is picking up the tab), the school’s administration and at least the 150 people who gave up an evening to sit on extraordinarily uncomfortable seats and talk to each other about the school’s future apparently feel otherwise. The Parent Imperfect was there, overcoming his justified hesitation to join any group that would have him as a member.

The night began with a little schmooze, accompanied by a half hour of perfect mood making from the school’s impressive Jazz Combo. After calming his hunger with pizza and bottled water, the PI found his way to his pre-assigned table. To his surprise, luck had placed him at a table with three teachers (Calculus, Statistics and French), another parent and the school’s Headmaster. The Lord works in strange ways at BLS.

Ms. Moody-Teta brought the evening to order, welcomed people and introduced Jay Vogt, a well-known local planning consultant contracted by BLSA and the Headmaster to lead the process. Vogt explained that this evening was one step in year-long process to create a strategic vision for the school. Each attendee was present tonight as a representative of one of the schools primary “stakeholder” groups.  (One expects that even the limited randomness of the “Sorting Hat” was set aside for the creation of this list). The PI knew of the process because he had participated in a session for parents a few weeks earlier.

This crowd, which included most of the parents who had been involved in that earlier session, would be offering its answers to two questions: (1) What competencies will be most important to the graduating student of the future at BLS? and (2) What are your hopes and dreams for the BLS as it welcomes a new set of students in ten years?

Each table held a discussion of about 1/2 hour on each of those questions, and then reported back to the entire group the main points of their discussion. The PI’s table had a lively discussion of the skills necessary to graduating BLS student of the future. The PI quickly realized that his was among the few tables that did not include a student, which was unfortunate. His group somehow chose him to report back to the large group, and he couldn’t think quickly of a good excuse not to do it. At the appointed time, he rose and rattled off one long, run-on sentence saying that his group felt that the student of the future would need to incorporate graphical and visual logic into their critical thinking toolbox, would need to be able to apply their education to concrete problem-solving challenges, would need to be a master of technology and possess skills in cross-cultural communication that included, but were not limited to, command of a language besides English.

The PI couldn’t imagine sitting through twenty mini-presentations like his, but he actually enjoyed this part of the meeting. Many of the presenters were students and, thankfully, they did not disappoint.

Voigt had asked the participants to listen for the sounds of “common ground,” and there was a good deal of it in this carefully chosen group. Most of the points highlighted by the PI echoed the sentiments of other groups around the room. If the idea was to create the feeling that people in and around BLS had a lot in common, the meeting probably achieved that.

The second session on “hopes and dreams” proceeded, very much like the first one. For the most part, presenters stayed away from the kinds of controversial topics that generate so much heat in “The Village,” the mail list that attracts some of the more vociferous (at least online) parents in the community.

It was left to some of the student presenters to risk becoming “skunks at the lawn party.” In outlining her table’s hopes and dreams, one young woman took a deep breath and said that her group hoped for a culture at the school that was “diverse, welcoming and compassionate.” Before anyone could feel too uncomfortable about the comment, she followed it with, “which isn’t to say that it isn’t that way now…’ Several people laughed nervously, but the point had been made.

Later on, a young man followed his colleague deeper into testy territory. “We feel that since our school has some of the best students in the city, that it should also have some of the best teachers.” To say this in a room populated by as many as 40 teachers took uncommon gumption, and at least 100 people immediately inhaled at once. His follow-up released only part of the air… “which we already have now.”

The unforgiving, less-than-compassionate nature of the school’s culture and the perceived unevenness in the quality of the  teaching corps are among several big divisive issues at the school. That issues like these caused so much holding of breath when students courageously introduced them suggests that they challenged the boundaries of “polite” debate about the school.

All of us who respected those boundaries (more or less) owe the young people who stretched them a great debt of gratitude. Common ground reached without addressing these and other touchy issues will provide a flimsy basis upon which to rest any vision for the future. It is clear from the wilds of The Village that discussion of these issues can easily disintegrate into dismissive and disparaging dissing, but risking such a turn is a risk the school must take if it seeks a vision to unite and inspire.

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