Hello, my name is Meredith and I’m a new feature writer for the Rocketblog. This is the first is a series of posts that will be running through the spring that will be focusing on taking a more in depth look at Rocket Grant projects. I look forward to learning more about each project and sharing with you all.
The Parent Teacher Conference project is tremendously ambitious. Beginning as a music video collaboration between Lyn Cook, King Kihei, and The Recipe KC (Theodore “Priest” Hughes and Desmond “3-3-7” Jones) the project has developed into an initiative to propel the conversation surrounding Kansas City Missouri public schools forward.
Going beyond the music video, the PTC team has created three forums (held at the Mary L. Kelly Center), a survey of students at the Public Library’s digital media lab, and the team is in the process of making a documentary film featuring interviews from both local and national “players” in public education.
The controversy, and concerns, orbiting the Kansas City Missouri public school system range from lack of accreditation to community mistrust of the outdated policies, and absence of student input. Tackling these issues is exactly what the PTC team aims to do – by providing a platform for all perspectives to be heard and understood.
The initial idea for the project came about when members of The Recipe KC were leading a poetry workshop with high school students. The open dialog between the students and artists inspired the song Parent Teacher Conference. Even though the song is a powerful statement in itself the PTC team realized that a direct and fresh approach was needed in order to implement change.
Lyn Cook was brought on as a filmmaker to contribute to the music video, but her role has become much larger. The PTC team decided to facilitate crucial conversations amongst “major players” in the public school debate, so that they could shift the dynamics of a system that seemed to be stuck and begin making viable improvements for the schools.
This past Saturday I attended the first of three forums the group has coordinatedwhich was comprised of a keynote address followed by an interactive workshop. The forum attendees included city council members, community activists, parents, and teachers. Cook, whose background boasts experience not only in film but also psychology and social work, opened the forum. King Kihei, Priest, and 337 followed, offering a dynamic perspective on communication gaps and the power of poetry as a vehicle for students to vent their frustrations.
As Priest pointed out, the Recipe KC members graduated decades apart -in 1984, 1994, and 2003- suggesting that any communication gap in this conversation is not simply generational. He proposed that different sections of the educational community should engage with each other more frequently if they wish to increase understanding on all levels, and called attention to the fact that the current environment students are expected to flourish in has been forced upon them without their consent. The artists discussed how taking the time to engage with the students had impassioned them to use their poetry/music/art to ignite actual change, and had helped them see how an earnest student voice is a crucial need in the development of new educational policies.
The keynote speaker was Spark Bookhart, who said he began his crusade as an angry parent, but arrived at the conclusion that anger is a waste of time if not used in a constructive way. He has now spoken nationally regarding the Kansas City school system and is the author of an anticipated book, The 40 Year Collapse.
Bookhart’s address covered a brief history of Kansas City’s public school politics. He focused on superintendent turnover and the backlash from lawsuits filed by Arthur Benson, the first of which were in 1977 with verdicts affecting policy until 2008. Members of the Kansas City public school system are still wrestling with these repercussions today.
The presentation stimulated a lively Q&A session to follow, and for me the tone of the conversation was surprising. Instead of the emotional tension manifesting in raised voices or tears, everyone in the room was respectful and approached the debate with a sincere desire for improvement. Parents listened to each other, and to teachers and activists with an authentic wish to understand. Everyone wants to see impactful change leading to improvement, and a chance for the public school system in KCMO to succeed in providing its students with everything they need to thrive post-graduation.
This passionate conversation transitioned into the workshop portion of the program that utilized a technique called “design thinking”. Cook’s psychology training was evident as she led participants in the exercise – reflecting her observation that district relations needed “an honest, but healthy dialogue”. The workshop facilitated just that.
Topics raised included: accountability (for teachers, students, and parents); current low expectations of students; standardized testing; over-medication; local and national politics; illiteracy/ lack of reading specialists in schools; critical thinking skills not being taught; and disjointed communities fuelling a poor environment both inside and outside of the schools. The ultimate discovery was that while there may be ferocious disagreements, people are willing to explore all possibilities in order for the necessary changes to take place.
I sat down with Lyn Cook after the first forum was completed to reflect on the project so far. While the team was making the music video the KC public school system was under the threat of becoming state-run because of its lack of accreditation. Cook said she felt a sense that she “had to do something, [to] assume a level of responsibility to her community”. One aspect of the original music video was to include statistics concerning the KCMO school districts. As she started her investigating for the project, Cook said she was shocked at the statistics she was finding .
She reached out to Rocket Grants to fund the “community as art”. The PTC team wanted to get a sense of the community’s perspective on education then share that with an even broader audience through their documentary. They are about halfway through the project and Cook’s biggest shock has been the “us vs. them mentality; the community says the fault rests with the district, the district says it’s the parents, the parents say the problems are with the community. Everyone has a different reason as to why we are where we are with public education.”
On the flip side Cook was happy that school board members were in attendance at the first forum including Kevin Masters (Masters will also be participating in the upcoming policy panel). “It was telling that there is now an attitude of ‘how can we fix/help’ from the upper levels of education.” Cook has been satisfied with the team’s ability to provide a platform for people to get together that otherwise would not, and for people to know they are heard. “It’s deeply rewarding because once the conversation happens we can actually do something!”
Beyond the scope of this project Cook’s immediate need to contribute to a better future for students has also manifested in a new personal venture. She has started Business Allied Scholars, which links students with local business. This is her “own solution to the gaps in education. I work with them (high school students) directly to establish relationships, so that in the event that they are not in a well-performing school they have a way to transition into adulthood.”
Cook is working to establish lasting relationships and solutions in the Kansas City community, and her devotion to radical positive improvement is evident in every component of the Parent Teacher Conference project.
Still to come:
Forum Two: A Policy Class. Participants will learn how to navigate policy-making in the education system.
Held: Saturday January 17, 2015 12:00pm-2:15pm
At: Mary L. Kelly Center 2803 E 51st, Kansas City, MO 64130
Forum Three: An elected officials policy panel discussion
Held: TBA (sometime in February)
At: Mary L. Kelly Center 2803 E 51st, Kansas City, MO 64130
Student surveys will ask current students: what problems they see with the school system; possible ideas they have for solutions; and what a successful school looks like to them. These surveys will be conducted by Marcus Brown, head of the Public Library digital media lab and both Theodore “Priest” Hughes and Desmond “3-3-7” Jones at AC (African-Centered College Preparatory Academy).
Filming will begin Spring 2015