Dade's School Restructuring: A Trip Into 'Uncharted Territory'
Miami--The task of redefining traditional lines of authority in schools is far from easy, according to participants in Dade County's pilot program, who express a mixture of optimism and frustration.
"We're all feeling our way in this," says Elliott Berman, principal of Southwood Junior High School. "We're moving into uncharted territory, and trying to get it to run smoothly."
With few guidelines from the district about how the management structure in the schools should operate, or which decisions should be open to question, "we had a hard time laying the groundwork," agrees Carol Katsikas, an 8th-grade English teacher at the school.
'Prefer a Principal'
That view was shared by faculty members at Kendale Elementary School, who began to draft a "school constitution" last month, only to realize that no one had decided where the principal's role began and the teachers' responsibilities ended.
Most schools are still feeling their way around that thorny question.
"Teachers don't want to run the school; we found that out," says Gerald O. Dreyfuss, the assistant superintendent in charge of the program.
"They don't want to be bothered with custodial duties, or buying supplies, or visiting with the parents when they come in with a complaint," he states. "They're more interested in getting into the curriculum aspects, into the budget. They want to be involved in the scheduling process."
"But there are certain things that they prefer a principal to do."
Ms. Katsikas, for one, says, "I'm not sure the hiring and firing of teachers should be up to" the faculty.
"Everything should be open to be talked about," she reasons, "but not necessarily to be acted upon."
The process of reaching consensus has also proven to be incredibly time-consuming.
At Palmetto Senior High School, a 32-member planning group has been meeting every Wednesday after school since September, on a voluntary basis.
Eventually, Principal Peter Bucholtz worries, the number of meetings will have to be reduced. "The time commitment is a problem," he says.
"What we're finding is that teachers are working on Saturdays and meeting at night in each other's homes," says Mr. Dreyfuss. "But I don't think it can go on indefinitely. We're going to have to find time in all our schools to do that within the school day."
Creating open lines of communication has also proven difficult, particularly for the junior and senior high schools involved in the program.
"We've found that the communications network has to be worked on constantly and refined," says Mr.8Bucholtz. "We thought we were communicating with people, but it wasn't happening."
In October, the school held a daylong social event in the library, so that faculty could use their planning periods to discuss their concerns about the program with others on an individual basis.
Shirley Hakimian, chairman of student services at the school and leader of the shared-decisionmaking cadre, says, "I find myself in a greater leadership role with each day that passes."
"Teachers come to me now with personal problems involving their departments, their role in their departments, asking advice. What that is really saying," she adds, "is that we have broken through the traditional types of communication."
Training Is Key
To get the program started, the central administration provided each school with $6,250 to provide training for its staff members.
Each school was also assigned an "intern principal" for the summer, so that the regular principal would have time to work with his or her faculty on the project.
In addition, the union and the school district have held several two-day workshops thus far to provide training on budgeting, conflict resolution, and other issues to five members from each school.
But Pat L. Tornillo Jr., president of the teachers' union, says, "We didn't give schools enough money for trainel10ling. That's what they're crying for."
"You just can't throw shared decisionmaking out there and say, 'Okay, here it is. Go with it'," he says.
Teachers and principals have both expressed a need for more training on how to run group meetings, arrive at consensus, and manage budgets.
Moreover, a number of schools are already going back and revising plans that may have been unrealistic.
Mr. Tornillo says that both he and the superintendent had serious concerns about whether some of the plans would work.
"But we decided, 'It doesn't matter what we think'," he says. "'We cannot go in and tell these people what to do. They've got to find out for themselves, if we really believe in this process.' "
Some schools, for example, thought that they would receive additional money for participating in the program, despite written statements to the contrary.
Riviera Junior High School's initial proposal included plans to refurbish the library and air-condition and renovate the auditorium. The school also proposed adding a seventh period to the school day for each child in grades 7-9.
Other schools proposed revamping the science and social-studies content in each grade; abolishing grade-by-grade promotion; creating honors tracks for some students; or abolishing tracking for others. In4many instances, the schools have had to revise their schedules for such plans and learn to be patient.
"We correct where we have to, and we take a step back and then three steps forward," says Lawrence Feldman, principal of Palmetto Elementary School. "My school has really blossomed under this."
Even so, says Mercides Hunter, a 3rd-grade teacher at the school and the union's building representative, "I'm looking forward to getting to the point when we've ironed all the kinks out. Sometimes, when you embark on something, initially, it seems like it's not working as smoothly as you would like."
What has been most surprising, teachers and principals agree, was their realization of how many changes they could have made even before joining the pilot program.
"Probably we could have done more than we thought we could," says Donna Lozar, principal at Kendale Elementary School. "It's just that nobody encouraged us to try."
"People who try to do things differently aren't always looked upon with favor," she adds. "It's like, 'Who are you to rock the boat?' "
Now, she says, such experimentation is not only encouraged, but "applauded."
Adds Mr. Tornillo: "We believe that what we've done is open Pandora's box. It's an idea that, once launched, there's no way to stop."