By Jennifer Kotila
“It’s not all balloons and seashells, but based on the number responding, I think the environment is good. But there is a lack of communication,” Dr. Bruce Miles told the Dassel-Cokato School Board last Monday.
Miles is the consultant from Big River Group the district hired to interpret and summarize the Success Indicators Survey recently completed by students, staff, and parents throughout the district.
The district has a long relationship with Miles, who assisted with curriculum writing in the early 2000s, has assisted in three school board retreats, and has also assisted the board with strategic planning.
“(The respondents) were hard on the problem, easy on the people,” Miles noted of the comments respondents left in the survey. “(They said) they want to see adjustments and changes, but did it without throwing rocks.”
The district received high scores from respondents, and also received feedback in the comments portion of the survey.
Overall, the general satisfaction is pretty good, noted the graduate student who assisted Miles in compiling the data.
Responses to the questions on the survey ranged from one to four, with one being strongly disagree and four being strongly agree. Based on the questions asked, most respondents are generally satisfied, with each building receiving an average score between 2.9 and 3.1.
Miles and his assistant also analyzed the comments received from parents, students, and staff on the survey, finding the popular trends and summarizing them.
“Your students believe this place rocks,” Miles said, noting that many parents also praised the district in the comments section. “But you’ve got some speed bumps to overcome with employees. I think you can get over that.”
Miles also commented that a survey of this nature should be conducted more often than just every four years, noting the district spends 85 to 90 cents of every dollar on its staff and students.
“I would recommend, in the future, you do this on a much more regular basis,” Miles said.
He also noted he was not a fan of surveys where respondents were asked to rate their satisfaction with predetermined statements.
“I’m a big fan of open-ended question,” Miles said. For instance, asking respondents what two to three things are going right, and what two to three things need improvement.
“This survey is good from 30 to 40 feet, but an open-ended survey gets right to the ground level,” Miles added.
Another bit of information Miles shared with the board was that the population can generally be divided into thirds; one-third will always give others the benefit of the doubt, giving them a pass; one-third is never satisfied and always unhappy; and then those in the middle.
“Focus on the group in the middle and get them satisfied,” Miles told the board.
Dassel Elementary School had a combined average overall satisfaction score of 3.09, which is the highest of all the schools surveyed. Parents had an average score of 3.36; students, 3.3; certified staff, 3.14; and non-certified staff, 2.57.
Miles noted that any district’s population of non-certified staff are more likely to live within the school district than its certified staff, and can make or break a vote for a levy or referendum.
“You have some work to do with your non-certified staff,” Miles said, noting they were often the least satisfied group in each building.
Although a score of 3.09 is the lowest it has been compared to previous surveys taken (1999-00, 2003-04, 2007-08), where the score ranged from 3.23 to 3.35, it was noted that it is still a strong satisfaction score.
Certified staff commented that the district is the best they have worked in, and the staff has a great relationship. However, communication amongst staff could improve to decrease conflict.
Parents were happy with Dassel Elementary, noting it was a “fantastic” school. They thought staff worked well together, cared about the students, and are welcoming.
Students also shared positive comments regarding the school and their teachers.
The overall combined average satisfaction score for Cokato Elementary was 2.91, with students being the most satisfied. Students’ general satisfaction score was 3.35; parents, 3.16; certified staff, 2.68, and non-certified staff, 2.43.
Again, this year’s scores showed the least satisfaction of previous years, when scores ranged from a low of 3.09 to a high of 3.25.
Communication was again noted as an issue amongst both certified and non-certified staff, with some certified staff noting a decline in performance and communication in the last couple of years.
Non-certified staff noted they would like the sense of community and relationships between staff to improve.
Parents again praised the performance of the school, and the fact they feel children are truly cared about at the school. Students were also very complimentary to the school and teachers.
At the middle school, the overall combined average satisfaction score was 2.91. Non-certified staff again gave the lowest score, at 2.61; students, 2.95; parents, 3.03; and certified staff, 3.06.
A score of 2.91 is again the lowest of previous surveys, where the scores ranged from 3.04 to 3.12.
Certified staff commented the climate within the middle school was very good, with staff working as an open and honest team. However, they also noted a lack of communication at all levels and wanting their voice to be heard.
