Saying the group’s work was disappointingly shrouded and that its final report showed no urgency in addressing problematic student use of district-issued devices, several parents on Monday expressed deep concerns with the recently concluded work of the Shawnee Mission School District’s Digital Learning Task Force.
Five parents representing the larger Digitally Wise parent group, which first addressed the board en masse last November, spoke at last night’s board of education meeting, publicly airing their frustrations with a process they say was designed to stymie an objective review of the way the program has been implemented.
Instead of tackling problem areas like access to inappropriate content, excessive screen time and distraction in the classroom with substantive recommendations for specific actions, the report — the product of several months of work — leans heavily on broad advisory statements and includes no timeline for next steps.
As Kim Whitman, a Trailwood Elementary mother who was among the early organizers of the Digitally Wise group, noted, “We are about to embark on a new school year, and nothing is changing.”
Whitman spoke of her early hopes that changes in leadership on the board and in the administration would address some of the issues with openness and transparency that had hung over the district in recent years.
“Transparency, open communication, collaboration between parents, teachers and district administration: These are all characteristics that the Shawnee Mission School District community hoped for in the recent changes in the district’s leadership,” Whitman said in remarks to the board. “In March, I celebrated when the board president shared with me his desire for the leadership of the district to return to the mode of an outward facing, proactive and transparent leadership. The Digital Learning Task Force has failed to live up to these hopes.”
At the heart of the issue, the parents said, was the district’s decision to close the task force’s meetings to the public and to limit engagement to the 30 members hand-selected by the administrative team. With more than 350 people having applied to serve on the task force, they said, there was clearly broad interest from the community in having a voice in the work.
Moreover, the district has not been able to provide any analysis showing a positive impact from the initiative, they said, and the administrators leading the task force seemed uninterested in conducting a thorough review of the research on how devices affect the classroom environment.
“Asking parents and taxpayers to support a $50 million digital program without providing a single measurable outcome is simply outrageous,” said Erica Frans, a parent who sat on the task force but refused to endorse the final report.
Frans implored the board to “use its oversight authority” to request a formal audit of the program led by someone without direct ties its initial implementation.
Board members were open to the parents’ comments, and noted that the district was still establishing a committee structure to facilitate input from patrons and the community at large. Board President Brad Stratton said he had been lobbying for the reestablishment of site councils since the mid-2000s, and that recreating such a structure posed challenges.
“Change is hard,” he said. “But starting from scratch is even harder. And I think that’s what you’re seeing us stumble through.”
Board Vice President Heather Ousley thanked the parents for being willing to speak publicly about their concerns.
“You never get it right the first time, but you have to be willing to keep working forward,” Ousley said of the district’s work on the issue. “I really appreciate that people are willing to come and engage openly.”
Superintendent Mike Fulton was quick to thank the parents for sharing their thoughts as well as the task force for its work. He said that a review of the district’s technology program would continue, but that he expected administrators to take a close look at how to address access to inappropriate content.