For schools, Discovery comes at a cost

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Officials have released the results of a long-awaited survey gauging parent and teacher attitudes toward city schools, but the data, gathered by a pricy consultant, offer few revelations as administrators try to overhaul the systems image.
    
Between November and December of last year, 217 educators and parents participating in the DiscoveryBridge survey met in small groups across the citys schools for 90-minute discussions. They answered open-ended questions probing their views of Alexandria City Public Schools, the communitys view of the school system and the challenges facing students and teachers.
    
Using laptops, participants shared their opinions anonymously with the group. Their answers were later compiled and analyzed by school staff to measure the communitys emotional and rational views, bridges and barriers to their ACPS relationship, according to the districts report of the study, released Tuesday. 
    
ACPS has long recognized the need to more closely connect the Community to public education and ACPS as a top priority, the report states. ACPS needs to better understand the emotional and rational views, prospective bridges and existing barriers that keep the Community from more actively supporting public education in Alexandria.
    
Perhaps unsurprisingly, participants described a deep affection for their students, teachers, principals and neighborhood schools. They also noted a gap between the community as a whole and the school system a concept Superintendent Morton Sherman has highlighted since his tenure began in 2008.  
    
Residents hold dim views of public education, parents reported, and do not see the systems problems as opportunities.
    
Teachers responded similarly, saying the community believes ACPS schools are failing. Residents refuse to see the districts accomplishments and instead focus on negatives, teachers reported. Residents without children are seen as unengaged with the district, according to the results.
    
But teachers faulted administrators for not communicating effectively with residents. Parents called on district staff to involve residents and work harder to connect with the citys minority population.

Paying for answers
    
The survey did not come cheap. The poll was the brainchild of crisis mitigation guru Alan Hilburg, the man behind Wendys Wheres the beef campaign.
    
Contracted by ACPS from September until January, Hilburg was charged with overhauling the districts brand, putting ACPS into a new context for the community-at-large, building alliances with local groups and connecting residents with city schools. 
    
For his efforts, Hilburg received $38,079.10 while contracted by ACPS. That sum is sharply discounted from his normal four-month rate of $204,000, according to Hilburgs contract.
    
The district did not solicit Hilburgs help. He offered his services to ACPS, said Superintendent Morton Sherman, who has drawn flack from teachers and residents for spending money on outside consultants.  
    
He was truly at the national level and we were delighted to get him, Sherman said. He lives in Alexandria. He wanted to contribute back to the community.
    
Hilburg did not respond to an e-mail requesting an interview.    
While Hilburg got the ball rolling in several areas, including establishing relationships with community groups and rebranding the ACPS experience, much of the rest of the work will be completed by the districts new director of community and school partnerships and communications, Kelly Alexander, the superintendent said. 
    
I think he made good strides, did some good ground work and made some great connections. Now its in Kellys hands, Sherman said.
    
And there are discrepancies. In a letter sent to school principals, David Temple, executive director of strategic initiatives and community outreach, revealed that two reports were incomplete and at five schools teachers participated alone. 

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