‘Magic Circle,’ Experts Inspire School District to Plan Ahead – 2008

By Eric Czarnik – C & G Staff Writer – Birmingham-Bloomfield Eagle (MI) – February 6, 2008

WEST BLOOMFIELD – Expert analysis, brainstorming sessions and a mystical drawing called a mandala helped unite school activists behind the creation of a strategic plan for Bloomfield Hills Schools. More than 100 people – including invited guests and volunteers – filled the cafeteria of West Hills Middle School during a “strategic champions” retreat Feb. 2.

The meeting was part of BHS’ strategic planning process, which began late last year under consulting firm Project Innovations Inc. and its founder, Charlie Fleetham.
Fleetham said the conference could produce ideas for the strategic plan, which will be completed in June. The plan will help the district deal with declining enrollment and economic challenges over the next 10 years.

“We want people coming with plugs plugged in and the electricity flowing through the circuits,” he said.

Coming full circle after a brief introduction, Fleetham called attention to his mandala, an Eastern, circular design that he drew to depict the district’s essence. After translating “mandala” as a “magic circle,” he said the image can represent wholeness and unconsciously calm people’s conflict. The mandala is part of Fleetham’s system of Unrational Leadership, a theory inspired by psychiatrist Carl Jung that uses both “rational and irrational” problem solving methods.

Fleetham said he drew the mandala for BHS – called “Leaving Comfortopia” – after reading 6 pounds of documents and conducting 28 interviews with school officials and citizens. According to Project Innovations, mandala artists draw with their “inner hand” as visions unconsciously come to them.
Inside the image, Fleetham drew stars, water waves and tree branches while labeling core issues like testing, the curriculum, student spending and the high schools. An image of a map split in two symbolized the district’s east-west tensions.

In the mandala’s center, a compass is surrounded by four hexagrams, which are six-lined symbols. Those symbols are used for divination in an ancient Chinese book called the I Ching. When asked, Fleetham did not reveal the hexagrams’ different meanings. During the mandala exercise, Fleetham invited people to share their feelings. BHS spokeswoman Betsy Erikson called the exercise smart and useful.

“I was impressed at the way it captured the issues,” she said. “I think this makes it more understandable and more emotional.”

Outside views Fleetham did not just inspire the activists with drawings. He also brought experts to speak on the district’s economics, demographics, facilities and curriculum.
Scott Watkins, a consultant at Anderson Economic Group, said BHS was competing well against other school districts in reaching out to upper-middle-class families. But his report said enrollment has recently dropped due to declining birth rates and families leaving Michigan. While the turbulent economy is slashing jobs, he also said the Bloomfield area might cope better than other places. That is because many residents hold high-end occupations that are less prone to job cuts, he said.

Dave Vago of civil engineering firm Wade Trim tackled the debate on high school renovations versus rebuilding. He said while it might be less costly and less controversial to renovate the high schools, building one new, central high school could improve the community’s image and promote adaptability.

“I can’t make that decision based on program needs,” Vago said.

“The sentiment of the community has got to drive the show.” Suzanne Wilson, chair of the teacher education department at Michigan State University, said BHS must prepare students for the global economy. She advised the schools to keep a balanced curriculum and to know the difference between having a culture of accountability and a culture of testing.
“In an age where school systems are being pressed to prove that they’re good, we tend to pull away from the very things that educate the whole child,” she said.

Talking it out Twice throughout the day, the audience broke off into small groups to discuss scenarios that could hit the school district in the future. Fleetham offered three plausible scenarios that differed on the severity of enrollment declines and also on the economy’s status. In each case, the school board tried to adapt through solutions like creating magnet schools, selling assets and promoting a testing culture. While the scenarios were not sure forecasts, they were meant to promote discussion, Fleetham said.

Most of the event facilitators said their groups had fruitful dialogue, and a few groups had some support for building one new high school. In closing, school board President Mary Ellen Miller praised the audience’s enthusiasm. “You can feel the energy in the room,” she said. “It’s almost a feeling like everyone wants to keep working on this subject until we get where we want to be.”

For more information on Bloomfield Hills Schools’ strategic plan, visit http://strategicplan.bloomfield.org For more information on Project Innovations Inc., visit http://www.projectinnovations.com