Sunday, June 14, 2009

Hot topic: Would a formal complaint system improve our district?

An SF K Files visitor asked me to post the following:

Here's an article I would suggest you to link to. Think SFUSD would look different if it adopted this policy?

For some reason, in the school business we don’t much like to hear the negatives of our practice. It might be we have this problem with criticism because our output is such an indefinable, ambiguous product.

We like to point fingers at those who come before us. But if we took blame out of the equation, then maybe we would look at the problems we face in education with a perspective of resolution instead of helpless blaming.

Inviting complaints, acknowledging the problem and then seeking answers in an expeditious manner not only improves practice but also builds loyalty and appreciation from those we serve. And when parents are loyal and appreciative, the things we can accomplish are simply awe-inspiring.

Resolution Advice
Here are a few tips on do-it-yourself complaint resolution. Or consider this advice that will help to avoid hiring an expensive consultant to tell you what is wrong in your school or district.

• Seek complaints. Ask for the compliments and the bad stuff. Don’t become defensive when you hear bad news. Instead, probe for the exact nature of the problem, the resolution sought and ideas for how to accomplish this. A well-stated problem in operational terms can really help get a resolution under way.

• Let the person closest to the problem attempt to resolve the problem prior to your intervention. I always tell the educators with whom I work that I support them. However, I also let them know if they have made a mistake they need to get on top of fixing it or apprise me of the situation so I can attempt to resolve it (or at least get into damage-control mode).

I advise educators that if a school constituent calls me with a complaint, the first thing I will do is ask if he or she has contacted the educator in question. If not, then I probe for further information and ask the constituent if I can have the educator call him or her. If a resolution is not reached, the constituent is to call me back. In 99 percent of the issues, I never hear from the constituent again.

At the same time, the educator feels supported because I have allowed him or her to resolve the problem. The educator understands if he or she doesn’t resolve the problem, then I will do so because if I don’t, the problem will go over my head and someone on the school board or in the local news media will resolve it — and probably not to our satisfaction.

• Do something. It’s not good enough to hear a complaint and then agree with the complaint. If you can’t do anything, chances are the complainant will find someone who will.

The most effective job you can do is to listen dispassionately and objectively. Is the complaint reasonable? Is it coming from a reasonable person who has not gone off the deep end because his or her child has ADHD or SAB (simply annoying behavior)? You must be the professional who provides advice on dealing with a difficult child or educator instead of throwing up your hands and blaming someone else.

Find resources, find help, find solutions. You won’t have just one ADHD or SAB student in your schools nor will you have just one difficult employee so find help for the parents, and you will find help for your employees and yourself at the same time.

When you don’t know how to solve the complainer’s problem, simply ask, “How can we make this right?” Not only will you get a solution that the constituent will agree with since he or she is suggesting it, but there’s a good chance this idea of how to make things right will require less work or worry on your part than what you would have come up with minus the input.

Systemic Answers
• If there’s a pattern to the complaints, then address the pattern. A systemic problem needs a systemic approach to resolution. You are the one to be able to see a recurring complaint that your team and you can address. Adopt the attitude of fixing the problem rather than living with it.

• Find ways to have your employees adopt a schoolwide culture of using complaints as a way to improve practice. State it in your mission or school district goals, but constantly press for this way of seeing school operations from everyone in the system (from central office to principals, teachers, custodians, etc.). Constantly model an appreciation for complaints and resolving them by using this same approach with your employees, and point out what you are doing. Do not make problems your problems but our problems, and remember to get the complainers to help resolve the problem.

When you start to look at complaints as an opportunity to improve your organization rather than an attack on your organization, then you will (after a brief moment of regret and irritation) take your organization to a new level of performance. Wouldn’t it be nice if when community members left your schools they remembered their experience with schools as one of the best of their lives?

Embracing complaints will help you to make a positive difference in the lives of our students. And that is, after all, why we are all here.

