Published Online:

The Varina Mission: Testing Reform for Others

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

"When trouble lurks, we call for a new strategy and probably reorganize. And when we reorganize, we usually stop at rearranging the boxes on the chart. The odds are high that nothing much will change. We will have chaos, even useful chaos for a while, but eventually the old culture will prevail. Old habit patterns persist. ... If we want change, we fiddle with the strategy. Or we change the structure. Perhaps the time has come to change our ways."--In Search of Excellence.

Henrico County, Va--In its search for excellence in the public high school, the State of Virginia is pouring close to $3 million into one school to inspire a statewide grassroots movement for reform.

For Varina High School in Henrico County near Richmond, now known also as the Governor's Center for Educational Innovation and Technology, the mission has been clearly stated: develop an array of exemplary practices in education that can be replicated at other schools.

To do that, school officials have first taken steps to restructure the school's or-ganization. The intent is to unshackle the principal from the "nitty-gritty" details of school management so he can focus on his role as curriculum and instructional leader; to involve a high percentage of teachers in shared decisionmaking; to an establish ongoing and effective staff-development program; and to personalize the school program for students.

But the real work--the difficult business of changing ways as well as means--must come after the new organization, policies, and procedures have been spelled out, project leaders say. And that is where the staff of Varina High School finds itself today: in the midst of a creative and evolving process aimed at changing attitudes and behaviors.

"If the structure and boxes are changed, the change is probably not meaningful and may last only for a short time," says the project administrator, E. Wayne Bullis, a former principal. "But if attitudes and patterns are changed, then I think you'll have significant and long-lasting change."

"That kind of change is incremental," he adds. "Attitudes and patterns are generally based on values and philosophies, and values and philosophies are not easily changed. That takes time and education. Sometimes we forget that we as educators also have to be educated."

Educating the Teachers

Not long after Gov. Charles S. Robb announced the project at a meeting of the Virginia Congress of Parent-Teacher Associations in October 1983, Varina's teachers were told that they would play a major role in designing reform initiatives for their school.

Among other things, they were asked to design a career-ladder plan, to develop a curriculum model, to practice and demonstrate effective instructional strategies using the latest research, and to determine how technology could best be used to enhance learning.

"The initial problem," Mr. Bullis says, "was making the teachers believe that what would happen with the project was their responsibility, because most projects that are brought to schools are imposed projects, and teachers are trained by and large to follow rather than to lead.

"Almost all of them were skeptical about whether or not they were really going to influence the project," he adds. "They kept looking for a hidden agenda. ... Throughout our organization people were followers, and we had to develop leaders."

The project, says John T. Casteen 3rd, the state's secretary of education, is an attempt "to rebuild local enthusiasm for support for involvement in local schools. We want the community to have ownership in that school. And they're not going to have that if I come in and say, 'Okay, guys, build a wall here, put word processing over there, and have your students take writing courses at 9:45 A.M."'

"The Governor and I," he adds, "do not lay down tight regulations and say, 'You must do this.' We try to spell out a set of goals and a mission and, to the extent the practitioners in the school are able to meet those things, we try to fund the cost of doing that."

$3.48-Million Investment

The state's three-year investment in the Varina project is expected to total $3.48 million, according to Callie P. Shingleton, administrative director of general education for the state department of education. (See box on opposite page.)

Among other purposes, she says, money is earmarked to purchase computers and establish an "electronic classroom" that broadcasts advanced-placement courses from Varina to other school districts that cannot afford to offer such courses; to pay consultants, staff members, and others for participation in staff-development programs; to supplement the salaries of those who reach the ranks of master and senior teacher on the career ladder; and to disseminate information and findings to other educators through workshops, videotapes, published materials, and on-site visits.

About $700,000 was spent in the 1983-84 planning year, says Ms. Shingleton, who helped design the project. This year's working budget is $1.27 million; next year's projected budget is $1.51 million.

"That's one thing you've got to give the Governor credit for," says Albert D. Fox, principal of Varina High School. "He and Dr. Casteen conceptualized an idea, a way to fund a project, and this was their idea. Their broad conceptualization was to take a typical school, give it some direction, but basically let it create its own destiny in terms of reform from the grass roots up. It's an interesting concept, and they gave it license by saying, 'Here, we're going to give you money to do it."'

Restructuring the Organization

State officials say Varina was chosen for the project because it draws students from rural, urban, and suburban communities, and its student population is representative of the state's as a whole. Varina is, Governor Robb said in announcing the project, a "model-in-miniature of what schools do in Virginia."

