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A Little Cash Helps 'Impact II' Teachers Make Reform Reality

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MIAMI--Although teachers often complain that they have been excluded from the school-reform debate, more than 500 teachers gathered here last month to declare that with a little cash, and a lot of support from colleagues, teachers can bring the reform movement to their classrooms.

The meeting was the largest to date for participants in Impact II, a grassroots movement that began in 1979 as a quiet experiment to recognize innovative teachers in the New York City public schools.

Since then, the network has spread its message of "teacher empowerment'' by awarding small grants to more than 20,000 public school teachers across the country, according to Ellen Dempsey, the network's president.

And, Ms. Dempsey estimates, each teacher who joins the Impact II movement "reaches out to at least 43 additional teachers in his or her community.''

The network was formed at a time when the crisis in public education was draining the nation's teaching force and making it clear that teachers, as well as schools, needed to change, Impact II officials say.

As the school-reform movement took hold in the early 1980's, and a series of reports appeared detailing the plight of the nation's schools, the group worked quietly to gain recognition for teachers as professionals capable of producing curricula that can stimulate and challenge students.

Today, teachers must continue to become "shapers, promoters, and well-informed critics of reform,'' Ann Lieberman, the co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University, told teachers here. But they also must "learn how to do better with less, mount big visions, and take 'baby steps''' toward reform.

A Simple Idea

The philosophy of Impact II is geared to just such an approach.

The network is based on the simple idea that "the cross-fertilization of colleagues working together is what makes schools better,'' explained Ms. Dempsey, a former schoolteacher in New York City who was a project director for the pilot program in 1979.

Funded by the Exxon Education Foundation, whose research department was examining the issues of "teacher recognition and teacher isolation,'' the pilot provided grants of $200 to $300 to teachers with creative projects who were interested in sharing their ideas with colleagues.

While the network still awards small grants, typically $200 to $500, to teachers who develop innovative programs or adapt a collegue's project, it has also mushroomed into an extensive support group for teachers at more than 20 Impact II sites.

The group no longer relies on funding from a single foundation but from a consortium of school districts, state departments of education, public-education funds, and other foundations.

However, the bulk of its national contributions comes from the DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the U.S. Education Department's National Diffusion Network, each of which has contributed $100,000 or more to the network over a three-year period.

Most of the teacher grants are awarded through the sites, which affiliate with Impact II's national office in New York City but carry the responsibility for administering the local program.

The Impact II model has been adopted by schools in the District of Columbia and Houston, and by the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy and the Los Angeles Educational Partnership, among others.

"Teachers can change schools, but they need resources, opportunities for collaboration and planning, and training,'' said John McDonald, the communications director for the Los Angeles partnership and an adviser to the network. "And I think Impact II has been pulling that together.''

Affinity Groups

Under the program, teachers in grades K-12 receive either "disseminator'' or "adaptor'' grants for creative curriculum projects that make use of anything from puppets to advanced technology.

While the network has focused on empowering individual teachers, in the last few years it has placed a greater emphasis on involving groups of teachers, most of whom have received individual grants, on large-scale reform projects.

For example, nine "affinity groups'' that were formed last year at a meeting of 50 Impact II teachers in Utah have been designing projects and publishing materials on teacher-led schools, teacher assessment alternatives, and school-community partnerships, among other things.

One group, made up of 12 teachers from around the country, is creating a "multimedia docujournal'' that will tell the stories of teachers who have launched a teacher-led school or "a school within a school,'' according to Joyce Lozito, a teacher at the Kellogg School in Portland, Ore.

Lynn Cherkasky-Davis, who said she overcame opposition from colleagues and school officials to open the Foundations School, an ungraded, multiaged public school in Chicago run by teachers, said her decision "to become proactive'' made her project possible.

She emphasized the importance of brainstorming with colleagues and lobbying school officials to support teachers' ideas.

"We dug our heels in,'' she said of the teachers who collaborated to open the school. "We decided to design a clear vision of what we wanted.''

Alfred Ludwig, a teacher at Liberty High School in Colorado Springs, Colo., and a member of an interest group focused on programs for students' academic and emotional needs, developed "Tough-Math,'' an algebra program for high-risk students that is designed to enhance self-esteem. The program, which incorporates games and motivational music, also has been adopted by elementary and middle schools in the Colorado Springs area as part of a plan to "pre-empt failure'' in mathematics, he said.

"I became associated with Impact II and they moved me to a level of credibility,'' explained Mr. Ludwig. "Suddenly, people stopped and listened.''

"This has just moved my program a tremendous amount,'' he added.

All of the interest groups formed during the institute plan to share the outcomes of their projects locally, and at the district and state level, through site forums, newsletters, and other outlets.

A Political Statement

Teachers at the meeting here also produced "The Teachers' Declaration,'' a one-page document that summarizes the group's philosophy and outlines how teachers hope to work with students, parents, administrators, and the community to redesign public schools.

The document, which Ms. Dempsey termed a distillation of the ideas put forth at the Utah institute, envisions schools that are "state-of-the art community learning centers'' with a restructured school day and year to "provide for planning, collaboration, and professional development for teachers.''

The teachers intend to make a political statement by distributing the declaration "to President Clinton and to as many legislators as possible'' to prove that they intend to be included in the national debate on reform, Ms. Dempsey said.

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