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'Schools for 21st Century' Project Is Taking Off

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The Washington State Board of Education has approved 21 projects that represent a pioneering statewide effort to encourage individual schools and districts to experiment with reforms of their own design.

The new "Schools for the 21st Century'' program, which lawmakers endorsed last year as part of a sweeping school-improvement bill proposed by Gov. Booth Gardner, will provide $2.5 million in grants for the locally developed experiments.

The recipients include nine elementary schools, one middle school, five high schools, four entire districts, and parts of two districts.

State officials say the program was modeled on the recommendations of "A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century,'' the influential 1986 report by the Carnegie Task Force on Teaching as a Profession that helped spawn a national movement for increased school-based decisionmaking and control.

Some schools and districts have already initiated such programs, but Washington is the first state to do so statewide.

The goal of the program, Governor Gardner said in announcing the projects at a June 8 press conference, is to encourage schools to develop new ideas for change, such as empowering teachers and increasing the level of cooperation between schools and community members.

"We decided to take the risk and say to the local schools, 'This baby is yours,''' said Ronn Robinson, the Governor's assistant for education.

"The idea is that if the schools have bought into their own plans for reform, they'll make it work,'' he said.

Selection Process

The schools and districts chosen for the program will have six years to conduct their experiments. More schools will be allowed to join the program in future years.

State officials have agreed to waive certain regulations that may hinder the projects, such as those stipulating the length of the school day and curriculum requirements.

But only seven of the program's participants have thus far requested such waivers, said Marcia L. Castello, the program's coordinator.

Although each grantee will be responsible for evaluating its project, Ms. Castello said the state would conduct its own evaluations to determine whether any of the experiments merit replication elsewhere.

'A Difficult Choice'

The grantees were chosen by a 10-member task force consisting of representatives from the Governor's office, the state board of education, school administrators, teachers, and parents. Carla M. Nuxoll, vice president of the Washington Education Association and a member of the task force, said the group reviewed 135 applications. "It was a very difficult choice,'' she said.

Ms. Nuxoll said the group looked specifically for proposals that had been developed as a cooperative effort by the districts, schools, and the community.

The projects that were approved varied widely. For example:

  • The rural Colton school district will use its grant to experiment with computers, satellite transmissions, and compact videodiscs.
  • Montlake Elementary School in Seattle will continue its effort to reduce class sizes and improve staff development.
  • Sehome High School in Bellingham plans to use "peer coaching'' for teachers and to restructure its school day.

Officials in many of the schools and districts chosen for the program say that the state's support and enthusiasm has already helped to foster change.

Climate of Enthusiasm

Michael Johnson, superintendent of the Colton district, said county residents had recently approved a $27,000 bond referendum to supplement state funding for the district's expensive high-tech project.

Some schools had already launched their own experimental programs. At Montlake Elementary, for example, Principal LaVaun Dennett has received national acclaim for her innovations with class structure and her refusal to label children as handicapped or slow learners. (See Education Week, April 13, 1988.)

In the past, Ms. Dennett said, her push for reform was not always warmly received by district or state officials.

But with the adoption of the "Schools for the 21st Century'' program, she said, "there's a real sense of acceptance and validity on the part of the state. It seems like people are more actively looking for solutions.''

'Carnegie Schools'

A similar program has been approved in Massachusetts, where lawmakers in December passed legislation to establish a network of "Carnegie schools.''

Susan L. Freedman, the Massachusetts education department's director for community education, said seven or eight schools would be chosen this week co June 23 to participate in the first phase of the program.

But because the legislature is currently in the midst of budget debate, it is still unclear whether the $1.7- million requested for the program will be provided.

Fiscal troubles also blocked the adoption of similar legislation in Kentucky and West Virginia this year, but the proposals are expected to be reconsidered in both states.

The concept has also been discussed in Arkansas, and officials there said they expected legislation to be introduced next year.

And Washington State's program will most likely double in size and funding by 1990, predicted Mr. Robinson of the Governor's office.

"We want to take it as far and fast as we can within reason,'' he said.

Some critics of the program argue that the state's schools are woefully underfunded, and that the state should increase support for all its schools rather than a select few.

But Mr. Robinson countered: "We don't have the time or the resources to put more money into all schools to achieve radical change.''

"The whole point is that we have to raise the level of expectations as to how schools and students can reform,'' he said. "Just dumping money in is not the answer.''

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