Like most schools in the state, and throughout the country, Varina used a traditional organizational structure. Mr. Fox, as principal, delegated certain tasks to two assistant principals and several department chairmen.

Today, Mr. Fox is assisted by Marti H. Collier, the administrator for school operations, whose position is described as "almost a co-principalship." And other management functions that were once the bailiwick of administrators are now shared by senior classroom teachers and other teachers who serve as administrative assistants. In all, 30 of Varina's 85 teachers participate daily in the operation of the school.

Fifteen of them spend part of their day as administrative assistants under Ms. Collier's leadership. For an annual $2,000 salary supplement--paid for with funds saved by abolish-ing the second assistant principalship--these administrative assistants teach five of the seven periods and work an extended day. During the other two periods, nine of the assistants handle discipline problems; the others handle duties related to student communications, student activities other than athletics, records and reports, facilities, transportation, and the cafeteria and school store.

Two additional administrative assistants--also teachers--are paid from state funds and another three are paid by the county. Three of them assist administrators, one coordinates staff-development activities, and the other manages the student-services center.

In addition, Mr. Fox, in his role as instructional leader, is assisted by six senior teachers, who work an extended day and year and receive $3,500 stipends, and four master teachers, who work an extended day and year and receive $5,000 salary supplements.

A senior teacher, according to the criteria developed by the Varina staff, is "one who displays the motivation and drive to become an educational specialist." A master teacher is an educational specialist. To be eligible, teachers must have a specified amount of experience and must receive high ratings on the Henrico County teacher-evaluation form.

The selections are made annually; teachers who receive the positions must re-apply each year.

Freed from 'Nitty-Gritty'

As a result of the reorganization, Mr. Fox says, "I'm already thinking less restrictively in terms of the nitty-gritty management details that take a lot of your energy. You can get tied up with one maintenance problem and spend all day on it. I don't do that anymore. You can get tied up with one discipline problem and spend all day on it. I don't do it anymore. Marti gets all that. That keeps me free, so that when I'm thinking, I'm thinking about personnel, curriculum ideas, and staff development."

Since Varina's charge is to test, modify, and refine innovative educational strategies for replication elsewhere, it is important, Mr. Fox says, to carefully monitor the new organizational structure.

"We've got to be careful that we don't rob Peter to pay Paul," he says. "If we take teachers and give them many administrative responsibilities--because they want them and because it gives them a chance to make more money--it gets them involved in the school's operation. But if we begin to bog them down in the same trivia, where it will affect their classroom, then, you see, we've just shifted the burden."

Using the Research

John I. Goodlad, in his book A Place Called School, suggests that states establish a network of district-based "key schools" that would be "specifically charged with the responsibility of developing exemplary practices extending beyond mere refinement of the conventional."

In these "key schools," he writes, "principals and teachers would meet regularly to exchange information, address common problems, and counteract isolationism and apathy."

According to Ms. Shingleton, Mr. Goodlad's research figured prominently in the development of the Varina project, which was jointly planned by representatives of the Virginia Department of Education and the Henrico County school system.

The legislature recently approved $109,280 for the planning of a similar program at an elementary school enrolling a large number of potential dropouts. Mr. Casteen said the state also plans to establish such centers at a middle school, a teacher's college, and a liberal-arts college.

"Local school people have been restricted to the four walls of their buildings," says S. John Davis, the state's superintendent of public instruction. "Unless they take some courses periodically at the local university, they're never given an opportunity to exchange ideas with their colleagues. They aren't really given encouragement to look at doing things differently. They aren't given an opportunity to suggest there may be a different way of delivering instruction programs, and that's what we're trying to do at Varina."

'Action Teams'

The change process at Varina begins with four "action teams" that are headed by teachers--one each for curriculum, instruction, faculty and staff development, and communications.

Each "action team" works with various task forces, also headed by teachers, that study such areas as course content, teaching strategies, career ladders, and partnerships with universities, business, and industry.

Their recommendations, which are reflected in "action-team" reports, are presented to the full faculty for comment. After approval or modification, the reports are sent to the Governor's Center Action Team, a 25-member decisionmaking body that includes representation from the state, the county, teachers, the administration, parents, and the community.

Mr. Davis of the state and William C. Bosher Jr., the superintendent of Henrico County schools, have veto power over all decisions.

Results of the process so far include a career-ladder plan, put into effect this year, and a curriculum model, which will be put into effect beginning in the 1985-86 school year. A staff-development proposal that incorporates inservice training into the regular school calendar every six weeks is before the Henrico County Board of Education for approval.

"I think what's happening at Varina is an example of a good application of Jeffersonian ideas,'' Mr. Bul

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories