'The Sky's the Limit'
In this city of constant flux, the schools are always running to stay ahead of new demands.
But one venture, in particular, has attracted national notice.
Thirty-two schools here have been given unprecedented control over how they spend money, allocate staff, and organize instruction, based on the idea that autonomy--rather than mandates--will help schools thrive.
Each school, however, must meet two, pivotal requirements: Principals and teachers must devise ways to run the school together. And whatever changes they make make must have a measurable benefit for students.
The pilot program is part of a growing national movement to "restructure" schools, by reducing regulatory control and encouraging teachers to shape their work environment.
Dade County--the fourth-largest school district in the nation--has carried those ideas further than most.
"What we're talking about," says Leonard Britton, the former Dade superintendent who began the program, "is a quantum leap in the way individual schools are organized and managed."
Pat L. Tornillo Jr., president of the local teachers' union, United Teachers of Dade, says, "We are convinced that kids are going to get a better education when the decisions that affect them are made in the schools they're attending, by the people who are there in the classroom."
The union leader is a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers and one of the project's inventors.
'Sky Is the Limit'
The four-year experiment, known as "School-Based Management/Shared Decision-Making," does not provide schools with any additional funds.
"If we'd thrown a few million dollars into this, we wouldn't be proving the point, that the type of management makes a real impact," says Gerald O. Dreyfuss, the assistant superintendent in charge of the project.
However, each school receives far more control over its expenditures than is common. In addition, the 32 schools report directly to the central administration and bypass the district's mid-level management.
Most schools, Mr. Dreyfuss says, receive their budgets in the form of "units"--so many teachers, so many secretaries, so many administrators.
Their only discretionary funds are for materials, supplies, and equipment, which typically amount to about 10 percent of the budget.
In contrast, each school in the pilot program receives its budget as a total dollar figure, based on an allotment of approximately $3,411 per student.
Starting with that lump sum, schools can devise their budgets as they see fit. Even within categorical programs, where state and federal mandates limit local discretion, the schools have received as much freedom as possible.
Under the program, they can carry money over from one year to the next; spend dollars on equipment, utilities, or staff; or hire teachers' aides in place of an assistant principal.
"The instructions to schools were very simple," says Joseph A. Fernandez, the school district's current superintendent. "We told them the sky is the limit."
"We had to get them to believe that we were serious ... about moving out all the impediments that we had in place."
As part of the project, both the school board and the union have agreed to waive district regulations and contract provisions that stand in the way of educational change, as long as the exemptions can be justified.
More than 100 waivers have been granted thus far.
The school board, for instance, has suspended requirements regarding maximum class size, the length of the school day, the number of minutes per subject, and when report cards should be handed out.
The union has enabled teachers in specific schools to give up their planning periods, work longer hours for no additional pay, and evaluate their peers.
It has also changed the grievance procedures within the schools, so that most complaints by teachers are handled at the school site.
'Just Keep Moving'
After one year of planning, the schools began carrying out their proposed changes in September.
A smaller group of 11 inner-city schools is engaged in a similar project, with the infusion of added funds and technical assistance.
The programs are part of a broader effort to "professionalize" teaching within the county. Other changes include a "teaching academy" that provides educators with nine-week sabbaticals to engage in research; small "satellite" schools located within industry and run by teachers; and plans to create a peer evaluation system.
Albert Shanker, president of the aft, says, "Dade County is starting to do things that schools across America haven't even thought about yet."
Provisions for such innovations are contained in the district's three-year contract, which includes a highly unusual section devoted to the "professionalism" of teaching.
When that contract expires in July, Mr. Tornillo hopes to negotiate $30,000 starting salaries for teachers.
He would also like to initiate some form of career ladder that would enable the district's best teachers to earn $60,000 for 10 months of work.
"There are so many components of professionalization that both the superintendent and I believe it's not possible to do piecemeal," says Mr. Tornillo about the changes.
"Whatever is going to happen with the professionalization of teaching needs to happen as rapidly as possible," he argues.
"One way to do that is to try as many different things as you can at the same time," he continues, "see which ones work, see which ones don't, make the adjustments, and just keep moving."
Why Risk It?
From the outside, the biggest mystery is why the school district has taken such risks.
Dade County is a sprawling urban school system, encompassing some 280 schools in Miami and its environs.
The county was wracked by racial riots as recently as 1980. That same year, a former superintendent left the district, following charges of cronyism and misuse of school funds.
Of the county's 255,000 students, approximately three-fourths are members of a minority group, primarily black or Hispanic.
