Famed author Paulo Coelho once said, “The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.” These words, so eloquently stated, live in the heart of every advocate. We lead with our service. This type of leadership was evident last week as I joined school board officials, parents, community members and the dedicated team at ConnCAN to launch Board Watch in Norwalk. Board Watch is a grassroots effort in democracy which places trained volunteers in Board of Education meetings to observe and report on school governance.
As the parent of a public school fifth grader and as an engaged activist, I have seen many talented parents shy away from advocacy because they lack the confidence to take on the system. Navigating the political, social and economic world in which education resides can be daunting. In Norwalk, our school board is currently battling rampant health care costs, teacher contract negotiations, preparing to build new facilities to accommodate a growing population and looking at innovative ways to raise the bar and lower the achievement gap.
These are all complex issues with few easy solutions. Into this arena we ask parents and community members to show up; to advocate; to be heard, and this can be intimidating. Fortunately, ConnCAN has been able to bring sufficient resources to Norwalk, to work with the community, to organize, and to train volunteers to be effective advocates.
Norwalk is the sixth largest city in Connecticut, and we spend about sixty cents of every tax dollar on education. With that we buy what we hope is an effective grounding in life for our children. We are all heavily invested in our schools, yet Board of Education meetings are often sparsely attended and community oversight is lacking. Borrowing a concept piloted by A+ Schools in Pittsburgh, ConnCAN has adapted a Board Watch model of citizen advocacy that we hope will soon roll out in every town and city across the state.
The program begins with identifying and training volunteers in best practices and educating them in the political landscape and the major issues confronting policy makers. Volunteers are coached on how to evaluate meetings and provide meaningful feedback, which results in report-card style grading of board performance. This grading is made public while more subjective feedback is provided to individual board members on an ongoing basis. This helps members with self-evaluation and makes them better public servants.
As with any publicly financed system, we expect a robust conversation around the best ways to fund our schools and improve student outcomes. As a father and an advocate, guaranteeing quality education is high on my list of priorities. Board Watch is not going to bring about positive change on its own. Rather, it is an innovative and valuable tool that promotes collaboration, makes us all more informed and inspires us to better citizenship.
Norwalk is proud to be the first city in Connecticut to launch such a program, and we are committed to improving school governance. An effective Board Watch program helps build the public trust, makes policy more transparent and sets standards of civility and accountability for our elected officials. ConnCAN is hoping to launch Board Watch in other communities throughout the state. We encourage you to follow our lead and become more effective advocates. We can change the world together by setting a strong example as engaged citizens.
Michael Byrne is a Norwalk parent, Board Watch volunteer and member of the School Governance Council