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Dade County Invites Proposals To Design From Scratch and Operate 49 New Schools

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In an unprecedented move, school officials in Dade County, Fla., plan to invite educators and others nationwide to submit proposals for designing and operating 49 schools that the district hopes to build within the next seven years.

Any group--ranging from a team of teachers and administrators to a private foundation--could submit ideas for creating a new school from the ground up, said Joseph A. Fernandez, superintendent of the school district.

If the proposal is approved by a joint labor-management committee and by the school board, the group would have a year's time to flesh out its theories before it began running the school.

"Sometimes we just need to find out, is there a better mousetrap out there?" said Pat L. Tornillo, president of United Teachers of Dade, in explaining his union's support for the initiative. "Is there someone who feels that they've got an idea for running a school that is better than what we're doing now?"

"We're not saying that we're going to automatically approve those ideas," he cautioned, "but we're certainly going to look at them. And if they have got a better notion, then we're going to invite them in, whether it's a corporation, a union, a team of teachers, or whatever.''

Known as the Saturn School Project, the initiative is named after a group of automobile plants created by the General Motors Corporation in which labor-management teams have collaborated to redesign the workplace.

Like other recent attempts to reform the Dade County schools, the project is a joint undertaking of the district and the teachers' union, which is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

In the past few years, the sprawling urban school system has achieved national acclaim for its moves to return more authority to principals and teachers at individual schools.

Under its School-Based Management/Shared-Decisionmaking Program, teams of teachers, parents, administrators, and others at approximately 100 schools in the Miami area are making decisions about their schools' budgets, instructional strategies, and curriculum.

Teachers in Dade County are also involved in helping architects design the specifications for new schools, and in selecting and hiring their school principals.

'A Lot of Models'

According to Mr. Fernandez, the Saturn Project is designed to "accelerate" the pace of reform within the district.

"We're moving away from having all schools be exactly the same," he said. "We've been standardized and that hasn't really done what we wanted it to do. We think there are a lot of other models out there that we haven't even thought of yet."

The experimental schools will have wide latitude in allocating their budgets and could request waivers from policies and contract provisions that stand in their way.

In exchange, the schools' staff members will have to describe how they plan to improve student achievement and develop specific strategies for measuring and reporting on their progress.

They also will be expected to create some mechanism for teachers, administrators, and others to share decisionmaking authority.

The district has limited the first request for proposals to individuals within the Miami area. The rfp is focused on a high school that will open in 1990-91.

Within the next six to eight weeks, however, school officials plan to begin soliciting proposals nationwide for a series of elementary and middle schools that are scheduled to open the same year. Additional requests for proposals will go out one year prior to the projected occupancy date for each building.

"We're just doing it locally first, because we want to go through the process that we've laid out" and see what modifications are needed, said Frank R. Petruzielo, associate superintendent for the district's bureau of professionalization.

Mr. Fernandez predicted that in the near future the school district would begin advertising in various educational journals and holding a series of regional workshops to explain what the district is seeking.

Proposed Requirements

District officials noted that the experimental schools must operate4within a broad set of guidelines.

Each proposal must include:

A mission statement or a philosophical framework for the school;

A description of the architectural structure that will be needed to complement the school's programs;

A proposed curriculum;

Plans for selecting and allocating faculty members;

A description of how the student population will be organized;

A model for shared decisionmaking at the school site; and

An explanation of the resources and schedule necessary for carrying out the proposal.

In addition, the projects must draw on educational research or on other information that suggests the program has a chance of succeeding.

Demographic Profiles

Each of the 49 schools is to be a "relief school," to ease overcrowding in pre-existing buildings.

For that reason, Mr. Fernandez said, the school system has detailed information on the student population that will be attending the new schools. Planning teams will be expected to use that information in shaping their projects.

Although the teams could assist in designing the building, he added, the emphasis will be on changes in curriculum, instruction, school organization, and management that could improve student learning.

After the school board approves a Saturn Project, the district will provide each planning team with training that reviews current research on school restructuring and teacher professionalism, and that assists the team with school-based budgeting and shared decisionmaking.

District officials also are exploring the possibility of contracting with a demographer to develop detailed profiles of the student and community populations at each school.

And they hope to bring in outside consultants to work with the planning teams on developing ways, above and beyond standardized tests, to assess the "educational8health" of a school.

Mr. Petruzielo said the district also would like to work with two or three high-tech firms on better ways to use technology at the new sites.

But school officials do not anticipate that the Saturn Project will cost substantially more than current district programs. Each school will receive a lump sum equivalent to the normal operating budget for a school with a similar student population.

"The fact of the matter is, we're kind of anxious to see whether some of the proposals that come in might be very different in terms of cost-savings," said Mr. Tornillo.

Reasonable 'Risks'

Mr. Fernandez said he did not expect the new schools to show any positive results for three to five years, although they will be evaluated from the beginning.

School officials admitted that there are some risks involved in the new project, including the complicated arrangements that will be needed for the district to develop collaborative programs with corporations, universities, and others.

But Mr. Tornillo argued, "We need to get over this feeling that we can't do something because we're taking a risk. ... I think the biggest risk we face is maintaining the status quo."

Agreed G. Holmes Braddock, vice chairman of the school board: "Our whole board has taken the attitude that education needs some restructuring. And if you think it needs that, then you can't not take risks."

"A lot of things that we're doing now don't work," he added, "so if we try something else and it doesn't work either, we haven't lost anything."

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