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Hoping to please parents, school introduces real-time polling

The results of the Department of Education’s learning environment surveys, due tomorrow, aren’t likely to go public until June. But Catina Venning, the executive director of Fahari Academy Charter School, doesn’t want to wait. Since the start of the year, she has been polling Fahari’s families monthly about their satisfaction and tweaking the school’s practice in response.

She launched the polls after Fahari scored a B last year on the section of the progress report that counts survey results — the “environment” section. Looking closer, she found the source of the problem: parents had graded the school poorly for communication.

“We looked at our survey from last year and the numbers were a little bit lower than they were in our first year and that was not pleasing to us at all,” Venning said. “We want to make sure parents are getting the services they’re signing up for.”

The new mini-polls’ instant feedback has already led to some changes. After only 55 percent of parents reported receiving weekly phone calls from their child’s advisors in a fall survey, Venning issued a course correction. Soon, advisors were submitting weekly contact logs to administrators, and parents were receiving not only more frequent reports but also weekly newsletters.

The polling is part of a larger outreach push that includes a new director of family engagement and a parent she’s brought on staff to work with families after school.

It’s not yet clear, of course, whether the work will lead to a better score on the official survey. But on the mini polls, which pluck questions directly from last year’s learning environment survey, parents have been voicing more satisfaction with the school’s communication.

Venning said the strength of the polling work has been that it focused on a single area of weakness: communication. Next year, she said, she might pick a new focus to tackle.

A ticker on the Department of Education’s web site most recently counted that 256,266 individuals have taken the survey online. And school-by-school results reported yesterday morning include a range of return rates from zero to 99 percent.

In the past, the surveys have received mixed reviews. At some schools, critics charge that the surveys portray an overly sunny picture. At others, low response rates and high dissatisfaction rates suggest that teachers might be using the surveys as a way to lash out against principals they dislike.

The results, though, can mean high stakes for the entire school community. The scores aren’t telltale of a school’s destiny for closure, but DOE officials have pointed to them during closure and turnaround hearings as justification for upending the school.

On Monday night, for example, Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky told the crowd at Lehman High School that aside from a 50 percent graduation rate, survey results also point to shortcomings. He highlighted the fact that only 66 percent of students reported feeling safe and 52 percent of teachers reported discipline issues.

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