In 'Second Wave' of N.E.A. Research Project, A Handful of SchoolsApply Lessons Learned
Winston-Salem, N.C.--Less than a five-minute walk separates Konnoak Elementary school from Philo Middle School here in Forsyth County. Until six months ago, though, they may as well have been 500 miles apart.
With few exceptions, members of the schools' staffs rarely got together--even though they had thousands of reasons for congregating since Konnoak started feeding students to Philo some 20 years ago. But teachers here, probably like most of them around the country, seldom associated professionally with their colleagues inside the building, much less outside.
Now teachers from Konnoak and Philo, along with those from Parkland High School, meet on a regular basis to address such issues as curriculum integration, helping students make the transition from one school to the next, and a whole host of interrelated topics.
On one recent morning, members of the Parkland and Philo faculties reached an ingenious solution to a nagging budgetary problem all in the few minutes it took them to walk from the middle school to Konnoak Elementary. They simply decided to swap textbooks. "We solved this problem on the sidewalk this morning," says Philo's principal, Dawn B. Wooten. "
"When Philo does something, I feel pride in that. When Parkland does something, I feel pride in that. Before, I never noticed," says Kathy Priddy, a kindergarten and 1st-grade teacher at Konnoak.
The budding relationship is but one out growth of a year-old school-improvement initiative, sponsored by the National Education Association, that has united schools from a handful of districts across the nation.
Representatives from those schools gathered here last month to share ideas and update their progress. The session marked their third in-person meeting since the teachers' union formed the Mastery in Learning Consortium last fall.
Ideas in Search of a Partner
The consortium is the second generation of what the n.e.a. calls Mastery in Learning, a project the association launched six years ago at 26 schools in 19 states. The project was intended to foster radical change in the schools by providing faculties with resources and access to the latest research on teaching and learning. The ultimate goal was to enable teachers to better help students master their subjects.
But the results did not quite live up to the expectations. What the n.e.a. found was that the project had prepared faculties to think they were capable of change, but that it did not produce the changes they had envisioned, according to Robert M. McClure, director of the Mastery in Learn Consortium.
The finding ushered in what officials call m.i.l. II. As conceived under this second wave, a few selected sites would apply the lessons learned from the project, adding their own creativity, in improving and restructuring schools.
To accomplish this, though, the n.e.a. cutback dramatically on the number of range of socioeconomic and racial and ethnic groups were selected in five districts: Longfellow Elementary, Riverside, Calif.; Amanda Arnold Elementary, Manhattan, Kan.; Wells Junior High and High School, Wells, Me.; and Kimball Elementary, Seattle, as well as the three schools here in Winston-Salem. A sixth and final site in Austin, Tex., is expected to be added this summer.
"We are really concerned we do not overextend [the n.e.a.'s] energy, resources, and commitment," explains Sylvia L. Seidel, assistant director of the National Center for Innovation, the union's umbrella school-improvement structure.
As a result of the first m.i.l. effort, the union staff also learned that the school community as a whole needed to be committed to the consortium and not just the building-staff members, who at times had been exposed to criticism and ridicule during the first venture. To ensure such support, school representatives had to sign contracts guaranteeing the backing of all parties involved, from school board to local businesses.
For its part, the n.e.a. is providing a computer tie-in for the schools that links them with numerous schools and universities across the country. Moreover, each site has its own liaison from n.e.a. headquarters in Washington.
In many cases, the school staffs had already conceived their projects when they were selected by the n.e.a. to become part of the consortium. By using the union's resources and networking through the computer, participants say, they were able to determine if their proposals would work, or, if necessary, modify them accordingly.
"It reaffirms that what you are doing is O.K.," says Barbara Maughmer, a 1st-grade and assisting teacher at Amanda Arnold Elementary School.
Although the individual schools are focusing on many different projects, similar themes run throughout. Recognizing and promoting ethnic and racial diversity is one. That theme plays a major role in restructuring the schools in Riverside and Seattle.
Seattle's Kimball Elementary, for example, has developed a number of projects highlighting its links to its Pacific neighbors.
Last year, the school devised a computer hookup with an elementary school in the Soviet Union that culminated in visits by some of the Soviet schoolchildren and their parents to Kimball and, later, a trip by, Kimball students and parents to the Soviet Union.
Because a large proportion of the Kimball
( student body hails from the Pacific Rim, the school also began to develop curricula that focus on such nations as Korea, Japan, China, and Thailand, as well as Native American peoples of the far Northwest.
At Longfellow Elementary in Riverside, meanwhile, the staff took the California school's ethnic composition into account by launching a multifaceted bilingual program. By the 6th grade, all children are expected to be proficient in both English and Spanish. Furthermore, the entire staff is expected to be proficient in both languages.
The process begins the moment a visitor steps on school grounds and is greeted in English and Spanish. "Parents feel welcome on campus," says Maria M. Ortega, categorical-program specialist.
By becoming part of the school community, educators involved believe, parents are taking steps to ensure that their children are coming to school. Since the program began two years ago, for instance, Longfellow's attendance rate has risen from the lowest to the highest in the district, according to Ley Yeager, assistant to the principal.
Other schools, such as Amanda Arnold Elementary in Kansas and Wells High in Maine, have redesigned their curricula, while Parkland High here has developed an unusual dropout-prevention program.
Through the consortium, says William E. Peay, principal of Parkland, "I'm able to look at other school districts and say that their problems are much like mine, that I'm not out there by myself."
Membership in the consortium also gives schools permission to try things that might not work, says Ms. Wooten of Philo Middle School.
At Philo, the only bells are at the beginning and end of the day and at lunch. Otherwise, teams of teachers decide when one class ends and another begins. Flexibility is built into the learning process. As a science teacher, Richard E. Shaw, conducts a session on solar systems that integrates science, writing, and computer usage in the computer lab, two boys from another class are busily engaged in a language-arts project.
Another science class is being conducted outdoors, where the children are making terrariums.
"They're trying to make it more fun this way," says Derrick White a 6th grader.
'I Am More Alive'
Teachers and administrators say the project has made school more fun for them as well, by allowing them to expand their horizons and come up with new ways of designing schools.
"This model allows us to draw on everything that is out there," says Superintendent Larry D. Coble of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County. "This would not have been happening without [n.e.a.] involvement. This project has provided the structure to really attack reinvention of the schools."
Consortium members also believe that their selection gives them the cachet to. proceed and to garner additional support.
"While some envisioned [the n.e.a.] coming with an open checkbook, ... we real ized that the n.e.a. backing us is going to make other foundations and other groups take a second look," says Ginny Paine, an 8th-grade math teacher at Philo. For instance, she says, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro offered to write grant proposals for the school because of the n.e.a.'s involvement.
In the process, teachers say they feel reinvigorated. A once-weary Barbara J.C. Manning, 3rd-grade chairman at Konnoak, had planned to retire next year. She's now put those plans on the back burner.
Adds her colleague from Parkland, Kay Miller: "I have been in this profession for 21 years and I have more energy and excitement. Everybody at my school thinks I have lost my mind. But I am more alive in this profession than I've been in a long time."
The new attitudes are not reserved solely for the teachers in the consortium. Clark Reinke, the principal of Amanda Arnold Elementary School, says he dropped his membership in associations open only to administrators.
"I don't have time for that," he says.