From the Field: Detecting Ends 

By Laura Martinez

One of the first and foremost responsibilities of school boards is to clarify the district purpose. That means articulating — and redefining, when necessary — the district ends. Ends are four things.

Ends are, first, the core values and beliefs that the district holds about public education, students, learning, teachers, and the relationship between the district and the community.

Second, ends are the mission of the district: Why does the district exist? What does it do, or more specifically, what benefits does it provide, to whom, and for how much money?

Ends are also, third, the district’s vision: Where is the district headed? What would the best version of the district look like? Where do we want to be in five years, or 10?

Fourth and finally, ends are goals: What outcomes will bring the district closer to its vision? What results are we looking for? What do we want, based on the first three things? In other words, based on what we believe and value about education and learning and teachers and the community, and based on why we exist, and based on where we want to go — these goals are what we want.

But is it really up to just the board to say this is what we want? Well, no, not exactly.

The board is the entity which has the role to say “This is what we want,” but it is also the board’s role to be in touch with what the community — students, teachers, staff, administrators, parents, residents, taxpayers, and non-taxpayers — wants for the district. What’s important to them? What are their values and beliefs about education? What benefits do they want their schools to offer? Is an agriculture program important? Is 21st-century learning important? Are caring and compassionate students important?

By virtue of living in the community, board members do have some idea of what the community wants. But the board needs to go on more than a hunch. Board members need to hear from the superintendent, who knows way more about what’s going on in the buildings. They need to hear from parents. They need to hear from citizens. They need to know that when they are articulating the district ends, and making decisions based on those ends, that they are acknowledging and honoring the whole community’s desires and aspirations for the schools.

In order to detect ends, boards need to seek out the opinions and thoughts of their community members, actively and aggressively reach out to them and listen to them, and engage in a two-way conversation with them. Is this easy? No. But it’s absolutely vital to the trustee role that the board has. It sits in trust for the community. It makes decisions on behalf of the community. One of its obligations is to find out what the community wants for its schools.

So how does a board go about this work? How does a board actively seek out the community in order to listen to the community’s aspirations and desires? Well, there are couple ways that are easy: Going to the grocery store and attending board meetings. Board members live in the community they represent, and when they are out and about, doing things like grocery shopping, people will talk to them about their concerns. And during board meetings, there is public comment, and that’s a way to hear concerns too.

But — those are not truly two-way conversations. The challenge, the hard but necessary way to do it, is for a board to aggressively seek out the voices of its community and really listen to them. And then, based on what the board has heard and understood, use that information to inform the deliberations and decision-making at the board table.

This work is board work — not individual board members acting as opinion takers. It starts with the board and the results are reported to the board. The implementation can take various forms: surveys, town halls, or strategic planning over multiple sessions, for example.

Ends work never ends. While generally core values and beliefs about education don’t change over time, students do. As do parents, teachers, technology, finances, and aspirations. The board must continuously connect with its community in order to detect the ends it articulates.

Laura Martinez is Field Services Director with the Illinois Association of School Boards for the Kishwaukee, Northwest, and Lake divisions.