Jan Borelli, a former superintendent, is principal of Westwood Elementary School in Oklahoma City, Okla. E-mail:


  1. I find these sort of articles to be useless. Did the person who suggested it have a bad experience with SFUSD? In that case let's hear about it. That would be much more interesting. I've personally found that teachers and staff usually do want to make things right, though this isn't always possible.

  2. Teachers and staff generally want to make things right if they are actually fully doing their job, it is when they aren't that the defensiveness, etc. comes into play.

  3. Did anyone actually plow through the whole verbose thing? Concisely stated: schools should welcome feedback. I'm so glad Carlos Garcia is our superintendent and not this person.

  4. It's all part of

    "the delphi technique"

    School administrators learn this to give us all the "illusion" we are being listened to, and the "illusion" of participation, when in fact, they don't listen and they don't let is participate.

    Watch what happens with school assignment, if you don't believe me. After hours of "Community Meetings" they will still do whatever they want to, despite what parents have said.

  5. Well, the community meetings show the parents saying somewhat contradictory things, so how is one supposed to evaluate whether or not they "listen" to the parents on this issue? Seriously.

    Overall the feedback (see the PAC/PPS report that was just released) seems to be in favor of school choice, except from the west side of town and specifically the Sunset (is anyone surprised by this breakdown?). Everyone puts school quality up at the top, with transportation/distance issues lower as a priority. How to improve all the schools, is, of course, the rub. What strategy will work to do that, etc.

  6. They are going to do whatever they want to do, and what any of us says does not even factor into it. Still, we have to try to get them to listen, but I think they all have made up their minds about what they are going to suggest long before any community meetings were held. It's all theater.

  7. Am I the only one who was appalled at the repeated example in this post given of the "squeaky wheel" parent always being the parents with a kid with ADHD? I'm getting a little tired of the endless scapegoating of special needs kids and their families coming from some school administrators. In my experience, many of the pushiest parents are those whose kids are excelling in school and, yet, who, year after year, do things like trying to steer their kid to the "best" teacher for the next year, etc., etc.

  8. how does one steer the kid to the best teacher?

    is it by volunteering and getting along really well with the principal? or being a pita but i would think that strategy would backfire big time.


  9. @10:25, I too was surprised by the tone of the ADHD reference, but I didn't read it as scapegoating.

    I think it's simply recognizing that ADHD tests the patience of even the calmest parents and teachers, and that it's important to separate the complaint from the person.

  10. 10:25
    Yes, the examples were very offensive. Those of us who are good advocates for our children are being vilified by administrators as being "pushy" and "taking services away from other kids for our kids". The fact is, if I didn't push for an appropriate educational program for my son, that would just mean one less kid getting what he or she needed, it wouldn't mean another kid would get the help. So I am not going to feel guilty for standing up for my kids' rights.
    Navigating the system is hard enough for me, for parents who do not speak english very well, or who are working two jobs just to get by, it is impossible.
    And yes, our kids are doing well because we have fought for the help they need and wouldn't it be great if parents could rely on school districts to give the kids the help they need WITHOUT having to fight like hell for it? That would be equitable. That would be socially just.

  11. Amen June 16 at 9:49. I would love it if SFUSD's special ed programs were proactive, but they are not. If you don't raise a concern and keeping pushing and pushing, the programs will do nothing. I have to push not only to get my kid the extra help he needs, but then I have to keep monitoring to ensure that that extra help actually happens. And I cannot tell you how many times over the past four years I've finished a year and realized that, even though I figured out the particular problem my kid was having (with no assistance mind you), pushed for some extra help for my kid, that extra help either never materialized or, woops, they just stopped without my ever knowing about it! When the district starts taking proactive action on kids who need extra help, I'll back off. Until then . . . .

  12. As a teacher, I'd just like to say that I deeply appreciate the parents of children with special needs who do fight to get them proper and consistent support. Parents may not feel they are being listened to, but in my experience it is the parents who make the difference in what happens with these kids, as teachers are heard even less.

