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Pioneering Site-Based Project in Memphis To Be Dismantled

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A pioneering program that permitted seven inner-city Memphis schools to close and then reopen with hand-picked staffs and greater autonomy will be dismantled at the end of the school year.

Superintendent of Schools N. Gerry House informed the school board late last month that the four-year-old pilot project will be shut down.

Many of the components are expected to be incorporated into other district schools, however.

"Our whole system will become involved in site-based management,'' said Cathy Bennett, the administrative assistant to the superintendent.

Under the program, schools are managed by site-based councils with the authority to seek regulatory waivers.

Begun in 1989, the initiative was conceived by Ms. House's predecessor, Willie W. Herenton, who marshaled the support of the Memphis Education Association and the National Education Association. The local union agreed to relax some collective-bargaining arrangements, making the project one of the first reform ventures in which the N.E.A. or an affiliate indicated such flexibility. (See Education Week, Feb. 6, 1991.)

Lennell Mayes Terrell, a local union official who was a co-director of the project, said Ms. House scrapped the plan primarily because she "just wanted a change in direction.''

Carol Plata Etheridge, an education anthropologist at Memphis State University who has been monitoring the program, said it demonstrated progress in a number of areas.

She said the project showed that parents, though not all of them, can undertake leadership roles and become catalysts for reform.

Teaching Staff Stabilized

The project, Ms. Etheridge said, also demonstrated that an urban teaching staff can be stabilized.

Before the pilot began, some project schools had annual turnover rates of 50 percent; at the end of the third year, some had no teachers leave, while others had just two or three.

As an observer, though, Ms. Etheridge said it became clear that the training of parents, staff members, and others involved in site-based management had to be intensified, or else such people had to be screened to find those with a participative orientation.

"I think it surprised us to see how hard it is for people to be inclusive rather than exclusive in their decisionmaking,'' Ms. Etheridge said.

"This is asking for the school to be a democratic institution,'' she said.

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