South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

Mehlville citizens to set direction of school district, co-chair says

Facilitating Team to meet March 26, community-engagement session set April 16

As co-chair of the Mehlville School District’s public-engagement process, former school-board member Dan Fowler insists that while he may often lead discussion, he and district officials will never lead direction.

“It’s not important what I want or necessarily what this committee wants or necessarily what the Board of Education wants,” Fowler said. “It’s what the community wants.”

In a symbol of their desire to lead the school district on the path of public will, a Facilitating Team of residents last week decided on a name for that community-engagement process: COMPASS — Charting the Oakville-Mehlville Path to Advance Successful Schools.

COMPASS is an effort by the district to form a sense of direction and goals based on the strength and ideas of the Mehlville community. The district has highlighted possible community-engagement study topics like student achievement, state requirements, staffing, demographics, school safety, budget information, class/school size, programs and facilities as potential areas to solicit public feedback.

While the Board of Education voted to hire UNICOM•ARC in November to consult and assist with the public-engagement program, six district residents and two teachers already have begun work on how to best reach the community.

Mehlville residents Keith Benack, Marcella Foerstel, Paul Goldak, Sandy Jacobs, Desi Kirchhofer and Shauna Reed were selected to serve on the Facilitating Team with teachers Cathy Mayrose and Ellen Woulfe. The six residents were selected from 20 to 25 people who applied.

That Facilitating Team is led by the co-chair tandem of Fowler, who served three terms on the school board, and former Beasley Elementary School principal Jim Schibig. Board of Education members Cindy Christopher, Tom Diehl and Micheal Ocello also are serving the Facilitating Team as board liaisons.

Though the Facilitating Team already has met twice, it could have additional members when the team next meets March 26 at the district’s Administration Building.

During a Feb. 26 meeting, team members and a handful of district officials discussed the possibility of selecting two high-school juniors from the district to offer input.

“As we go through the process, one of the voices that seems to get left out in a lot of educational decisions are the young adults that it impacts,” Kirchhofer said.

“The young adults and the kids that it impacts. And it will be their community. And you can hear from the stories that go around this room with the exception of a few, most of us are part of this community for a very long time. And I’d like to think that trend will continue. And so I think that as a Facilitating Team, part of our role will be to model that collaboration and continue the collaboration for the young people in the community.”

Facilitating Team members also discussed methods of including a wide array of citizens in COMPASS’ community-engagement sessions, the first of which has been scheduled for April 16. Those sessions are aimed to attract a large number of residents and will be schematically designed around several group work sessions with each group based on a particular study topic.

As a way to round out public involvement at that April 16 community-engagement session, Facilitating Team members have agreed to contact numerous groups and organizations throughout the community.

Team members discussed reaching out not only to community organizations, but also to a variety of racial and cultural backgrounds in the district.

“As I look around the room, it’s a pretty white room,” Kirchhofer said. “And people of color might have some kind of interest in this … As far as I know, there’s a pretty good population in the school district in those seats that aren’t white.”

“I hope to goodness in these … I don’t want to call them subcommittees because I really don’t think they’re subcommittees,” Fowler said. “They’re really full-blown committees, which we will have a chairperson of … And I hope to get all segments of the community involved in all these processes.”

“Well, you’ve got people that have stepped forward and initiated and have expressed interest,” Kirchhofer said. “So that was your pool to get a lot of these people to bring forward. But I’m thinking just like the kids suggestion, let’s make sure that we … and that might be down the road as far as that discussion of who will come to our meetings. It’s just one of those things to be aware of.”

“Yeah, I mean, because with that kind of thinking, we also have to look at the Bosnian community,” Diehl said. “There’s a large …. probably larger than the African-American community (in the district).”

To incorporate a more accurate picture of the community’s ideas and visions, Fowler said it is imperative that team members also reach out to those who are critical of the district.

“We’re going to do our gut-level best to reach out to every segment of our community,” Fowler said. “It is a no-holds-barred, come-all to these (community-engagement session) meetings. We want everyone there. We want no one excluded.

“And in particular, we want to hear from our critics in the school district loud and clear. We want them there. We want to hear their voice. We want to hear their issues. We want to hear their concerns. And so I’m making, in fact, a particular plea for critics to come. They will be given a fair shot at giving us their perceptions of the Mehlville School District.”

District employees also are encouraged to contribute to the community-engagement sessions, Fowler said.

“But that is not our goal to get employees at these meetings,” he said. “Our goal is to get a microcosm of the community there. We’re going to be very conscientious about that because we want this to be community driven, not employee driven so that there is no predetermined outcome.”

That outcome, Fowler said, could be a number of possibilities. But in following a path of true community engagement, he said the public will be the source of the school district’s future direction.

“The question’s been asked — what do you plan on achieving with this?” he said. “And our goal is very simple. It’s to help 11,000 students. To improve the educational lives of 11,000 kids. That’s our objective … It’s to get their ideas and perceptions of the Mehlville School District and what their vision is of the Mehlville School District. And if we do that, we will not fail. I mean, this is a process in which there is nothing but winners. There are no losers in this process.

“And we’re going to hear some things that are disturbing. We’re going to hear some things that we don’t like to hear about Mehlville. Some of them are not true, some of them are perceptions and some of them are true. And that’s what we need to hear.”

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