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Seeking Focus, Dade Schools 'Shop' for Themes

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More than 2,000 people representing every school in Dade County, Fla., browsed last week through a shopping mall of educational innovation, looking for appealing programs to use in their schools.

The two-day conference, sponsored by the Dade County school district's office of instructional leadership, brought together representatives from 75 national and 70 local programs that research has found to be effective.

The presentations on a wide range of educational approaches were intended to give schools ideas about "themes'' or "focuses'' that they could adopt for their own buildings or for clusters of schools.

Officials of the district, the nation's fourth largest, said they are encouraging schools to develop distinctive approaches because research by the RAND Corporation has found significantly higher student achievement in "focused'' urban schools than in schools without any identifiable character. (See Education Week, Oct. 24, 1990.)

In addition to improving student outcomes, special themes or focuses contribute to more parental involvement in schools and to an "increased esprit de corps among the faculty and the community,'' said Melissa Patrylo, the director of the focus-schools program.

The emphasis on developing special themes is one component of Project Phoenix, the district's effort to restructure the 60 schools located in the areas of the county that were hardest hit by Hurricane Andrew last year.

The Dade County school district has received $12.5 million in federal relief funds to revitalize the instructional programs and services in those schools, said Peter Bucholtz, the executive director of Project Phoenix.

Of the 60 schools, 44 were severely damaged by the hurricane.

The name for the initiative comes from the mythical bird that rose from its own ashes.

Schools 'Back on Line'

In designing the project, Mr. Bucholtz said, the district asked, "If we're going to build a model school and a model school system, what would be the content or the thrust of that program?''

In addition to encouraging schools to develop themes or focuses, the Phoenix schools will draw on local and national projects that have been proved effective by research, use a new curriculum that emphasizes higher-order thinking skills and developing competencies in students, and serve as prototypes for new ways of integrating social services with schools.

Because the hurricane wiped out many of the existing social services in parts of Dade County, Mr. Bucholtz said, schools have stepped in to fill unmet needs.

"The schools have really been the institutions that have gotten back on line the earliest,'' he said. "They are one of the few public entities that are functioning in these areas. Our superintendent has been spearheading [the idea] that our schools serve as the beacon and the institution that can provide some leadership and assistance to the communities.''

The district is considering a wide range of "outreach, prevention, and intervention'' services for children and families, Mr. Bucholtz said, including prenatal programs, parent-education classes, early-childhood centers, and extended school days and years or year-round calendars.

The curriculum that the Phoenix schools will use is now being tested at 41 schools throughout the county. Next year, it will be used in all of the district's nearly 300 schools.

Teams of teachers wrote the new curriculum, which emphasizes the broad competencies students should master after each course, rather than more detailed lists of objectives, according to Gary Rito, the district's executive director of foundation skills and instructional support.

"For the first time, we're saying where we want [teachers] to end up,'' Mr. Rito said.

Within the bounds of the new curriculum, he said, there is ample room for teachers to decide what methods to use to reach their destination.

Educational Showcase

Among the educational approaches showcased at the conference last week, held at a Miami hotel, were some of the best-known national reform projects.

Representatives of the Coalition of Essential Schools, Success for All, the Comer project, Reading Recovery, and Paideia made presentations. The College Board's Equity 2000 project, the National Academy Foundation, and Project PACESETTER also explained their programs.

Many of the schools, districts, and coalitions that won grants from the New American Schools Development Corporation attended.

There were also several educators from individual schools, such as the Key School in Indianapolis, which is organized to stimulate multiple kinds of intelligence. Schools for potential dropouts, "microsociety'' schools, extended-day schools, and unabashedly traditional schools also touted their approaches.

The keynote speakers were Paul T. Hill, the senior social scientist with the RAND Corporation who conducted the study that sparked Dade County's interest, and Harold Stevenson, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and a co-author of The Learning Gap, which explores the differences between American and Asian schools.

'Keeping It Simple'

Eventually, district officials hope that all schools will choose a theme or focus. They will be invited to develop plans for their approaches, but will not have to fill out lengthy applications for formal approval, according to Nelson E. Diaz, an associate superintendent.

"It's not a major production,'' he said. "We tried to keep it simple.''

District guidelines suggest that a theme or focus could be based on several models, including an educational philosophy, such as "back to basics,'' teaching and learning styles, student needs, subject-matter or curricular emphasis, differentiated calendars, schools within schools, or research-based programs.

Schools are expected to chose their themes cooperatively, through their school-based-management/shared-decisionmaking council.

Groups of schools that feed into a common high school also could get together and decide on a shared instructional approach.

The federal money for Project Phoenix, supplemented by state funds, will be spent on start-up activities--primarily the extensive staff development that teachers will need to revamp their practice, Mr. Bucholtz said.

"We're not interested in starting something and then having to stop because we don't have the money,'' he said.

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