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Published in Print: February 6, 1991, as Backed by N.E.A., Memphis Schools Serve as 'Laboratories' for Reforms

Backed by N.E.A., Memphis Schools Serve as 'Laboratories' for Reforms

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Memphis--Beware of the Vipers.

Two years ago, police received as as many as two dozen reports of assaults, larcenies, and trespassing at a tough, inner-city junior high school here whose students are known by that intimidating nickname.

Today, visitors to Vance Junior High School are likely to be beaten--on the basketball court, by the undefeated girls' team--or ambushed, albeit courteously, by student reporters gathering information for the school's twice-daily news broadcasts.

"Three years ago, we were classified as a war zone. Now we're a school," said the Rev. Maurice Dickerson, a parent and president of the local school council that governs Vance.

This year, a single assault and a couple of trespassing problems have been reported, according to Larry Hill, security supervisor for the Memphis public schools.

The transformation of Vance Junior High into a graffiti-free institution whose students and teachers alike evince unbounding pride and enthusiasm is an early success, local school officials say, for a homegrown reform project that has earned the backing of the nation's largest teachers' union.

Bordered by abandoned buildings and rows of public housing, Vance is one of seven troubled schools here that were selected in 1989 to pioneer a district initiative encompassing site-based management, shared decisionmaking, and deregulation.

Conceived by Superintendent of Schools Willie W. Herenton and supported by the Memphis Education Association, the initiative was subsequently designated a National Education Association "Learning Lab" by the national union. Aid for the Memphis project represents a relatively new direction for the N.E.A. and reflects a greater willingness by its leaders to relax union doctrine for the sake of school reform.

"I don't believe that we ought to be the roadblock to a local affiliate going to the bargaining table and doing something innovative," the N.E.A.'s president, Keith B. Geiger, said while touring four of the Learning Lab schools here last month.

Throughout the Vance Junior High building, Mr. Geiger and other guests found students reciting what became a familiar refrain: "Best in Memphis, best in Tennessee."

"It used to be that we had [students] who couldn't get along," Vanchez Branch, a 9th-grade student, said. "Now everybody acts like sisters and brothers."

But more than boosterism is ascending at Vance.

In the spring of 1989, the school's 7th graders were at the bottom of the heap--39th out of 39--in the district's ranking of students in that grade who had gained seven or more months in mathematical ability on the California Achievement Test. In the spring of 1990, according to a report by school officials, Vance had jumped to number two, with its percentage of 7th graders who had posted such gains increasing from 22.4 percent to 71.8 percent.

In 1989, only 15.5 percent of the the Vance 7th graders scored at or higher than their grade level in math. In a single year, the report says, they more than doubled that percentage, to 36.4 percent.

In addition, 7th graders showed improvement in reading, and 8th graders advanced in their math achievements. Only 8th-grade reading showed no signs of improvement.

"We are experimenting," cautioned Dorothy B. Evans, principal of Vance Junior High. "We don't know whether some of these [reforms] will be a success or not."

Memphis, which has the highest poverty rate of the 100 largest metropolises in the nation, also has a large proportion of poor children enrolled in its schools. Fifty-three percent are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, and an estimated one-third are from families on welfare.

Frustrated with other attempts to educate impoverished and minority children in urban school systems, Superintendent Herenton three years ago proposed a comprehensive reform plan, part of which called for site-based decisionmaking and deregulation in certain inner-city schools. (See Education Week, March 15, 1989.)

"I came to the realization that the traditional top-down administrative model was simply not working," he recalled last month, "and that we need to experiment with empowering teachers, parents, and principals in the educational process, and also to reward those persons, especially educators, if they achieved measurable results."

At the close of the 1988-89 year, the district shut down seven schools--three elementary schools, two junior highs, and two senior highs--with the lowest so4cioeconomic profiles.

All of the administrators, teachers, and professional-staff members at those schools were dismissed, regardless of seniority or tenure. Those who wanted to return to the schools had to apply and be interviewed for the posts.

The idea, district officials said, was to find the very best teachers and administrators for the schools, educators who wanted to be there rather than those forced into inner-city schools by lack of seniority.

Novice teachers frequently were placed in these schools, where their inexperience made them ill-prepared to reach children with poverty-related problems and racial and cultural differences, officials said.

Temporary selection committees, composed of district and union officials, a retired teacher, parents, and community members, were put in place to interview prospective personnel. The committees first came up with a list of principals from which Mr. Herenton designated appointees. Four new ones were installed, while three were returned to their schools. Once the principals were selected, they joined the committees.

At three schools, there were 2.6 applicants for each opening, according to a study by a Memphis State University researcher, Carol Plata Etheridge. Out of 86 hired for the three schools, nearly three-fourths were returning employees.

After staffs were hired, local school councils were elected.

