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When money gets tight communication matters more

Raise your hand if this sounds familiar:

A big city school district finds itself in massive debt. Confronted with waning financial support from local and state lawmakers, the district faces crippling uncertainty that leads to teacher walkouts and parent and community protests. The worst part? The district’s school children are unsure whether they’ll have a school to go to next week, let alone next year.

Chicago is the latest city to find itself in crisis. (Detroit is another—and you can read about that here.) The numbers are staggering. According to Ed Week, the city’s schools have more than $6 billion in structural debt and a $480 million deficit. By the end of this school year, district officials estimate they will have enough cash on hand for two days—two days!—of regular operations.

Balance sheet aside, the true cost of this crisis will be felt in the community, by the students and staff who flee for better schools and by those who, sadly, will be left behind.

Cue the exodus?
What to do amid so much uncertainty? Some have decided to leave.

A recent Ed Week article details the situation in Chicago—and reveals that the crisis has several families, and even a few educators, looking for opportunities outside the city.

Alexandra Escobar, assistant principal at R.H. Lee Elementary School, shocked staff and parents when she announced she was leaving her post. The 33-year-old’s goal had been to spend her entire career in education in urban districts, but the instability in Chicago forced her hand.

Other administrators and teachers are following suit—whether by way of  early retirement or new jobs.

Perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, some parents have decided to move to more stable districts, reports Ed Week.

Asked for her opinion on the crisis there, Wendy Katten, of Raise Your Hand Illinois, told the paper: “I feel like I have been hyper-documenting the Titanic for the last six years.”

Despite improvement, continuing disputes
But even if Chicago is a sinking ship—not everyone can afford, or is willing, to jump on a deck boat—not yet.

For lower income families, who don’t have the luxury of moving to a better-performing district, the only option is to stay and fight for their schools.

District CEO Forrest Claypool isn’t giving up. He has resolved to engage community members in a campaign for more state funding. Claypool’s hope is that a concerted community effort will turn the district around.

There are signs of brighter days. Student achievement, graduation, college attendance, and AP test scores all have improved  in recent years.

Engagement for change
The future of Chicago’s public schools may well hinge on the city’s ability to engage the community in its resurgence.

A lack of passion isn’t the problem. In addition to parents, students have entered the fray—joining teacher protests, and even producing at least one music video about the crisis:

But can the district find an effective way to funnel all this seemingly negative energy into positive reform?

You don’t have to lead a large urban school district in the throes of a crippling financial crisis to understand the impact of uncertainty and doubt on the attitudes of those in your community.

Good or bad, it’s critical for people to understand what’s going on, and to feel like they have a legitimate voice in the conversation. It’s when parents and teachers and students start to feel disconnected from the problem that they start to consider going elsewhere. And that’s when the going really gets tough.

What steps do you take to engage your school community during difficult times? Tell us in the comments.

Looking to keep your community informed and engaged? That effort starts up front, with a conversation.