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WA: From battle ground to common ground

Summary: Bringing in a new approach to communication this superintendent turned her district from one of divergent priorities, lack of trust, teacher dissatisfaction, low student achievement, and dismal community support to one of improved parent satisfaction, low teacher turnover, raising achievement scores, and declining need for disciplinary actions.

In 1996, Washington State’s Battle Ground School District was unfortunately living up to its name. One school board member was suing the board for violating the state’s open meetings law. Board members' priorities were diverging; shared reservoirs of trust and respect were nearly empty. Teachers were set to strike. Student achievement was low; ditto community support.

Today the district still has its ups and downs, but of a different sort: Achievement scores are up; expulsions are down. Graduation rates are up; teacher turnover is down; parent satisfaction is up. How did the district turn itself around? With the help of a new superintendent, a new philosophy and new approach to communication.

District characteristics
Name: Battleground SD
State: Washington
Type: Rural
Grades: Pre-k–12
Enrollment: 12,693
Students per teacher: 22

Enrollment characteristics
Economically disadvantaged: 25.1%
English language learners: 3.7%
Students with disabilities: 11.5%
White: 97.1%
Black: 1.3%
Hispanic: 3.5%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 2.3%
American Indian/Alaska Native: 1.1%
Other: 1%
Source: SchoolMatters.com

According to Superintendent Rochonne "Shonny" Bria, by the time she arrived on the scene, “There was a lot of distrust throughout the district.” On top of board woes, teachers decided to strike over pay issues. The district responded with an injunction forcing them back to work. Three levies failed to pass, the district was a few thousand dollars short of bankruptcy, and it used a bond to build a different school than originally planned.

To make matters worse, poor student achievement plagued the district. “We knew that to progress we had to get all of this resolved,” said Bria. “To get the best education for students you have to engage as many people as possible.” And that’s exactly what Battle Ground did.

A new approach

To bring about vital change, the school board needed a new philosophy—one that would guide district employees, teachers, administrators, central office staff, and even school board members to communicate, solve problems, and negotiate in an effective manner. A new approach was also needed that included the philosophical concepts everyone wanted and the practical communication tools they needed.

Getting started required the assistance of an expert. That’s where Bria came in. A former Arizona superintendent, she had broken ground there with the Interest Based Approach (IBA) and had gotten good results. She saw Battle Ground as a “wonderful opportunity to try the philosophy elsewhere.”

The Interest Based Approach, originating from the Harvard University Negotiation Team, is a non-adversarial method for reaching decisions and for understanding and being understood throughout the decision-making process. IBA helps people think holistically about issues rather than focusing on particular problems. By encouraging disputing parties to explore underlying interests they are, in effect, defining the problem and giving it new dimensions. Only then can they discover shared interests and possible solutions. While it seems like a simple communication tool, IBA brings about a cultural shift that gets everyone to think about issues differently and collectively.

Into action

Beginning the IBA process meant that every stakeholder in the district needed training on how to collaborate, speak and listen, and find common ground when dealing with different perspectives. Bria and Kelly O’Brien-Keister, the district communications consultant, began with three-day training sessions of 25–35 people, a good comfort zone for everyone to get acquainted and begin working together. They guided the groups through the process of developing a common language so that all understood what collaboration looked like, what it meant to have needs met, and how to express interests.

Although district stakeholders use IBA for all decisions, one example from early on demonstrates how well it works. Bria brought together five unions representing various staff groups. Slowly, over time, she and O’Brien-Keister helped the individual unions build trust and open lines of communication with each other. Members of management were also being trained and in time, everyone began communicating effectively. To everyone’s delight, the need for arbitration and traditional bargaining and negotiation practices were eliminated.

And what about that bad blood between school board members? They’re doing better, too. “The biggest change for the board is that we now take a good candid look at how we affect the community and how we involve everyone,” says Frederick Striker, school board vice president. Now when something comes before the board, members ask if it has been through the IBA process.

In fact, the school board used IBA to take on the highly charged task of redrawing the district’s high school boundaries. They attended community forums to get input, established interest groups, and brought in experts who thoroughly reviewed the research and made recommendations. The board used norms and rules they created using IBA to make a decision, one they knew had input and support from all stakeholders.

Building on success

Perhaps the best news is that students have benefited greatly from Battle Ground’s eight year effort. They’ve sustained yearly improvement on state test scores and the district has met Adequate Yearly Progress in all categories since 2003—the largest school district in the state to do so. The number of expulsions have decreased while the graduation rate has increased.

In March 2005, the district passed a bond with matching funds of $100 million, something that hasn’t happened since the early 1990s. Staff retention is high and Battle Ground’s survey data show that parents are satisfied.

As a special honor in 2005, Battle Ground’s success with finding common ground was rewarded by the Washington State School Directors’ Association School Board of the Year award.

“So many students are successful now because they benefit from those who care about them working together to improve their education,” says O’Brien-Keister. After all, she says, student success is the reason Battle Ground continues down the IBA path.

Lessons learned
  • Learn to listen. Board vice president, Frederick Striker, says that now at board meetings, “People want to know why I don’t ask as many questions as other members. I say it’s because I’ve been listening for eight years.” You need to listen to digest, he added. Questions can be asked later.
  • Focus on what you want to accomplish. “In traditional situations, you ask what the problem is and everyone sees it as a different problem,” says Kelly O’Brien-Keister, district communications consultant. “Don’t focus on the problem, but what you hope to accomplish. Problems will work themselves out if you work on discovering solutions.”
  • It’s about relationships. Collaboration is about relationships, says O’Brien-Keister. With the Interest Based Approach, “You don’t operate in isolation. Mutual respect and understanding are [a] necessary [part of the process].”
  • Don’t let the negativity of a few disrupt the process. “There are always going to be people who question, who don’t want to hear an opposing view, who don’t want to respect certain groups. They would rather be angry,” says O’Brien-Keister. “But that is five out of 25. Don’t throw the other 20 away. People coming together can make things happen.”
  • Let them do it on their own. Battle Ground used facilitators with the groups, but only to guide them. Groups create their own norms, rules, and roles. They determine for themselves what consensus means. The group itself is trained to develop constraints that are agreed upon at the very beginning.
  • Patience is more than a virtue, it’s a necessity. “It takes time for people to trust that others may have your best interest at heart too,” says O’Brien-Keister. Superintendent Shonny Bria says that sometimes people get tired when trying to reach consensus and just want a decision to come from the top. “We needed to explain to them that if a decision needs to be made, a better solution will come when you involve more people,” she says.


Frederick Striker
School Board Vice President
E-mail: fstriker@earthlink.net
Phone: 360-601-7123

Kelly O’Brien-Keister
District Communications Consultant
E-mail: obrienkeister.kelly

Posted: May 3, 2006

©2006 Center for Public Education

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