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A Trans-Atlantic Tale of Two Principals

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Sitting cross-legged on the floor, a guitar in his lap, Christopher Thatcher wraps up a sing-along with a group of boisterous 1st graders at Glenmont School in Bethlehem, N.Y.

The minute he hits his last note, the children raise their hands, eager to ask the visitor some questions.

They want to know how big his country is, what kind of stores he shops in, and what children there eat for lunch. A few are even curious about the Queen.

Thatcher, the head teacher, or principal, at Potters Green School in Coventry, England, has been through this routine before.

A visiting administrator here for six weeks under an exchange program administered jointly by the U.S. Information Agency and the Central Bureau in London, he is an object of curiosity for many of the students and teachers at this 500-student elementary school, located in a small, fairly affluent community just south of Albany.

Just opposite Principal Donald Robillard's office, tacked to a world map that covers the entire wall, are clippings and a photograph from a British newspaper describing Thatcher's visit, which entails "shadowing'' Robillard while he works.

In the hallways, as the tall, bearded Englishman--who shares a small album of photos of his city and school with every class at Glenmont--and his American counterpart greet the children, they look up at Thatcher with a hint of astonishment.

The two administrators are the first to take part in the short-term exchange--part of the Fulbright Teacher Exchange Program--which was designed to give participants a taste of school management in a foreign country. Robillard will travel to England in April.

The federal information agency launched the experiment with the Central Bureau--the division of the British education department that facilitates teacher exchanges--by putting out a call to administrators in both countries. Next year, the program will be expanded to include school officials from Canada, Lithuania, and Portugal, says Dehab Ghebreab, a program officer with the agency.

Thatcher and Robillard applied and were matched up just a few months before Thatcher landed at the airport in Albany, his first contact with the United States.

"I felt like I was jumping off a cliff, with no idea what I was jumping into,'' Thatcher recalls.

'He Doesn't Drink Tea'

Cupping their hands around their mugs of coffee, as if to ward off the dreary, cold day apparent from the principal's office window, Thatcher and Robillard laugh as they recall their misconceptions about one another before the exchange began last month.

Although both were somewhat aware of the educational reforms taking place in their host countries, they found they knew little about personal and working styles beyond the American and British stereotypes.

Thatcher, 46, whose deputy has assumed his duties while he is away, says he expected the staff at Glenmont to be "brash, with no sense of humor,'' a view of Americans common among his compatriots.

Robillard, 58, the more retiring of the two men, remembers preparing for the Englishman's arrival by "buying a bunch of tea for him.''

"He doesn't even drink tea,'' he adds with a grin.

But when they scratched the surface further, there were even more surprising differences between the administrators and their schools.

At Potters Green--a publicly-funded elementary school in the city of Coventry with an enrollment of 400 students--teachers have about 32 students per class, about 10 more than in a typical Glenmont class. There is no school nurse, no art or music teacher, and very few classroom aides at the English school. Glenmont, meanwhile, has all of those plus a speech therapist, a school psychologist, and an active corps of parent-volunteers.

Moreover, the British school spends about $4,000 a year per pupil, half of what is allocated per child in the Bethlehem school district.

Although Potters Green has a swimming pool and an award-winning wildlife area built by students and the staff, Thatcher seems awed by the space at Glenmont. A new wing was recently added to the school, providing classrooms with arching picture windows and a carpeted, sunken area at the center of the building, capped by a huge skylight.

The gymnasium at Glenmont--which was housing a portable planetarium on a recent day--was another oddity. In England, Thatcher says, students gather for most of their group activities, including mandated religious education each day, in the auditorium.

'We're Actually Ahead'

Despite spending less per pupil than is typical in this country, Britain has leaped ahead of the United States in several areas of education reform, Thatcher believes.

"We've always felt that our reforms originated here,'' he says. "You know, 'What happens in the States today happens in the U.K. tomorrow.''' But "if I take any message back at all, it's that we're actually ahead.''

Several reform strategies now gaining momentum in the United States--such as site-based management and school choice--are already firmly entrenched in Britain, where a 1988 education-reform law "fundamentally changed'' the way schools are managed and children are taught there, Thatcher says.

The law reduced the middle tier of the British education bureaucracy--a move akin to diminishing the powers of local school districts in the States. In addition, every school in the country set up its own on-site governing body composed of parents, staff members, and city-council appointees. Now, each school handles its own budget, makes hiring decisions, and contracts for services.

Schools can also become completely independent by applying for "grant maintained status,'' which provides the school with a direct grant from the central government. Thatcher estimates that fewer than 10 percent of schools have applied for the grants, because of the tremendous risk a school takes in cutting itself off from further government support should budgetary problems arise. Hence, he says, the issue has become a "political hot potato'' in some communities.

In addition to changing school governance, the law established a national curriculum in 10 subject areas and mandated a daily, 15-minute "act of worship'' in schools.

Moreover, students can move freely among schools as long as space is available.

Struck by Spontaneity

The various British reforms have provided an interesting point of reference for administrators at Glenmont, especially as schools in New York State prepare to implement the site-based management mandated by a recent state law.

But Robillard sees proposals for a national curriculum as distinctly un-American.

"There's something wrong with a national curriculum, a national testing format, because it smacks of conformity,'' he comments. "Diversity is the way to go. We need standards, but how we [follow them] should be up to us as professionals.''

Robillard says he is looking forward to learning more during his time in Coventry about the child-centered early-childhood programs and multi-age classrooms he's read about.

For his part, Thatcher says he was struck "by the spontaneity'' in instruction at Glenmont.

A quick peek at several classes makes his point clear: One teacher has a large plastic pool of water set up for students to slosh their homemade boats in; another has gathered the children in the hallway to work on long rolls of brown paper, sketching and coloring life-size renderings of fictional characters.

The Bethlehem district itself is the source of some of the innovation and spontaneity that Thatcher so admires at Glenmont. For example, it adopted a whole-language approach to reading instruction districtwide about four years ago, says Barbara Riegel, who teaches a combined 3rd- and 4th-grade class at the school. Thatcher is living with Riegel and her husband, five children, and two dogs in a Victorian house on a quiet, tree-lined street on the outskirts of town.

Relaxing in a director's chair in her classroom, just after her students have headed home in the rapidly darkening afternoon, Riegel describes how Thatcher's visit has been both fun for the children--"who eat out of his hand,'' she laughs--and enlightening for the staff.

He "has given me a different perspective on what I do in the school,'' she explains. "He thinks we have so much freedom because we get to the endpoint [of a lesson] however we want to.''

Teachers here "are not constrained by curriculum requirements. They might have guidelines, but that's a difference,'' notes Thatcher.

He adds that there has been a move to revise the British national curriculum to give educators more independence in working with their students.

And he says that, like many American schools, schools in Coventry--a city of about 300,000 in the central part of England--are looking for ways to gain the support of businesses, so that they have the flexibility to tackle new projects.

Potters Green, he adds, "is probably the most successful school in the city in raising private funds.''

"This enables us to do things we might not do otherwise,'' Thatcher explains. "It becomes almost essential that we explore things like that back home.''

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