The councils are made up of the principal, three teachers, two parents, one community member, and, at the junior and senior high schools, a student. Aside from the principal, members are elected by their peer groups for two-year terms. A parent or community member serves as chairman of the council, which meets at least once a month.

Their responsibilities are similar to those a school board handles on a districtwide basis. The councils have a large measure of budgetary authority. They interview job applicants and recommend personnel, approve annual and multi-year improvement plans, evaluate the principal, propose new programs, update the community on school progress, and recommend to the superintendent policy waivers from the school board, the state, and the federal government.

A desegration order, for instance, requires Memphis schools to maintain a 50-50 ratio between black and white teachers. A federal court temporarily waived the ratio for the sev8en participating schools, where nearly all the children are black.

"They needed the strong [black] role models in these schools," said Lennell Mayes Terrell, co-director of the project.

The schools themselves are not part of the district's desegregation plan.

Deregulated schools can skip much of the bureaucracy. "If they want something, they can make one phone call," Ms. Terrell said.

One of the schools, Georgia Avenue Elementary, had wooden desks worn and scarred from 30 years of use. When its principal, Dorothy Walker, discovered that the district had hundreds of new plastic desks on hand, she called Johnnie Watson, the assistant superintendent who is the other co-director of the project. He immediately signed the paperwork and had it hand-delivered to the business office with the instruction, "Do it."

Superintendent Herenton could not have proceeded with his plan without the cooperation of the Memphis Education Association, which had been interested in shared decisionmaking for teachers.

"We told them we could not lose the integrity of the contract," said Mattie L. Anderson, president of the N.E.A.'s local affiliate.

An addendum to the contract was written allowing teachers and other professional-staff members to interview for jobs at the seven schools and relaxing the seniority-transfer policy.

Moreover, professional-staff members at the participating schools received supplemental pay of $3,000 annually. About 500 individuals receive the supplement. An additional $750 is given to teachers serving as grade or department chairmen.

To forge the partnership between historical adversaries, Ms. Terrell, who represents the m.e.a., and Mr. Watson, representing the district administration, were named co-directors of the project. Both have been given broad powers to accomplish its goals.

Mr. Geiger, the president of the national union, acknowledged that the concessions appear to conflict with union creed, but said "it doesn't bother me at all if ... they agree to it at the bargaining table."

Although the plan "goes against the traditional, narrow trade-unionist thought" on personnel issues, added Robert Barkley, director of the N.E.A. Learning Lab initiative, "concern for the health of your industry certainly is not incompatible with your responsibility to serve your members."

"It's just new for us [at the N.E.A.] ... because we weren't under the pressure to do that until recently," he said.

Part of the n.e.a.'s National Center for Innovation, the Learning Lab project involves entire districts or large portions of them. Each state affiliate may nominate one project, which is then approved, refined, or rejected at the national level.

The union named its first lab in the late spring of 1989; 14 others, including the Memphis project, have come on board since.

The designation entitles the project to a computer-network hookup to other districts and universities, staff support, and a $5,000 grant.

"We want somebody who is committed to learning and changing the process over a period of several years," Mr. Barkley said.

The N.E.A.'s long-term vision, he added, is for the successful experiments to be exported to other districts. "Building on what others learn ... is the most important part of what we're doing," he said.

At the heart of the Memphis project are the local councils.

"At first there was a tendency to pull toward the principal," said Beverly J. Johnson, a trainer for the councils' parent members. Also, she said, "parents feel they're not capable and feel they're not needed."

Through training, however, Ms. Johnson said, many of the parents have shed their wariness, recognized their own importance, and gradually asserted their leadership.

"I've come a long ways," said Suvan Tucker, chairman of the council at Georgia Avenue Elementary School.

"I felt I was on the sidelines," Ms. Tucker, the mother of a 3rd-grade boy, said of her first year on the council. "Where do I fit in?'' she wondered.

Experienced and better trained this year, Ms. Tucker now puts together the agenda, runs the monthly meetings, visits the school daily, and runs a boys' drill team.

At last month's meeting of the Georgia Avenue council, she called the panel to order with a prayer for the U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf.

"It's by the grace of God that I'm still here," said Ms. Tucker, a medic in the Army Reserves.

She stumbled slightly over parliamentary phrases, but otherwise conducted the meeting with relative ease.

Ms. Walker, the principal, spoke more than the others but did not dominate the meeting. A parent, initially too shy to participate, expressed in a memo her concern about the possible disruption of classes at the 850-student school due to construction. On a separate matter, the council's community representative started to address Ms. Walker, then turned and addressed the chairman instead.

The council approved a newly formed committee of teachers who, having felt somewhat left out of the process, will start a newsletter to improve communication.

A teacher outlined an elaborate plan she had devised to raise student self-esteem. She said the plan, which would require the cooperation of the entire staff, was one she had wanted to do for a long time, but was unable to try until now.