Already plagued by chronic overcrowding, the system is expected to grow by as many as 45,000 children within the next five years.
Its teacher shortage has been so severe that the district routinely recruits from out of state.
"We've got the best of everything, and we also have the worst," says Brenda Fuentes, an assistant principal at Riviera Junior High School, which is participating in the pilot program.
"Miami has been forced into a situation where if we're going to make things work, the county government, the school system, everybody has got to work together," she says.
Noted Mr. Fernandez, in an interview with the teachers' union: "There is disenchantment with test scores and a perception that we aren't doing well. It's not just the inner-city school communities who express these concerns."
"Somehow," he added, "we have to broaden the scope of commitment to the entire community."
Janet McAliley, a member of the school board, agrees: "We're constantly dealing with change in our community. And you just can't stick with the old methods and expect to address new problems that are thrown at you every day."
"We don't pretend to have all the answers," she says. "If we did, we'd have our test scores way up there, and we would have a very low dropout rate, and so forth.
"We don't have that, so we're seeking new solutions."
The kinds of solutions proposed by schools in the pilot program vary widely.
Most of the elementary schools have asked for waivers from the district's "balanced curriculum" mandates, which specify how many minutes must be spent on each subject.
Some schools have opened up on Saturdays to teach children in a more informal setting. Others have added before- and after-school programs.
Schools are experimenting with changes in the delivery of bilingual instruction. And they are trying alternatives to traditional staffing patterns: hiring aides instead of an assistant principal; employing teachers by the hour to save funds; and creating new positions, such as ''discipline manager" and "enrichment coordinator."
"A lot of them are going to differentiated staffing," says Mr. Dreyfuss. "That's what it is, essentially."
Palmetto Elementary School has contracted with the Berlitz School of Language to teach its students Spanish. Teachers at the school have also given up their planning time in order to reduce class size during basic-skills instruction.
Bunche Park Elementary School has created a developmental program for 5-year-olds that includes monthly "hands on" workshops for parents.
In addition, teachers have created their own report cards, which they provide every six weeks, so that families will have timely, detailed information about their children.
Kendale Elementary School has restructured its curriculum to provide for "block scheduling." All students receive two hours of academic instruction in the morning and enrichment activities in the afternoon.
Miami Sunset Senior High School has added a 35-minute "teacher as adviser" program in the middle of the school day, so that teachers can counsel small groups of students about suicide, drug abuse, and stress-related problems. To do that, the school reduced most classes from 50 minutes to 45 minutes.
Teachers at the school are also serving as "buddies" for those students identified as least likely to graduate.
The philosophy behind the program "is that you adjust to your student population," says Ms. Fuentes. "What's educationally sound for one school is not educationally sound for another."
New Management Structures
Each school in the pilot venture volunteered to participate based on a two-thirds vote of its faculty and the approval of the principal.
Schools also submitted proposals detailing how they would like to change instruction; how they would share decisionmaking among teachers, administrators, parents, and others; and how they would measure the impact on students.
Instead of mandating a particular shared-decisionmaking model, the district allowed the schools to create their own management structures.
The results range from "quality circles" composed of teachers to administrative councils that include representatives of everyone from cafeteria workers to parents.
"I think we'll have a lot more input into what goes on here," predicts Betsy Kreisberg, president of the parent-teacher association at Kendale Elementary School. "The whole project is very exciting, because it allows the particular school to meet the educational needs of its community."
'What Have We Done?'
In some schools, final authority for most decisions still resides with the principal. In others, administrators have agreed to share almost all decisions with their staff, including the hiring and firing of personnel.
At Miami Lakes Elementary School, for instance, Principal Margarita A. Davis replaced three teachers with substitutes for a day, so that the teachers could interview and hire six hourly aides. Ms. Davis declined to be present at the interviews.
"I said, 'You hire them, and if they don't perform, you will fire them,"' she says.
Sometimes, principals have gone too far. Recalls Mr. Tornillo, with a chuckle, "In one school, we had to go in and help correct the situation. You talk about mistakes--the principal had given everything away, literally everything. He had no veto power over anything.
"And, suddenly, he and the faculty realized, 'Oh my God, what have we done?"'
Such mistakes were expected in a venture with so many risks for both teachers and management.
"We have told people that there are going to be some failures," says Mr. Fernandez. "We wanted that, because we didn't want to in any way deter them from thinking, from creating. We wanted to remove that threat from hanging over their heads."
