Whether they are driven by a love for teaching, a desire to see standardized test scores rise, a push for higher wages for teachers or frustration over diminishing school funding, people get passionate about education.
People have rallied in Lansing, they fill school board meetings, and they write to legislators. They cheer for young people at sporting events and beam when students receive honors at awards ceremonies.
Patch is now partnering with The Center for Michigan, a think-tank focusing on helping citizens drive important changes in the state. This year the center has been leading conversations on education throughout the state. Patch will be collaborating with local community organizations and leaders in Patch towns throughout southeast Michigan, beginning March 15 at City Hall in Farmington Hills. The next one be March 20 at the Troy Chamber of Commerce and then April 25 at Pioneer Middle School in Plymouth-Canton Community Schools. The goal is to have conversations in every Patch community in Michigan.
During these sessions, topics will range from teacher preparation to class sizes, and participants will have opportunities to offer their opinions.
"Our pledge is that you will learn something and that your voice will be heard," said CEO John Bebow, himself the father of a second-grader who attends a public school. "This isn't me sitting in my pajamas coming up with ideas. This is all about the people."
Bebow quickly illustrates the power of community conversations and how they helped spark change in Michigan a few years ago.
"We were holding these meetings, and a few of the parents were saying they weren't sure kids were going to school as often as they were supposed to," Bebow said. "Sure enough, we looked at the statewide data and found that kids were going to school one or two or three weeks less than they used to."
The center helped bring that concern to the attention of lawmakers, and within six weeks, Bebow said, the law was changed and the current 180-day calendar was adopted.
"That came out of average citizens coming to these meetings," he said.
'Customers' of education
Each year the center chooses a different topic to explore. This year's community conversation topic is education.
The focus is on the customers of the school industry: students, parents and employers — "people who have been left out of the conversation," said center founder Phil Power, former owner of HomeTown Communications Network Inc.
The goal is to involve 5,000 citizens in about 200 forums from northern Michigan to downriver. The center will release a report that will be given to every legislator in office at the beginning of 2013.
Bebow helps run the forums. Like Power, he is a former journalist. Bebow said the community conversations operate like a traditional town hall meeting, with about 30 participants who receive a small polling machine that looks something like a calculator. Bebow or another moderator asks questions that are projected onto a screen, and participants vote on their hand-held machines and see the results in real time.
The forums last 90 minutes — enough time for polling and conversation.
The Center for Michigan
Power said after retirement, he set about creating a nonprofit organization that would serve as a kind of megaphone for Michigan voices.
He said he founded The Center for Michigan in 2006 "because as a practical matter, ordinary people's voices are almost excluded from our political system. Political parties are interested in fierce partisans or in people who are part of interest groups that support their parties."
Any person who isn't in one of those groups, he said, finds himself or herself excluded. "Our purpose was to try to find ways to call forth those voices, amplify those voices, and bring them into the corridors of power," Power said. "The way to do that is through small, informal discussion groups."
In 2008, the center launched Michigan's Defining Moment, a series of 90-minute discussions that drew Michiganders into the process of developing an action plan to move the state forward. During a three-year period, 580 conversations took place with more than 10,000 citizens.
"It was the single largest public outreach campaign in Michigan history," Power said, and it resulted in a “bottom up, common-ground agenda” given to every 2008 gubernatorial candidate. That agenda formed the basis of much of Gov. Rick Snyder's legislative program, he added.
A conversation near you
In the next few days, Patch editors will be in touch with school and community leaders in their towns to plan similar events in the coming months. Patch will report on the findings and track the Center for Michigan as it takes the people's thoughts and concerns to the Legislature this year.
"I admire what Patch is trying to do, which is focusing on local communities and their concerns," said Power, whose background is in community news. "Everyone lives somewhere, and one's hometown is close to one's life."