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5 Districts, Center To Create New Vision of Schools

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Five school districts committed to a set of common principles have entered into a partnership with The Center for Leadership in School Reform to fundamentally rethink the way they do business.

The five districts are Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Hammond, Ind.; Lake Washington, Wa.; Tupelo, Miss.; and Ventura, Calif.

They will join with the center to create schools that are more clearly focused on students and the work they are asked to do. In addition, each district has agreed to work with its community to guarantee every child the support needed to succeed in school.

The nonprofit center was created in 1988 by Phillip C. Schlechty, a prominent national educator, to promote systemic change in schools and school systems. Mr. Schlechty was the architect of one the nation's first career-ladder plans in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C. He also helped design the Gheens Professional Development Academy in Louisville, Ky., which has since become a national model.

'Standard-Bearer' Schools

To enter the partnership, each district had to commit to a set of beliefs and goals that Mr. Schlechty maintains are necessary to sustain reform in schools.

The most prominent is the notion that schools should be organized around students and the work they are expected to do, rather than around the work of teachers and administrators, or the particular interests of school boards, political factions, and interest groups.

"We cannot expect students to do high-quality work if they are not given high-quality work to do,'' said Mr. Schlechty. "Too many students are given work assignments that do not produce important learning outcomes.''

Within a year of joining the partnership, each district is expected to develop a procedure for creating a network of "standard-bearer'' schools within the district. These schools will, in essence, signify the direction reform is headed.

But unlike traditional "pilot'' schools, they will be designed so that everyone in the school system has an investment in them. For example, the center recommends that the majority of staff members in such schools be on temporary assignment from other schools in the district. In addition, a standard-bearer school could serve as the hub for a cluster of schools--providing them with training, support, and research and development.

"So often, when you select a 'model' school, immediately, the other schools in the district feel diminished,'' said Robert W. Coles, vice president of the center. "What we're looking to do is encourage cooperation among schools, so that they see that all of them have a stake in what is being done.''

To increase the capacity of districts to support and sustain reform, the center is also establishing a fellows program, in which individuals from each district will be trained to help share ideas, techniques, and strategies. At least three teachers, one principal, and the superintendent would constitute the minimal cadre of fellows from a school system.

Common Agenda

To participate in the partnership, all of the districts have committed to the pursuit of 10 goals. These include:

  • Helping their community understand why "radical reform'' is needed in schools and create a shared vision of what schools can be;
  • Developing a results-oriented management system and a quality-focused decisionmaking process;
  • Creating a pattern of leadership and decisionmaking in the district that recognizes teachers as leaders and principals as the "leaders of leaders'';
  • Encouraging systematic innovation and the assessment of innovations based on a Total Quality Management framework;
  • Developing throughout the system a clear focus on the student as the primary customer of the work of schools.

Mr. Schlechty predicted that the five districts will be the first in a growing national network committed to a common reform agenda.

"These districts were selected because they have strong superintendents, sound teacher leadership, a history of strong community involvement, and a track record that indicates a willingness to be trailblazers in education reform,'' he said. The center has been working with all of them for at least a year.

David O. Dickson, superintendent of the Hammond public schools, said the center "has stepped into the Hammond scene at a time when we have been moving through an evolutionary process from school-improvement teams to site-based restructuring, and have now reached a plateau that necessitated this additional training and leadership.''

During the first year, the center will help the districts conduct a systemwide audit to identify those practices that are inconsistent with the partnership's beliefs.

The center is still seeking funding for the initiative. It expects four to six more districts to join the network within the next year.

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