Groveport Madison school district officials plan to schedule what they're calling "community engagement sessions" to look at public perception of facility needs and grade configurations after classes resume in the fall.

The district paid Hanover Research of Arlington, Virginia, $39,500 to conduct a survey on the same topic and results were presented to the school board via telephone conference call in June.

Although board members accepted the report, they made it clear they weren't happy with how some of the information was gathered.

An online questionnaire garnered responses from 954 district residents, but board members were concerned about the very small number of people who participated in focus group sessions.

Anthony Guadagni, senior content director for Hanover, told the board during the conference call the company hoped to have about 24 participants in two focus groups in April, but only nine showed up.

Board member Libby Gray questioned whether that was enough for Hanover to be able to draw any conclusions and member Mary Tedrow said she was concerned that the focus groups did not represent the entire district.

"We aim at 12 parents per focus group and we over-recruit by 3, so we had 15 parents for each," Guadagni said. "Unfortunately, we had a higher-than-usual number of no-shows and we only had nine total."

Gray suggested that the company should have tried something else to gain attendance at the groups.

"Why would you not when you found out there was only nine people and why wouldn't you go with a different route to try to come up with a better outcome or better numbers?" Gray said. "I feel like I can't rely on any of this because nine people isn't telling me anything."

Despite the lack of participation, Guadagni told the board he believes the "results are still valid."

"Focus-group research is not meant to be the same qualitative research that a survey is," he said.

Guadagni said the results from the focus groups indicated:

* Parents did not have a clear understanding about grade reconfigurations and wanted to know more about building locations, costs and the logistics involved.

* When considering grade reconfigurations, parents are concerned about old buildings, the stress of school transitions and the importance of "developmental age-group segmentation."

* Parents see the potential need for a community learning center but do not "express many personal needs for one."

* Preferences for grade configurations were different between the focus groups and the survey respondents, Guadagni said.

The survey results showed more people were interested in a K-8 grade configuration but focus group results indicated parents preferred a system that separates students into a K-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8, and 9-12 configuration, he said.

However, Guadagni said focus group parents started to shift their preference to the K-8 configuration once they learned more about it.

"Over the course of these conversations and reading through the transcripts, you could really see perceptions start to shift and sway very quickly," Guadagni said.

Board President Bryan Shoemaker questioned the accuracy of this perceived shift, again because of the small number of focus group participants.

"You're basing this shift on nine peoples' opinions," Shoemaker said. "Nine peoples' opinion is not a major shift."

The Hanover Research report recommended the district:

* Develop a "well-articulated proposal to describe a K-8 grade configuration to the community," clearly explaining how students would be segmented by age groups within a K-8 system.

* Complete a study to determine the difference in costs between a K-8 grade reconfiguration and new buildings in the existing grade configuration.

* Conduct a "needs assessment for a potential community learning center.

District communications director Jeff Warner said district officials would take the Hanover information "under advisement," but more information is needed before any decisions are made regarding grade configurations.

"I believe there is general agreement from the board that we follow up with community input sessions to obtain additional input from a broader cross-section of the community," Warner said.

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