School Bureaucracy: Beating the System Too

As promised a couple of weeks ago, here be a couple more examples of consciousness on part of both grass roots workers in schools, and of upper level district administrators, that can be critical to countervailing the rotten wood of school bureaucracy.  Note that the key is substantive communication between levels, not only in order to identify problems upper level types may not perceive, but also to foster solution.

Our school district had purchased an on line package to support both IEP’s and 504’s. IEP’s are the documents that outline the “Individual Educational Plan” for special education students. 504’s do not spell out modified instruction as do the IEP’s, but allow for accommodations in the classroom for students who have a disability that does not qualify them for special education.

There have been problems in our district with tracking these documents. The historically paper driven documents have tended to disappear when a student transferred schools within the district, or moved up from one level to the next. A genuinely bright idea emerged from the hierarchy above us to buy an online, internet based platform that all with access could use to both monitor and answer questions about a given student.

But quickly it became apparent that the 504 platform subsequently purchased was tedious, time consuming, and often fraught with procedural problems, all of which burdened 504 case managers, usually counselors, all in the name of using technology to make our job more expeditious. Case managers, who would use the on line platform only sporadically, by some reports would have to devote one and a half to two hours to create a document that took perhaps a half an hour by old school paper procedures. The program was cumbersome. Further, like any system, one had to use it frequently to use it efficiently; the case managers would use the system only infrequently.

Someone in the district had purchased the program, obviously without having vetted it properly via the people who would operate it, but goddamn it, now we had to use it.

Our principal, and perhaps other principals, had the good sense to recognize that it made no sense to use software that made our jobs harder rather than easier, and so tacitly supported the de facto decision in our counseling department to continue using our fairly efficient, but old school paper process for creation of 504’s. Thank you, Doug.

Even more wondrously, probably due to some behind the scenes work from our district counseling coordinator, and to some of us more than willing to complain, a committee was formed to define a process that would work without unduly leaning on case managers.

As finally hammered out, case managers would establish their 504 plans on word documents. Next the data input to the online system would be managed by a small number of administrative assistants who would do so efficiently because they entered data more frequently as provided by a group of case managers, and so become more thoroughly conversant with the program.

The solution still left the question of ease of access to the on line documents by users, but solved the initial problem of inefficient data input.

And, a suggestion from our group was apparently heard that our district use its size and visibility to negotiate with the on line 504 vendor to make its product much more user friendly.

Another victory also involved technology. Our district struggles with the rapidly burgeoning world of on line learning. How do we allow such coursework to interact with our process of providing the final documentation, the diploma? Which of the multitude of providers out there do we choose to try and vet? What are the standards? How do we guarantee that the Essential Learnings our state requires are in fact met? Etc.

Similar to the 504 case cited above, the district counseling group was invited by our district counseling coordinator to state our concerns around various on line questions, again probably amid some behind the scenes maneuvering on the part of the coordinator. In fairly short order, a high level administrator (two!!) visited a subsequent counseling meeting to respond, with substance, to our concerns, and to commit to follow up on other issues we had raised.

The key variables here: The mysterious, labyrinthine hierarchy above us listens with intent, and seemingly values the input as perhaps important to the functioning of the organization. Then, from a perspective different than our own, a decision is hammered out that is genuinely corrective of the problem perceived on the grass roots level.

Such responsiveness is dangerous. One downside is that it encourages people like me to shoot off their mouth. And people in general feel empowered to take matters into their own mind, and think. To solve problems. To lean forward rather than sit back on their heels to await orders. To matter. To feel good about their work. To be professional. Dangerous stuff. Very unbureaucratic.

Note the role of the coordinator, who probably massaged the connection. And that of grass roots people who are willing to open their mouth! And of upper level admins, who have not yet forgotten how to be responsive human beings. Could this go somewhere?

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