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Beyond Random Acts of Innovation

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Seattle is poised to move from the statement that "All Kids Can Learn" to "All Kids Will Learn." Seattle's public schools are good, but I believe that in a few years, they will be the best in the United States.

Just a few years ago, public schools in our city were struggling with problems similar to other big-city schools. According to our records, nearly half the funds allocated to public schools were consumed by the central bureaucracy. A survey found that nearly two-thirds of the school staff wouldn't put their children in public schools if they had other options. Bond referendums to replace 100-year-old buildings were consistently being voted down by the public. And students reported feeling an overall hopelessness about the future. In short, the public school system was failing and frustrating its teachers, students, and the public.

Given all those problems, why do I believe that Seattle public schools are on the way to becoming the best? Because the Seattle Education Association has built a partnership committed to helping all kids learn. School board members, senior central and building administrators, sea leaders, business leaders, PTA leaders, and the mayor are all using the P word--partners--and this higher level of commitment toward one specific goal is literally re-engineering our school district.

Three years ago, the sea decided to redefine the role of a teachers' union in school reform. We invited then-Superintendent Bill Kendrick to focus on making our schools the best in the nation within five years. Together, we declared the "us and them" era officially over. We said that we needed an honest partnership if we were going to solve our problems and meet our goal of educating all students.

Together, we sought opportunities to speak to public and private forums and to share openly and honestly the problems we faced. And we asked for help.

We were met with an outpouring of individuals and organizations who thanked us for our honesty and offered their assistance. So we extended our partnership to include parents and businesses, political and civic leaders.

Our initial focus was on central-administration functions. We posed two questions: Does the function add value for schools in meeting the needs of students? If so, is the function operating effectively and efficiently? If not, change it.

Our partnership with the community had two immediate outcomes. First, the central-administration hierarchy was radically flattened. We eliminated all of the layers of bureaucracy between the superintendent and principals. Central administrative staffing was reduced by nearly 40 percent. The savings from that restructuring went directly to schools, based on the special needs of students.

We have enlisted more than 500 individuals, from the community and the district, in the ongoing work of re-engineering the district's functions and organizational systems. Parents and community activists now work directly with school staff to decide how best to spend funds.

Two years ago, the SEA turned its focus from the central administration to teachers themselves. We took teacher accountability head-on. We agreed to establish a teacher mentoring program for both new and experienced teachers. Full-time mentors work directly with teachers in the classroom. Having unprepared teachers, whether they are veterans or rookies, struggling to educate our students was and is totally unacceptable. The mentoring program grades teachers as successful or unsuccessful. Unsuccessful staff members are either aggressively retrained for the classroom or are not rehired.

As with any central-office reform or teacher improvement, the danger is in overlooking the children. To ensure that the focus remained squarely on students, we gave central administrators, business leaders, and political leaders posters declaring, "Remember, It's for the Kids, Stupid." The slogan was pared down to "Putting Children First," and it now states simply and directly, "Children First."

As a union and negotiating board, we have resolved to move beyond "random acts of innovation." To make successful schools a districtwide reality, we pledged that if schools would "dare to dream" about re-engineering so all kids will learn, we would eliminate contractual and policy barriers for 10 schools in the first year. Thus began Vanguard Schools.

Giving teachers the luxury to dream of better schools has shown the community the extraordinary measures they will take to do their jobs well. Teachers are pushing the district to modify everything from bus schedules to testing mandates to staffing allocations. They are asking that schools drop mandated teacher evaluations in favor of accountability for their own professional growth. They have asked the sea to give building staff the right to fill vacancies based on merit, not seniority.

The results of increased teacher accountability are measurable. Each of the 10 original schools shows an increase in attendance and achievement. Our goal now is to have every school in the district operate under the same standards that made the Vanguard Schools so successful. The teachers and students in these schools are beginning to believe change and innovation will be supported, rather than just discussed. The Seattle district has truly moved beyond talking about empowerment to enabling teachers to re-create their schools. Hopelessness is on the way out, and pride is beginning to run loose in schools and communities.

We have discovered that shared decisionmaking as a goal is just too shallow to achieve meaningful change in classrooms. Instead, shared decisionmaking is a means to higher achievement. We have learned that if teachers don't share in accountability and ownership, we really do not have a sustainable partnership.

We began this school year with a new superintendent, an urban fact of life. Superintendent John Stanford brings a deep commitment to "Children First," pledging to strengthen our existing partnership with the community. He has also challenged every parent or guardian to read to their children at least 30 minutes a day.

Building upon Seattle's partnership with the superintendent, union, and community, we are working toward becoming the best urban school system in the nation.

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