Principal Walker recognizes that some people will not thrive in the climate the council is seeking to achieve at Georgia Avenue Elementary School.

"Some teachers really like the safety of a structured school," she said. "They don't like the freedom that comes with being [deregulated]. This is a risk-taking venture."

An effort is being made in many of the schools to involve all of the teachers in school decisionmaking, not just council representatives and grade or department chairmen.

At Georgia Avenue, for example, Betty J. Smith is responsible for making the lesson plans and tests for 5th-grade language arts.

"It really gives you a chance to ex4press yourself, to talk about things you would like to do that you knew you couldn't do in a regular classroom," the teacher said.

In turn, teachers realize, extra work comes with newfound authority.

Mary G. Maclin, chairman of the 2nd grade at Georgia Avenue, has passed the school at 6 and 7 P.M. and found "the parking lot was still full."

"I've been here as late as 10 o'clock myself," she said. "It becomes part of your being."

If job satisfaction can be measured by attendance, then teachers in the project appear to be a more fulfilled lot. In 1988-89, teachers at one participating school, Locke Elementary, missed 573 days of school; last year, that number had fallen to 173, 25 of which were for maternity leave.

Parental involvement, almost nonexistent previously, has become strong at the Learning Lab schools, officials said.

At Locke Elementary, the parent-teacher organization has grown from six to 60 active parents, said Annie Calvert, president of the local council.

In the past, she added, if something needed to be done at Locke, the teachers believed they had to do it themselves. "Now they'll suggest, 'Let's see about getting a parent to do this,"' Ms. Calvert said.

Locke's principal, Richard Finnie, has initiated a series of meetings for fathers; 15 attended the first one in December.

Students also have been given more responsibility. At Vance Junior High, students take responsibility for their peers who have been tardy twice. At the elementary level, a youngster at Georgia Avenue who put glue in a sink is now responsible for keeping that basin clean.

Fran Shanks, a 3rd-grade teacher at Locke Elementary, said her class this year came to her with skills for that level. Instead of struggling with decoding words, she said, the students talk about the plot and character development of stories.

"The school is full of wonderful, creative, energetic people now," Ms. Shanks said. "These kids need this kind of energy."

So far, the short history of the Memphis project means evidence of its impact is largely anecdotal.

Aside from the improvement in achievement-test scores at Vance Junior High, officials say, there are few quantitative clues about the success of the project.

At Georgia Avenue Elementary, 12 students made the honor roll last year; this year, 40 have made it thus far, according to Ms. Maclin.

Average American College Test8ing program scores at Booker T. Washington High School jumped in one year from 9 to 15, with approximately the same number of students taking the college-entrance examination, said Elsie Lewis Bailey, the interim principal.

But school officials acknowledge it is too soon to tell whether the changes will affect dropout or teen-pregnancy rates. About a quarter of girls at Booker T. Washington, for example, are mothers.

Student attendance for the seven schools during the first 20-day reporting period did not show signs of improvement, the officials said, and actually worsened at one senior high school and one junior high.

The project "will not be successful unless we can document there has been a change in student outcomes," said Superintendent Herenton, who will be retiring at the end of this school year.

He added: "I think it is fair to say right now we are still in the process phase of site-based decisionmaking. We really haven't gotten down to the product of it."

The schools so far have made few curriculum changes, although some have been suggested. At Booker T. Washington High, for instance, teachers have recommended instituting reading classes for all sophomores.

In fact, the schools are still ironing out their problems. "We would be less than honest if we said all things are going smoothly in all seven of your buildings," said Mr. Geiger, who praised the program over all.

The major obstacle, according to the Memphis State study, has in many cases been the principals, who "were key to facilitating or inhibiting establishment of a cooperative council that shared decisions."

As the 1989-90 school year got under way, principals in four of the schools had adopted what the study termed an authoritarian approach to the councils. The superintendent removed one of the principals; another adapted to the new setup after parent representatives resigned and new, more assertive ones replaced them, the study found.

Ms. Terrell, the project co-director, says the others are making progress.

"I'm not saying it's a bad situation; it's just not where we want to be," she said.

According to Mr. Herenton, another major weakness has been the inadequacy of training, particularly for parents and principals. The school board did not fund the project at the level he had originally sought. In addition to staff-development money that was not forthcoming, the plan initially called for a $7,500 bonus for teachers in schools achieving their goals.

As proposed, Mr. Herenton's plan also had called for a 240-day school year and a lengthier school day. Funding was not provided.

The superintendent also says he is disappointed that the local councils did not seek more waivers.

"I really thought that the principals and local councils would have been much more creative in identifying barriers to performance," he said.

Both district and union officials, though, say the process is only beginning.

"People want to see immediate improvements," Ms. Terrell said. "We say give us three to five years. It takes time."

Vol. 10, Issue 20, Page 1, 16-17

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