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The Future of Education in Peoria - in Open Space

This first report was posted six months after the event, by event organizer Dave Koehler, at the [Open Space Institute, USA] stories request page. A series of stories and editorials from the Peoria Journal Star follow Dave's report.

See OpenSpaceTechnology/DownloadPublications to download the proceedings document from this event.

Submitted by: David Koehler (
Phone: 309-495-5990
Date submitted: 2002-12-26 15:25:58

June 2002 -- Peoria, IL USA

During the Spring of 2002, Peoria Public School District 150 was anticipating making some big changes regarding school facilities. Some were very controversial, such as closing a high school. What complicated matters was the fact that a new superintendent had been hired, but was not yet in place to give her thoughts on the issue.

To skip ahead in the story... I was invited to the facilities committee meeting to talk to them about doing an Open Space event. This came about because the president of the school board had been involved in prior OS events in Peoria. I told the committee that doing a OS event would be a great way to invite the public into an important discussion (something that had not been done before), but that there was no way that anyone could control the discussion to only the issue of facilities. (Since there was a lot of pent up anger and frustration regarding educational issues in our community), I told the committee that the participants at an OS event would talk about whatever they wanted to talk about and that no one could (or should) stop them.

Another skip... finally I was able to convince enough people that a broad based educational summit type Open Space event ought to take place and that if facilities were on people's minds, then it would come up as a topic of discussion. I also convinced folks to bring in Michael Herman of Chicago to facilitate the Open Space event, since he was one of the most experienced OS facilitators around. They did, and we did, and in three consecutive nights in early June, two to three hundred people talked and talked and talked.

When the closing circle took place on the last evening, it became a real passing of the guard and a transition point for the school district. The outgoing superintendent was reflective and appreciative of the passion and the energy that happened. The new incoming superintendent was almost overwhelmed by that passion and willingness to make education the priority it has never been in our community.

Later in the fall of the year, the new superintendent called community leaders together to announce a new direction for the school district. She wanted to lay out for everyone to see just what she intended on doing in getting things straightened out. On the tables in front of each seat in the room, was a report from the Open Space event, and the 9 top voted priorities that had been voted upon. This was the foundation of what the people wanted and as a community, what we were to achieve.

The power of Open Space can be understood in Victor Hugo's quote, that "nothing can withstand the force of an idea whose time has come."

Fee ensures commitment to District 150 Summit (Response to Pre-Summit Editorial)

June 2, 2002

We thank the Journal Star for its support in the May 24 editorial regarding the upcoming School District 150 Summit. The Peoria Area Labor Management Council is pleased to be able to assist with this effort.

Regarding, however, your criticism of the $15 fee, let me take credit for that. I suggested that this was the best way to proceed because of past experience. When we did the Neighborhood Summit in 1997, there was also a small fee charged and it worked very well.

The reason this is important does not have anything to do with money, although we all know what shape District 150 is in this year. It has to do with commitment. My experience is that if a person has nothing invested, even in a small way, it is too easy to have other priorities come first. This is about taking personal responsibility as well as community responsibility. Not only do people have to show commitment to attend, but they will again have to show commitment to set the agenda once they arrive at the event. (For more information on the Open Space format, visit

If this were a "drop in if you feel like it" situation, then how could anyone adequately plan for how many would be there? From a practical standpoint, how many chairs will you need? How much food do you prepare?

One very positive result of last Friday's editorial was that Jim Sullivan and the Community Foundation have offered to cover the cost of all scholarships. I say thank you very much. This is a good example of community collaboration at work.

I hope that everyone who is passionate about education in our community will respond to the invitation by District 150 and attend the Summit. To register, call 672-6745, or go online at

David Koehler Executive Director Peoria Area Labor Management Council Peoria

Group helps plot the future of Peoria School District

200 people discuss topics including money, class size, discipline, safety

June 4, 2002

By DAYNA R. BROWN of the Peoria Journal Star

PEORIA - Harold Dowell doesn't have any children, but the Peoria resident still cares about what's going on in his city's schools.

"Often I would hear a parent of a school-age child say, 'We want to move because of the schools.' And I started to wonder, are the schools that bad or is it the perception?" Dowell said. "I started to wonder what we could do to change."

Dowell was among nearly 200 people committed to spending three evenings helping plot the future for Peoria School District 150. Monday was the first session.

Participants spent the evening brainstorming and discussing a variety of topics. Dowell's group came up with several ideas on ways to promote the district, including offering tours of schools.

