Parent (and citizen) engagement efforts around large changes to policy or structure seem to follow a predictable formula. Big announcements, surveys, working groups, decisions, and big announcements at the end (with the media reporting on the public or leaked bits here and there). I have participated in more of these efforts than I can count. I’m always happy to share my opinion and experiences, but are these inputs helpful without context? Doesn’t it make more sense to educate parents about how existing policies are actually playing out, before asking their opinion?

It’s exciting to see agencies like Washington, DC’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), the DC Public Charter School Board (DCPCSB), and most recently, the Deputy Mayor of Education (DME) take steps towards releasing data. Not for the sake of transparency, but to get work done. The most visible recent example is the DME’s Boundary review process. It started with the usual, formulaic elements of an Advisory Committee, surveys, working groups and promise of engagement, but has of late, started to infuse the conversation with the broader education community with information and data.

This is important, because it enables parents and education stakeholders to contribute to this process in a way that is more meaningful than simply offering personal opinions. We can now react to policy questions based on how they are actually playing out at the Ward and city level (not just our own or our neighbor’s experiences). We can consider our positions and understanding of impact to all students, not just those who attend our schools or live in our neighborhoods.

The community information packets distributed at the April 5 working group contain a TON of rich information, demographic projections, scenarios at the school, cluster of schools, and ward levels. It’s clear that the DME’s team and Advisory Committee are carefully weighing not just today’s situations, but how these will look based on what our city will look like in 2017 (based on projected population of 0-3 and 4-11 year olds). Because the information has been published in a spreadsheet format, anyone with basic excel skills can compare data across schools and wards. An enthusiastic GGDCEDU reader weighed in on the DME’s policy examples by citing the data.

Of course, this does not mean much for folks who are not used to working with data. This is where the media and other intermediaries come in. Because the DME released the proposed boundary changes, the Washington Post was able to build dynamic maps with these new boundaries.

feederThe DME also released feeder pattern analysis for DCPS elementary, middle and high schools. However, because OSSE released this data in February, Code for DC civic hacker, Chris Given, was able to create a dynamic view of this data for ALL DCPS and PCS schools. This creates another opportunity for parents and education stakeholders to see how today’s policies are playing out, without needing extensive data skills.

All these exciting developments around data come with their own new problems. As I looked around at the participants of the Center City Working Group on April 5, I couldn’t help but notice that the crowd was full of the ‘usual suspects.’ I saw many parents and advocates who are engaged and to some degree, data savvy (or connected with data savvy networks). This begs the question of whether access to additional data will help families who are offline and/or unable to attend the ‘live’ boundary discussions? In my opinion, the risk of their interests not being represented in the discussion becomes even greater.

I don’t have any ready-made solutions to address this risk, but imagine that if DCPS, OSSE, DCPCS, DME, parent-driven community networks and perhaps DC Public Libraries and DC Parks and Recreation, worked together, we could reach many, if not all families. The boundary review, and all efforts of this nature, should not be something that happens to us, but something that happens with us.

How will you help?