Members of school communities generally think the word transparency means they have access to information about the public schools, but school officials often think it means all communication between the school and community must flow through a single, approved channel.
Take the mold problem at Glenwood Middle School in Glenwood, Maryland, which is in the Howard County Public School System. Officials discovered mold there in 2013, and members of the community complained, reporting sinus problems and other physical symptoms that can easily be connected to working or spending a large portion of one’s day in the presence of unsafe levels of mold. Yet school officials didn’t share information about the mold problem at the school with the public until June 2015, WMAR-TV (ABC affiliate) reports.
Through public information requests, the station industriously obtained email about the mold at Glenwood Middle School. In June, Principal David Brown, wrote to Frank Eastham, the executive director of school improvement and administration, saying:
I am very concerned that the mold issues at GMS may come out in the public. The lack of an approved response to the recent inquiry from my PTSA president troubles me. In November of 2014, you instructed me that I was not to share the statements with staff or community regarding mold or Indoor Air Quality, unless they were approved by you. As a result, the community is becoming concerned that we as a school system are not being responsive. On her email, Ms. Koele copied the incoming PTSA president and several community member that are active in the Western Howard County Community through Social Media. May we discuss this issue?
Mr Brown had received documented emails from teachers and para-educators at the school regarding the mold problem, but he was barred from responding, waiting on official communication sent through official channels.
Obviously, the mold needs to be cleaned up, but since I’m not an expert on mold, I assume readers can look up anything they want to know about mold through Google. I want to address a cause of the mold problem in this Howard County school: the fact that district officials didn’t request assistance from the community about the problem. More than likely, there are mold experts out there who would have heard the communication and would certainly have offered assistance, perhaps because their children go to Glenwood Middle School or perhaps because they just care about air quality in schools.
Let me tell you how this works: As a reporter, I reach out to schools all the time. Mostly I write straight to the superintendent, who then forwards my request for information or a conversation to a communications director for the district, a school principal, an athletic director, teacher, or whomever. Occasionally, though, I reach out directly to the person involved in the story.
The response varies from state to state, but in Maryland, the usual response is something akin to “no comment.” Sometimes they write, “All communication with the media has to come through our communications office (email supplied), but I can tell you off the record that …”
Unfortunately, other stories will come up between the time I get this and the time some communications officer gets back to me. And believe me, that communications officer isn’t an expert, by any definition of the word, in the problem or issue I’m writing about. Plus, I probably don’t have time to wait, so the story goes uncovered, since writing stories without people involved being on the record is not something I’m prepared to do.
One amazing exception happened earlier this year with School District 50 in Gurnee, Illinois. I contacted the district’s communications officer, who wasn’t the right person to talk to at the school about the issue before me, and she very quickly put me in touch with the teacher involved. That story ended up being a shining moment, accessed thousands of times in a single week, building bridges between schools and communities.
On the other hand, I inquired in April about a fire that reportedly happened in a chemistry lab at a school in Elmhurst, Illinois, and have sent follow-up requests for information several times since, to various officials from the superintendent to the principal to the teacher. I’m still waiting for a response, but I keep probing, since the story concerns safety in chemistry labs at our schools, a subject I have written about extensively. All I wanted to know was what chemicals were involved so I could retrieve the Material Safety Data Sheet on the compound and write about effectively preventing fires.
What is getting in the way of effective communication at your schools? Perhaps more importantly, what can be done to make communication between schools, students, and the larger community more effective?