"I had doubts about the process, but I'm impressed how it worked," Dowell said.

There were numerous groups of teachers, administrators, parents, students, business people and community members, and they came from all parts of the city.

"The one thing I know about this group - everyone here cares about the future of education in Peoria," moderator Michael Herman said.

People offered more than 50 topics for discussion, including money, class size, race and diversity, gifted and remedial education, discipline, mentoring and safety.

The parental involvement group talked about forming a districtwide parent-advisory board. The high school completion came up with ways to better engage students.

And the Edison group just talked. More than 30 people from both sides of the debate gathered in one room to discuss the private company that operates four Peoria schools.

Each side was passionate about its views and sometimes tempers flared but only momentarily. All agreed it was a good discussion and brought together two sides that have been squabbling for four years.

"It was very stimulating," said Edison opponent Mimi McDonald?. "But we found out we're not as far apart as both sides thought."

Supporter Ann Galick agreed. "It was a good forum. This group wouldn't have come together otherwise."

But it's OK they didn't reach consensus, said Dave Koehler, executive director of the Peoria Area Labor Management Council, which is helping subsidize the event.

"You are not going to solve issues like that in one hour. There might be a chance for continued dialogue after the event. Communication lines are open, that is always the first step," he said.

Participants paid $15 for a chance to talk about education, although the fee was waived for many. The money was used to cover the meal and snacks provided during the evening, but it also was designed to make people commit to the event.

"It has got to be important to people" or they might not take it as seriously," Koehler said.

Discussions continue from 5:30 to 9:30 tonight and Wednesday at Lincoln Middle School. To register for the final two nights, call 672-6745.

In the end, they will collaborate to create a working agenda and outcomes. The purpose is to create a shared vision for the Peoria Public Schools.

"I think its a marvelous opportunity that allows us to draw from the experience and expertise and knowledge of the community," said incoming superintendent Kay Royster, who was at Monday's summit. "I look forward to utilizing ideas."

Education summit comes to end today

Participants to vote on what they believe District 150 should do

June 5, 2002

By DAYNA R. BROWN of the Peoria Journal Star

PEORIA - For the past two nights more than 200 people have discussed issues of importance to District 150.

Tonight, they each vote on what they think the future should be for the Peoria schools. The decision is the final process in a three-day summit on education, which began Monday.

But the input is only a suggestion. Any decisions will still be up to the School Board and administration. Officials have already indicated they will consider what the group has to say.

"This is only the beginning of the conversation. You have to see this as an ongoing process," said Dave Koehler, executive director of the Peoria Area Labor Management Council, which helped subsidize the cost of the summit.

Parent Tonia Dolan hopes that is the case.

"This is important to me. I want them to use this information but I wonder how long it will take to implement even one thing," said Dolan, the parent of four District 150 students.

About 120 people attended Tuesday nightís session. That number was down significantly from the 175 participants Monday night. Most of those participating were educators, although several parents and community members came to learn more about the schools and voice their concerns.

"As a parent, I wanted to make sure my opinions were being heard," said Maria Johnson, who will have two students in District 150 this fall.

What is important is educating children, Johnson said. Although she knows District 150 has problems, people need to work together to find solutions.

Participants came up with the bulk of discussion topics Monday and added a few Tuesday. People broke into groups, choosing what session they wanted to attend. They had the chance to change topics throughout the evening. Some groups, such as the one on teen pregnancy, were as small as two people. Others, including the one on school facilities, topped 50.

"It does make me feel good to see people who donít even have children, but care enough to come out for this," Dolan said.

Other topics discussed Tuesday night were gangs, perception of the schools, middle school counselors and offering people a choice of schools.

Some of the discussions focused around problem areas for the district, including a large budget deficit, dwindling enrollment and low test scores.

One of the discussion groups concluded that everyone - not just school officials - have to work together to turn things around.

"This is a community problem that needs to be solved," said attorney Don Jackson.

Education summit cites parental support

Community leaders say it is the most important issue facing District 150

June 6, 2002

By DAYNA R. BROWN of the Peoria Journal Star

PEORIA - Getting parents more involved in their childrenís education is the most important issue facing District 150, a group of community members said Wednesday.

This topic was chosen ahead of 49 other topics by people at a three-day education summit. Participants ranked their concerns at the final session Wednesday night at Lincoln Middle School.

"A parent giving a child support, I believe is the most important factor in student achievement," said board president Jan Deissler, who would like to have plans in place by fall to move this issue forward.

