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RJR Nabisco Foundation Asks Idealists To Dream

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LEESBURG, VA.--Seventy-five educators picked for their iconoclasm in pursuit of reform met for three days at the Lansdowne resort here last month to dream up the ideal school system for the coming century.

The recommendations that emerged from the "China Breakers Conference'' sponsored by the RJR Nabisco Foundation will be published this fall and distributed nationally to school boards, administrators, and legislators. A videotape of conference highlights will also be available.

The event was organized by the foundation's "Next Century Schools'' program, which has awarded $30 million in grants since it was launched in 1989. (See related story, this page.)

Participants--who came from elementary, middle, and high schools as well as educational groups and institutions--were culled from a list of 1,000 nominees compiled by the foundation last fall. Among those chosen were 16 teachers, 27 principals, 16 superintendents, and others both in and out of the field, including a writer and an architect.

"These are all people who were selected for their history of activity doing things that have usually been in opposition to the system,'' said Roger Semerad, the foundation's president.

The Washington-based foundation has tried to "put a premium on change,'' Mr. Semerad said. "And we think it starts with individuals.''

"When you bring this group of people together ... you have a whole room full of risk-takers,'' observed one conference participant, Jeanne C. Sink, a teacher at St. Andrew's Parish High School in Charleston, S.C. "Everybody's on fire here.''

Case Study and Role-Playing

Before the conference, participants received a case study describing a fictitious school district struggling to improve itself as it searches for a new superintendent.

The study provided demographic information about the school, community, and local businesses and observations about school climate and local politics. Participants were told that the district would get no extra money to make changes.

Foundation officials said the study was a jumping-off point for the participants--who were split into four groups during most of the conference--to design a model district.

The groups were moderated by Floretta Dukes McKenzie, a consultant and a former superintendent of the District of Columbia public schools; John A. Murphy, the superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenberg, N.C., schools; Frank Newman, the president of the Education Commission of the States; and Theodore R. Sizer, an education professor at Brown University and the chairman of the Coalition of Essential Schools.

In addition to discussing the case study, the educators staged a mock school board meeting, with the four moderators playing board members and participants portraying parents and community members.

"We elected you, and we could un-elect you,'' a participant portraying a religious fundamentalist jokingly threatened the mock board members at one point.

'Guerrilla Educators'

"The majority of our public schools are low-tech institutions in a high-tech world, bureaucratic dinosaurs lagging behind every comparable system worldwide,'' Louis V. Gerstner Jr., a former chairman and chief executive officer of RJR Nabisco Inc., charged in an address to conference participants.

Mr. Gerstner, now the C.E.O. of the International Business Machines Corporation, praised the participants for taking risks and suggested that schools needed more "guerrilla educators'' with "vision and guts to buck the system.''

"Let's support these heroes in our midst,'' Mr. Gerstner said. "Let us free them from the forces--bureaucracy, professional groups, at times even the community--that pressure them to keep the status quo.''

'Pretty Gutsy People'

"I think the recognition of some pretty gutsy people is a pretty wonderful thing,'' Mr. Sizer said in an interview at the conference.

Mr. Sizer, a member of the foundation's advisory board, viewed his participation as a way of cheering on a group of "feisty'' educators who often contend with obstructionist bureaucracies.

"You celebrate their feistiness because it's awfully lonely out there,'' he said.

In addition, Mr. Sizer suggested, the conference presented an opportunity to "see if there are some general qualities about feistiness that one can extract.''

Issues Discussed

Issues that arose during the meeting ranged from national standards to school choice to community involvement in decisionmaking.

"No collective bargaining! No state codes! No unions!'' called out an elementary school principal during one session, ticking off things she would eliminate from an ideal system.

Other obstacles to reform nominated for oblivion included the notion that schools must be housed in a single building owned by a district and the notion that schooling begins at age 5 and ends at age 18.

Each of the four subgroups presented a plan for an ideal education system.

Participants remarked that the plans shared many elements, among them a vision of schools as small centers closely tied to their communities, flexible curricula and assessments focused on skills and performance, and closer links to postsecondary education and training.

"It was astounding,'' said David Sandor, a spokesman for the foundation, about the degree of unanimity. "That's exciting because it indicates there is at least some consensus about reform.''

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