Non-certified staff noted they were impressed with the current staff and administration’s abilities and willingness to work with a new type of staff and personnel in the district.
Parents praised the school’s performance for educating their children, but said they did not feel bullying was being addressed properly.
Students really liked school and their teachers.
The overall combined average satisfaction score at the high school was 2.96. Non-certified staff were the most satisfied, with a score of 3.33; parents, 2.87; certified staff, 2.85; and students, 2.8.
For the high school, this year’s score of 2.96 is the highest compared to previous years when the score ranged from 2.63 to 2.85.
Superintendent Jeff Powers noted that he thought it was interesting that, despite the problems at the high school this year, the general satisfaction score is the highest it has ever been.
Both certified and non-certified staff said the climate at the high school was positive, focused on the student, and the district was a wonderful place to work.
Certified staff noted communication could improve, and most of the climate issues stem from miscommunication.
Parents praised the environment and opportunities DC has to offer, and thought DC was an excellent school overall, However, they also said the survey questions do not address the correct problem, and there should have been more questions regarding staff and administration.
Students also noted the survey did not ask questions about the problems that need to be discussed, and other topics needed to be included in the survey.
Students also shared their thoughts that the tardy policy is harsh and needs to be changed.
One observation noted by Miles and the graduate student was that many of the negative comments from respondents did not mirror their satisfaction with the district’s performance.
Many of these same respondents also noted they were not happy with the questions asked, saying it did not give them a chance to rate the “real” problem. However, the survey asked specific questions regarding the respondents’ satisfaction of the same topics.
Improving communication amongst all staff, as well as with parents, should help to decrease conflict and improve satisfaction.
With the changes that have taken place in recent years, and more to come next year, Miles recommended a change management program.
Miles offered a list of recommendations for the district, including working to more accurately diagnose problems and improving communication at all levels.
The district should also continue to improve and maintain a positive climate, environment, and employee engagement, as well as to focus on the student.
Although it was recommended to focus on the overall average score so outliers do not overshadow the true satisfaction score, the district should also decide how to more accurately understand the concerns mentioned by the outliers.
As for the perception that not enough is being done to prevent bullying in the middle school, it was recommended that effort be increased to more accurately measure and intervene when students are being bullied.
Miles also recommended that this survey be a starting point for the district, and it should continue collecting data regarding the climate, communication issues, and satisfaction through focus groups and qualitative survey methods.
It was also recommended that the district implement change management techniques when going through large changes.
For instance, communicate all changes being made across all groups, and incorporate a recognition system for high performance, communication efforts, and successes within the district.
Board/administration reactions, questions
After Miles finished his presentation, Powers noted the district’s goals are already roughed out from its recent planning session.
“One thing we can do is put the issues raised here right in those goals,” he said, noting one of the broad goals is already communication.
School Board Member Mark Linder noted that there should be an additional set of eyes when formulating the goals, not just the administration.
He also commented that he would like to see a breakdown of which group in the district most lacks communication.
School Board Member Richard Tormanen noted the information was presented in a way in which it was hard to discern whether dissatisfaction was geared towards the administration, the board, or teachers.
Miles noted the next step would be to break that down further to find out more about people’s concerns and where they lie.
Powers noted the board has to be careful regarding that issue, saying individuals cannot be identified due to data privacy laws.
However, he also said it is an issue he will work on next fall, asking staff questions about where the lack of communication lies.
“The challenge with communication, for me personally, is we somehow have to educate the public on what can and cannot be communicated, and how it can be communicated,” Tormanen added.
School Board Member Irene Bender commented that better communication has been a district goal for several years, and maybe it is too broad of a goal.
Since better communication may mean something different at each building, School Board Member Rebecca Clemen recommended setting communication goals for each building separately.
Because there will be management changes at two buildings this fall, Powers noted some time should be given to those individuals before communication in those areas is assessed.
He also pointed out that a perceived lack of communication often does not mean an individual or group is not heard, but it is a case of “I did not get what I wanted.”
“There’s nobody here that does not want things to be better,” Powers said.
The board also heard a presentation regarding the 2014-15 budget, and discussed its options regarding the operating levy. Look for more information regarding those topics in next week’s Enterprise Dispatch.