The group of 150 parents, educators and community members, suggested implementing family educators, making parents more accountable, providing parent advocates and doing more to welcome parents into the schools.

"I donít think you can require parental involvement, but you can make every effort to help parents understand how important they are," Deissler said.

Other top issues were improving student reading, class size, race and diversity, marketing the district and vocational training.

Moderator Michael Herman said this was a "little bit of a pulse check of where attention and energy lie."

Board members will review all the proceedings for ideas, Deissler said.

"Iím awestruck. . .I can assume you will see many of your recommendations implemented," said incoming superintendent Kay Royster.

Despite an almost $9 million budget deficit for the recent school year, money concerns only ranked 16th.

"Weíre not doing a good job of making the community understand just how serious this budget deficit is," said incoming board member Sean Matheson, who selected money as his top concern.

Board member Garrie Allen also said money was the top concern.

"Weíre going to have to fund things, and weíre up against it. We have to do something about the money situation," Allen said.

But Herman stressed that just because something wasnít ranked near the top doesnít mean it wasnít important.

"None of the other 40 issues are going away but we needed to start someplace," Herman said.

Participants came up with the bulk of discussion topics Monday and added a few Tuesday. People broke into groups both nights to discuss the issues. They voted Wednesday and discussed the outcome.

At the end of the event Wednesday, a microphone was circulated, and people shared their thoughts. All were positive.

Many said they have become more interested in education issues and are anxious to get more involved. Others, suggested a feeling of optimism.

"It is my sincere hope that the momentum that has been generated here is perpetuated," a retired teacher said.

But participants said until the board takes action on these issues, the event wonít be successful. And many promised to be there to help them along.

"I think this is a challenge for the rest of us not to leave it in their hands," said a participant.

School summit a start; more to do (Post-Summit Editorial)

June 8, 2002

When some 200 busy people care enough to show up at a Peoria public school for 12 hours over three nights - many of them paying for the privilege - to talk about how to improve the classroom for 15,000 local students, thereís a lot to like about that.

Mostly, itís a start for a school district with 12 schools on the stateís academic warning list in a community that is trying to reinvent its economy in a high-tech way thatís likely to demand far more intellectually of those very kids. But before we get too carried away, thatís all this is - a start.

Parents, grandparents, teachers, administrators, public officials, a smattering of students and just interested bystanders concerned about the cityís health showed up this week at the District 150 Summit to bandy about some 50 ideas for how those kids can be better served. Unsurprisingly, in a theme participants returned to repeatedly, they said getting the families of those kids to help themselves - increasing parental involvement and responsibility - should be the districtís top priority.

Frankly, you could almost start and stop right there, because if you had 100 percent parent participation in District 150, it would have been necessary to rent the Civic Center for this forum, and lots of other problems - everything from illiteracy to rampant mobility to gang recruitment and intimidation - would largely go away. How District 150 goes about getting parents to be parents is another matter for which no wholly satisfactory solutions were proposed.

Beyond that, participants ranked reading at grade level, reducing class sizes, appreciating race and diversity, marketing District 150, more vocational training, providing educational equality for all students, discipline, the Edison schools and hiring more minority teachers in their Top 10. All of those have merit, though we might have substituted a few of our own.

Indeed, while itís true that District 150 is not all doom and gloom - "We have a room full of missionaries. . . . When people say whatís wrong with the schools, we can go out and tell them whatís right," said one participant - the public relations will take care of itself if test scores rise dramatically. Chronic truancy and mobility - students transferring from school to school throughout the year - would have cracked our Top 10.

Interestingly, the districtís budget woes didnít seem a big concern. Fact is, District 150 simply will not be able to accomplish some of these goals without more money. Itís facing a $9 million deficit next year.

But those are resolvable quarrels. The important thing, for now, is that a District 150 that doesnít exactly have a history of inviting public input did, in fact, ask for help here, that a fair number of people accepted the invitation, and that they were able to put aside their personal agendas - to some degree - to listen to each other, and in many cases to people and points of view they never would have had the opportunity to hear otherwise. Thatís healthy.

Of course, identifying the problems should not be confused with solutions. Platitudes cannot replace programs where real teachers meet real students. Passion is important and was on display here, but itís not much good if it canít be sustained. District 150 has some formidable problems that will not be resolved overnight, or even over many years.

Will these folks continue to show up at board meetings to demand accountability not only from the school board, administrators, teachers and students, but from themselves? Have they really taken ownership of the future of District 150? We shall see if this summit was worthwhile, or just a waste of three June evenings. The real test is yet to come.

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