A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Jamie Vollmer speak at the Wisconsin School Public Relations Association annual conference in Stevens Point.

Superintendent Luke Francois provided me with his copy of Jamie’s book “Schools Cannot do it Alone” to read to prepare myself for what might be the topic of the presentation.

If I had been super responsible and prepared, I probably would have read the book prior to attending the conference. However, something made me not want to. I wanted to walk into his speech with a blank slate, no prior ideas planted in my brain of what I was about to hear.

And I’m glad.

Since then, I have read the book and it mixes well with the speech given at the WSPRA Conference.

“Public education is the miracle.”

That strong statement is made in the Introduction. It couldn’t even wait until Chapter One.

“America is the first country on the planet to aggressively pursue publicly funded, equal educational opportunity for all, and the return on our investment has been glorious,” says Vollmer.

However, he is very quick to point out that he is not in defense of the status quo. Schools must change.

“For the first time in history, our security, prosperity, and the health of our nation depend on our ability to unfold the full creative potential of every child. Not just the easy ones, not just the top twenty-five percent of the class,” he says.

From a historical perspective, America’s schools were built to select and sort students into two groups: a small handful of thinkers and a great mass of obedient doers. They were founded on a model by Thomas Jefferson to “rake the geniuses from the rubbish.”

That model might have been effective in the 1700s but it’s not effective now. And it was never moral.

Vollmer stresses he is speaking about a school system problem, not a school people problem, stating staff members are “smart, dedicated professionals doing everything they can to ensure that their students succeed in school and in life.”

He states teachers juggle their disparate tasks before audiences comprised of diverse, distracted, demanding children, many of whom are victims of a pop culture that overstimulates their physiologies, fractures their attention spans, and promotes a bizarre sense of entitlement.

Superintendents and their administrative teams spend their days (and nights) attempting to stretch insufficient resources to meet rising expectations.

Vollmer also mentions what he calls “mandate creep” meaning the ever expanding list of academic, social, medical, psychological, and nutritional responsibilities that has been crammed into an academic calendar that has not grown by a single minute in decades.

But what makes Vollmer’s viewpoint any different than other public education supporters?

Maybe it’s the fact he was once one of the strongest critics of public education around.

Coming from a successful business background, he was asked to serve on a roundtable bringing people together to share ideas on how to improve Iowa’s schools.

“My opinions were largely based upon what I had read and heard in the business press and popular media,” said Vollmer. Some of his thoughts included: an alarming gap between what students knew and what they needed to know; businesses are not getting the kind of workers they needed; the US was falling behind its international competitors; unionized teachers and overpaid administrators were the obstacles to progress. To fix the problem, he believed accountability measures that reward success and punish failure needed to be imposed, along with higher standards.

During one of his speaking tours to school staff, he received a challenge from a teacher that would change his life forever. It’s known by those in the education world as “the blueberry story.”

Being an extremely successful ice cream maker, Vollmer was asked by a teacher if he used nothing but Grade A ingredients, and what would he do if he received a shipment of blueberries that did not meet these high standards?

Vollmer did not hesitate and responded, “I send them back.”

“We can never send back the blueberries our suppliers send us,” said the teacher. “We take them big, small, rich, poor, hungry, abused, confident, curious, homeless, frightened, rude, creative, violent, and brilliant. We take them of every race, religion, and ethnic background. We take them with head lice, ADHD, and advanced asthma. We take them with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, English as their second language, and who knows how much lead in their veins. We take them all, Mr. Vollmer. And that’s why it’s not a business. It’s school!”

This encounter changed Vollmer’s way of thinking forever.

In addition, he quickly learned you cannot change a school without touching the culture of the surrounding community. Everything is fused to local attitudes, opinions, values, and beliefs.

“Again and again, I watched communities reject reforms not because they were irrational, but because they offended local sensibilities. I saw smart, progressive superintendents and their boards mount valiant campaigns to improve student success only to be rebuked and sometimes fired because their plans conflicted with the community’s notions of ‘real school,'” he says.

Not only are public schools up against the previously mentioned challenges, but they are often bashed in very public arenas. “Self-serving politicians portray public schools as dismal failures that they alone can fix, and media pundits blame schools for social ills over which they have no control; a game where false comparisons are made between past and present, public and private, and us versus them.”

So, now that we have identified many problems that exist, what do we do?

Vollmer calls it The Great Conversation to secure community understanding, trust, permission, and support, and, at the same time, inoculate the people of their communities against the ravages of viral negativity.

“The community has the final word regarding the design of their schools, whether or not they come to any meetings.”

True. Every vote counts the same whether the person is informed, believes he/she is informed even if he/she is not, and truly not informed.

Every district desires to have successful community engagement, but as Vollmer states, “The only people to respond are the same twelve parents and the one weirdo who comes to all the meetings.”

The public needs to be reminded that public schools were created to make our democracy a reality and they remain the principal mechanism through which this nation makes good on its fundamental promise of liberty, justice, and opportunity for all.

Here in Mineral Point, I feel we are generally pretty fortunate that we have a community that cares about our kids and their education. We may have very different ideas on how that goal is achieved, but I do believe we want our students to be the best they can be.

This Great Conversation, however, can offer many benefits according to Vollmer. Understanding of schools is key and builds trust and respect. Adults who have long since left the classroom begin to understand how much schools have changed, and how much more they need to change. Unfolding the full potential of every child is a shared responsibility. Notions of private and public good start to merge. Staff and community members develop a shared vision. The closer and more connected people are with their schools, the more satisfied they become with their performance.

Let’s keep building on this Great Conversation here in Mineral Point one interaction at a time.