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Social media amplifies teacher voices and demand for public access

A protester is led away by police at a demonstration by teachers and supporters held near the State Capitol in Raleigh earlier this month.
A protester is led away by police at a demonstration by teachers and supporters held near the State Capitol in Raleigh earlier this month. ccampbell@newsobserver.com

If you care about education and were on Facebook this week, there’s a good chance you saw someone share a link to Justin Parmenter’s take on a Senate bill that could cost teachers their license if they’re arrested for protesting education issues.

Parmenter, a teacher at Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Waddell Language Academy, wrote the column and submitted it to the Observer’s editorial board. His piece, titled “A bill that could silence teachers,” grabbed more than 80,000 online views, most of them coming from Facebook.

Not bad for an educator who was just tapped for North Carolina’s Teacher Voice Network, a nonpartisan effort to bring more front-line voices to education policy decisions.

“I was just astonished by it,” Parmenter said.

The Hope Street Group that’s sponsoring Teacher Voice Networks in four states has some big-name foundations behind it, such as Gates, Hewlett, Kaiser and Robert Woods Johnson.

Locally, Parmenter joined Alexander Graham Middle School’s Hilary Marshall and the N.C. Virtual Public School’s Joanna Schimizzi in winning fellowships that will help them connect with decision-makers and share their views and stories. The network doesn’t tell teachers what to say or write, but it does help them figure out ways to make their views known.

I’ll be interested to watch the project play out. But my sense is that the local education community already has a vigorous network going – or perhaps more accurately, several overlapping networks.

The beauty and challenge of the digital world is that such connections don’t have to be sponsored by institutions with big budgets.

Here at the Observer, we’re well aware that social media sharing is starting to drive readership the way an editor’s judgment about front-page placement traditionally has. Digital access helps many of us share national trends, local news and personal experiences.

When I cover a big Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board decision, I’m almost always engaged in real time with readers on Twitter – and many of them are following the action on their tablets or laptops.

Not long ago, I wrote about the lack of 21st-century video technology at the state Education Building in Raleigh, where a growing number of decisions about Charlotte-area schools are made. The 24-year-old Raleigh building that hosts Board of Education and Charter School Advisory Board meetings offers live audio (when it works), with no archived recording available to the public.

To see the limits of that approach, check out the professional transcript from the audiotape of a recent advisory board meeting on Thunderbird Preparatory Academy, full of unintelligible comments and unidentified (or misidentified) speakers. That’s exactly what people experience when they’re trying to listen to a meeting.

Jessica Knight Miller, a Charlotte education consultant and online activist, picked up the theme and launched a #LiveStreamforBOE campaign for video streaming and archiving. She wrote a piece for EdNC, a digital-only education news report, to spread the word.

But here’s where the digital world gets challenging. It may be fast, free and convenient for users, but there’s always a cost for quality material.

As I know better than most, you can get free online journalism only if someone is paying journalists.

And digital access to public meetings requires equipment and skilled staff. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, for instance, broadcasts its meetings from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, which has a TV studio and a meeting chamber designed for sound and video.

When an April meeting involving important votes was scheduled for Butler High, CMS initially said it couldn’t provide live video. After Miller and others objected, the district resorted to the livestream app Periscope. Now the communications department hopes to add equipment and technology to expand its livestreaming options.

Likewise, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction is taking bids to upgrade its remote-access system. This week Communications Director Vanessa Jeter said the staff is just starting to figure out what the state’s budget compromise brings for DPI, but cuts have been the norm in recent years.

For now, people such as the families who care about Thunderbird in Cornelius, which faces a special Thursday meeting in Raleigh on its prospects for remaining open, will just have to click the audio link and hope they can follow the discussion.

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