The Switch

I was sitting at a table at Franklin High School in Portland when it happened. I was attending a site council meeting in their library.

Years before my wife and I had cut a deal. If we were going to have our kids in the public school system, we had to be involved with their schools. The success of our kids was directly tied to the success of their schools.

She committed to being involved in the annual auctions that raised money as a meager firewall against the wrath of financial cuts that the school system continually faced.

Me? I committed to being on their site councils.

By Oregon law, site councils are set up in each public school to bring together parents, teachers, and sometimes students, to oversee the school culture and professional development programs. Each year they help craft their schools School Improvement Plan (SIP) that is submitted to the district.

In truth, many site councils are fairly meaningless and the principal often ends up writing most of the SIP. I was really there to build relationships in the school to help my kids navigate their school experience.

One of our concerns with having our kids in large public schools was that they might get lost. By developing relationships with the principal and key teachers, we could help keep on eye on the support infrastructure that was around our kids while they were at school. Numerous times these relationships were helpful when things went sideways with our kids. Which, occassionally, they did.

The Franklin High School Site Council was the fourth site council I had sat on. I knew the ropes pretty well by then.

So there we were, sitting in the library, discussing that year's student survey that would help shape the writing of the SIP. At previous schools, I had helped run these surveys using my company's web-based survey technology. My company at that time was designing and running sophisticated multi-branching surveys for global brands so this was an area I was fairly familiar with.

The council members wanted to do the same simple paper-based surveys with the students as they had done for many years.

I asked if we might be able to do it online, so students could do it either on their own mobile devices or in the computer labs, allowing us to also have faster and more powerful data analysis.

The pushback was immediate. It couldn't be done. Too complicated and the computers in the lab were too old. No, the only way to do it was by paper with hand tabulation of the data. Welcome to 1995.

Really, for 1,500 students?

And then I asked a question. If we are not able to use technology to better understand the needs and aspirations of our students, in what ways are we introducing them to new technologies to prepare them for the creative economy?

Oh, we have technology classes, I was told. Probing further, I found that they meant a couple of classes teaching students how to use Microsoft Office products. Word. PowerPoint. Excel.

The switch went off. I felt it in my whole body. Outrage? no, not really. But close.

I asked them if they had any idea what I was doing when I wasn't sitting around this table with them in their library. They said, no.

So I began to explain what I did for work, running a software company. I explained that I sat on the Board of the TAO. That, as an organization, we were focused on helping to build the new creative economy in Oregon. But we didn't have the talent needed for this new economy and we were running scared.

And here, in Portland, at the heart of this new economy in Oregon, at one of its largest high schools, we were teaching our kids how to use PowerPoint and thinking that this was sufficient preparation for them to be the makers and creators in this new economy?

You have got to be kidding. I was indignant, that is the word. We were failing our kids. We were failing our future. That was not okay.

But that was not all. I had a personal reason for this outrage. My daughter.