"What we have said," he adds, "is that we're not leaving anything to chance. If we see something that is not working, we can go in and try to correct it."
"Let's not continue like we often do in education: We put things in, and we leave them there whether they're good or not."
History of Cooperation
The cooperation among teachers and administrators that enables such risk-taking to occur dates back to the district's first union contract, negotiated in 1973.
At the time, the union and the school board agreed to set up joint task forces that would meet throughout the year to resolve issues that could not be agreed upon at the bargaining table.
Recalls Mr. Tornillo, "It was the first time that both the union and management were sitting down together over a period of time to address difficult issues."
The working relationships that emerged led to the creation in the mid-1970's of a faculty council at each school, to discuss school-based problems.
And in 1985, those relationships spurred the creation of a joint task force on the "professionalization of teaching," co-chaired by Mr. Britton and Mr. Tornillo.
"We wanted to show everyone in the school system how important the two of us felt what we were talking about was," recalls the union leader about the position both men assumed on the task force.
The two executives also spent six months traveling across the district, trying to sell teachers, administrators, and parents on the notion of "teacher professionalism."
The joint task force eventually developed most of the plans that the district is promoting today, and that were incorporated into the union contract. It also serves as the primary oversight committee for all of the district's professionalization efforts.
'Open the Floodgates'
When Mr. Britton left at the end of last year to become superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, his successor, Mr. Fernandez, continued to forge ahead.
If anything, observers note, the new superintendent--who has worked in the district since 1963--has been even more of a risk-taker than his predecessor.
"He's very, very decisive," says Ms. McAliley. "He will make decisions and worry about the consequences later. Leonard Britton made his decisions much more carefully. Joe Fernandez decides what has to be done and goes ahead and does it."
Says Mr. Fernandez: "It's like we've opened up the floodgates. Once we started down this path of professionalization, lots of new ideas came in."
Eventually, the superintendent adds, he would like to see most decisions in the district made at the school site.
"Schools which are effective8should be left alone to continue whatever it is that makes them effective," he explains. "Administrators should focus their attention on the schools which aren't effective."
Scrutiny and Caution
For now, however, the program is not without its detractors, many of whom are located in the school system's middle management.
According to observers, they include both supervisors who view their authority as threatened and principals who do not want to change.
"Other principals think we'renuts," says Lawrence Feldman, principal of Palmetto Elementary School, one of 18 elementary schools in the pilot program.
"I'm sure teachers get the same reaction from their peers," he adds.
Faculty members in schools not involved in the pilot program are watching the effort "critically" and with a "great deal of scrutiny," Mr. Feldman says. "They obviously are sitting back and letting us do the dirty work."
Peter Bucholtz, principal of Palmetto Senior High School, one of four high schools in the program, says, "There's a standing joke when I see other principals: 'Did the faculty vote to let you out of the building today?"'
The jest captures the discomfort he thinks principals feel about the project.
'Didn't Believe Possible'
Some teachers as well remain skeptical.
At some pilot schools, faculty complain in private that administratorsare hanging on to the most important decisions and that their management style has not changed.
At other schools, teachers refused to participate in the program, in part, because of the time involved.
And many teachers continue to wonder whether the program is just a passing fad.
"Teachers didn't believe that it was possible, especially when it came to the shared-decisionmaking part," says Mercides Hunter, a 3rd4grade teacher at Palmetto Elementary School and the building's union representative. "They thought it would just be another thing where somebody would dictate to us."
Richard Kilmer, principal of Palmetto Junior High School, says his faculty voted against participating in the pilot program, in part, because of "fear of the unknown."
"Their general feeling was that they wanted to sit back for a year or two, just to see what the school-based management program entailed,'' he says.
'Nothing Is Safe'
Sighs Mr. Fernandez: "'The administration is in bed with the union, and vice-versa.' You hear it second- and third-hand. The interesting thing about it is that the union gets the same kinds of comments from its membership."
"We're not forgetting our roles," he asserts. "My role is to provide the best education I can to the children of this district. If one way to do that is through a better working relationship with the union, then I'm all for it."
Both he and Mr. Tornillo contend that even the skeptics are coming around.
Already, there are more schools clamoring to get into the program, they say. And they predict that the number of schools will grow as the success of the venture becomes apparent.
"There's just no way to find out if this is going to work without doing it," says Mr. Tornillo. "This is not something that can be submitted to the researchers."
"If you want to be safe, you shouldn't even take the first step in this whole professionalization movement, because nothing is safe about it."