    Honestly, some of the biggest problems in the classroom are caused by the kids who need extra support but don't get it because their parents don't see their needs, are afraid of labels, or for whatever reason are unable to advocate for them, taking a disproportionate share of the teacher's time and attention.

    Also, keep in mind that administrators are often playing up to both the parents and the teachers. If you feel like they are shining you on, you can be pretty sure they are doing the same with their staff...

  13. To all parents still reading this whose kid has an IEP --

    Would you mind contacting me? I'd love to listen to your experience dealing with the SFUSD.

    We're just starting the IEP process for our kid, who's entering kindergarten in the fall. We'd rather not move out of SF, but seriously all we've heard are horror stories about trying to get the SFUSD to provide services.

    I'd like to hear what you have to say, and I certainly can use any advice you have about navigating the system to get our kid the help we already know he needs.


  14. James,

    Sadly, these problems are not just happening in San Francisco, they happen in all districts. I hear Fremont is THE WORST. SF is somewhere in the middle. maybe with the new Special Ed director it will not be so bad.
    You have to advocate diligently for your child, and you have to make sure the IEPs are strong and followed, no matter where you are.

  15. James,

    contact these people and ask for a parent mentor:

    Support for Families of Children with Disabilities
    2601 Mission Street, Suite 606
    San Francisco, CA 94110
    Telephone: (415) 282-7494

  16. Special ed at SFUSD is hurting.

    The budget has been slashed like crazy and many excellent teachers get by with no monthly budget (really, $0 dollars) and inadequate classroom support, not to mention lack of support from some school sites.

    The bottom line is that special ed in SF is spread dangerously thin and teachers, SLPs, and OTs often lack the resources and administrative support to provide comprehensive services to their students.

    Parents and teachers... lobby the folks who have the purse strings and make (or fail to enforce) the laws. These are the folks who are ultimately to blame when our children receive inadequate support.

  17. Forget about complaints to the California Department of Education, (CDE) all they do is side with the school district and they never investigate anything in any meaningful way.

    Complain directly to the OCR, the Office of Civil Rights, part of the Department of Justice.

  18. oops, that's US Department of Education, not Justice ...

  19. James -- I have three friends with special ed kids in Marin schools and I hear nothing but positives about it. As the parent of an inclusion student at a SFUSD elementary for the past four years, I can only suggest that, if Marin at all works in your plans, check it out. The past four years have been a discouraging struggle for us. I thought of myself as a diligent smart parent advocate for my kid, but I must say that this system knows more ways to slither out of obligations per the IEP than the hardest-nosed street-smart lawyer! I look over the past four years and see that I've totally failed my kid. On this blog back in February, there was a posting about a special ed meeting and some people commented with their bad experiences -- I'd check those out, particularly the posting about "Things I'd wished I'd known about special ed."

  20. Speacial ed thread, anyone?

  21. I'd love a separate special ed thread with specific advice and experience on dealing with an IEP, but since Kate is on vacation now I don't expect one to start.

    Thanks to all of you who have chimed in. I'm still here and reading if anybody else stumbles upon this.

    To 6/19 6:04pm, thank you for the referral to Support for Families of Children with Disabilities. They are a wealth of information.

    So all I'm hearing is more disappointed parents, which saddens me. I'd hoped some happy parents would tell me that what I heard was wrong, but I assume the happy parents don't tend to read a thread about complaints.

  22. A very good friend has a Downs Syndrome child in Oakland public schools. Based on what she's told me I would say avoid that district at all costs. The constant struggle to get what the child needs has been soul-destroying and it will only get worse with impending budget disaster.

  23. 12:01

    My son, with Autism, is being extremely well-served by SFUSD, but making that happen and keeping the district in compliance with the law is a full-time job.

    It sounds odd -- my kid is doing great but I am SFUSD's biggest critic. I see how they treat other parents who aren't up to the fight and it makes me mad, but as far as my kid doing well and being happy in school, and getting a great education, everything is fantastic.

    On the whole, (with a few exceptions) the teachers have been kind, understanding, and competent, and a few teachers have been awesome. Most of the therapists have been excellent, and worked with me to help my son.

    Just a bit of advice:

    Don't rely solely only on SFUSD for services to help your child improve as much as they are able to,

    two 30 minute speech sessions will not get your non verbal child speaking,

    two 20 minute sessions with a school district Occupational Therapist will not be near enough to help your child overcome their challenges

    they only have your child 6 hours a day, they can only do so much, even if the programs were perfect (which they aren't)

    but if you can stomach battling the gate-keeping administrators at IEP meetings a few times a year, and you get your kid teachers you like, it will be OK. Separate the legal battle with central office from the school experience for your kid. The teachers are on your kid's side, they just have to act like they agree with central office staff. It is your job, as a parent, to make sure the teachers get the support they need to help your kid, by having rock-solid IEPS and proper goals and objectives.

    So I guess what I mean to say is, my son is thriving, and even if I have problems with how the system works, I have made it work for my kid, and there are a lot of great teachers and therapists in SFUSD who do care.

  24. I'm 12:08, and my friend's experience's in Oakland sound like 1:46's. They ultimately do get what they need and their kid is happy and doing well, but they have to fight tooth and claw, month after month, year after year, through district bureaucrats and school administrators and sometimes individual teachers, just to get something in the classroom to which they are legally entitled. 1:46's energy and commitment warrant profound admiration, but it's dead wrong what people with challenged children have to go through. For all but a very few super-humans, the time and constant confrontation and conflict have got to take a huge toll on your your emotional and physical energy, your other kids, your career, your finances, your relationships. Best wishes to anyone who has to navigate this.

  25. Re Marin, a friend told me that her two nephews (brothers) were both moved by the district from Drake High School to a special program (public) for students with learning disabilities. The family was given no choice in the matter.

    I'm not a special-ed parent, so I'm not well versed in this, but this sounded to me like a practice that wouldn't inherently sit well in SFUSD. Is it even legal?

  26. I believe that as long as they make the accommodation the student needs available at a reasonable location in the student's district, they have complied with the law. I don't believe every school site in SF accommodates every physical or developmental disability; rather I think a key function of the special needs enrollment process is to match the student with a school that can meet his/her needs.

  27. 3:48

    you may as well be saying

    "We have perfectly fine schools for THOSE children, we don't want THEM at OURS".
    Whatever. How creepy.

  28. Individual schools don't make special needs assignment decisions; that authority rests with the district. CA public school districts need to stretch every nickel as far as it will go. If the district has an appropriate accommodation for student A already set up at district school X but not at district school Y, does it really make sense for the district to pay to set up a second accommodation program at school Y? If A's parents are willing to pay themselves for the accommodation at school Y, then I would fault school Y and the district for forcing the kid to go elsewhere. If the accommodation would not materially affect the budget, then I would fault school Y and the district for forcing the kid to go elsewhere. If there is no accommodation anywhere in the district, then I would fault school Y and the district for not setting the accommodation up at school Y. But I don't think it's wrong for districts to try to achieve economic efficiencies as long as they fulfill their obligations to meet special needs and keep the kids as integrated as possible. There was not enough information posted about the specific situation at Drake to know whether the school was ducking responsibility or making a reasonable resource-based decision.

  29. Federal Law is quite clear, our kids are SUPPOSED to go to "the school they would normally attend if they did not have a disability label".

    You can parse words all you want to, but segregation is segregation, and the supposed "specialized" classes are not the highly specialized environments they are touted as being.

  30. Guess what? There is already a Uniform compaint process in SFUSD for all families!!
    I used it several years ago and it was a joke. Now I know, that if they don't do a real investigation, you can appeal it to the Office of Civil Rights.