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Compton, Calif.

Eric McKee is midway into a conversation with a visitor when he suddenly stops talking, jumps up from his seat, and grabs a bullhorn. The principal of Willowbrook Middle School is practically out his office door before he explains his exit. A new period is about to begin, it seems, and he's on his way to shepherd students into classrooms as part of the school's new "tardy sweep" policy.

"Less than a minute," barks the principal, whose large frame creates an imposing presence as he strides down the hallway. "You have less than a minute to get into your classroom."

One mischievous student breaks into a singsong chant, "Tardy sweeps, I love that, tardy sweeps," until he finds himself face-to-face with McKee. The boy manages a weak smile and then darts down the hall with the rest of his classmates.

This morning's sweep proves to be quite effective: After the bell rings and teachers shut their classroom doors, only a handful of stragglers remain to be rounded up and sent to a detainment room. The halls are then silent for the rest of the class period.

What may seem like the most basic kind of order for many schools comes as no small feat here at Willowbrook, where in previous years students routinely ignored the bells and avoided classes. The new order this year is, in fact, one sign of a much larger change under way at this middle school in a city known for gang violence and crime.

Willowbrook is one of three Compton schools to take part in a pilot project to introduce school-based management, a reform strategy that transfers decisionmaking power in issues such as budgeting and hiring from the district to individual schools. Known as the High-Performance Schools project, the Compton experiment is part of a cooperative effort with the city's school district, the Los Angeles County superintendent's office, researchers from the University of Southern California, and a local philanthropy.

Willowbrook's newfound ability to make decisions about its own priorities has enabled administrators here to establish policies such as the tardy sweeps, which McKee says have literally given the school a whole new sense of order this year. "The teaching staff was ready for a change," McKee says of the decision to take on the project in school-based management. "We're refocused, and everybody is behind it."

Theory in Practice

In theory, school-based management aims to give schools more governing power, under the assumption that the individual school knows best what it needs for its students. In practice, however, researchers have learned that it takes more than simply handing over the reins to help schools reach higher performance levels.

The Compton project's initiators--Priscilla Wohlstetter and Donald Ingwerson--are working to guide the participants through an experiment that they hope will usher in schoolwide changes in culture rather than token changes in governance procedures.

The two have impressive credentials to lead the project. Wohlstetter is an associate professor of education at usc, the director of its Center on Educational Governance, and a senior research fellow for the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, which originally sponsored her studies in school-based management. For more than three years, she has worked with a team of researchers studying schools in the United States, Canada, and Australia to find out what makes school-based management work best.

Ingwerson is the superintendent of the Los Angeles County schools, including those in Compton. But before accepting the top post here, he had already gained national recognition for the reform efforts he introduced as the superintendent of the Jefferson County, Ky., public schools, which includes Louisville. Familiar with Wohlstetter's research, Ingwerson solicited her help in putting together the project after he arrived in Los Angeles.

The pair targeted Compton because, as Ingwerson says, "we felt the need was the greatest there." He believes strongly that the answers to problems--even in one of the lowest-performing school districts in the nation--lies within the people who are most connected to the district. "You need to develop what is there," he says. "You need to hold them accountable."

Ingwerson and Wohlstetter have also assembled strong outside support to help the experiment run smoothly. An independent coach in school-based management comes in monthly to work directly with a leadership team from each school. And the project won a $62,000 grant from the Haynes Foundation, a Los Angeles-based philanthropy that provides grants for study and research in the social sciences.

The project's goals build on Wohlstetter's extensive research on school-based management. Her team's findings have shown that a handful of common pitfalls can stand in the way of school progress: when school-based management is used merely as a means of governance rather than a path toward instructional improvement, when principals work from their own agendas, when decisionmaking falls entirely to a single council, or when schools simply add the management strategy as another layer of requirements without changing business as usual.

But instead of focusing on the problems, Wohlstetter hopes to provide the guidance the Compton schools need to zero in on the factors that help school-based management work effectively. Schools that have successfully used the management approach, she has learned, have incorporated such strategies as establishing teacher-led decisionmaking teams, conducting ongoing professional-development sessions, and keeping a constant flow of information among all participants.

Wohlstetter has found, for example, that when a single council assumes power in a school, the teachers who are not on the committee feel alienated while those involved wind up feeling exhausted and burned out. So, each of the Compton project schools has set up a range of management committees, addressing everything from community involvement to budgets to scheduling, for all members of the school community.

The program was officially launched last spring, when the leaders selected three schools from the district based on which ones had the highest percentage of faculty votes in favor of participation. Each of the three schools--Willowbrook, as well as Stephen Foster and McKinley elementary schools--received $5,000 for participating. The schools then named a schoolwide focus for the coming year: Willowbrook decided to concentrate on discipline; Foster chose reading and literacy; and McKinley aimed for literacy for all students by 3rd grade.

Over the course of the one-year pilot project, as the committees assert more direct authority in the schools' decisions, the university will coach and closely watch the new school-based leaders.

"It's an action-research project," says Wohlstetter of the effort. "We monitor it constantly, and we use the information we collect to feed back to the schools. It's very much action, research, action, research."

Ingwerson acknowledges that the new management system will have to evolve over a period of time. But he is so enthusiastic about the idea that he's willing to commit resources from his own office to ensure that the project can continue past the first year. "I have a passion to see that Compton improves," he says. "Every chance I have, I direct resources to Compton."

Unusual Laboratory

Despite Ingwerson's pledge of support, the Compton district appears to be an unlikely laboratory for an experiment in school-based management. In 1993, the state took over the district--notorious for rock-bottom test scores--for financial as well as academic bankruptcy.

A state-appointed administrator, J. Jerome Harris, now runs the district with an iron fist and a single-minded goal of raising Compton's test scores from the bottom of the heap. As testimony to his drive, color-coded graphs showing statewide student test results decorate an entire wall of his office. At his behest, replicas of those graphs also hang in the administrative offices of each school in the 27,816-student district.

Harris has directed the schools to monitor student progress almost constantly by administering quarterly district assessment tests. He plots the results on charts, which compare individual classrooms across the whole grade level, in an effort to create what he calls "creative tension" that will pressure teachers to improve their scores.

The gruff and down-to-business administrator, who has served as a community superintendent in Brooklyn and as superintendent of the Atlanta schools, is so unapologetic about his approach that he proudly displays a local newspaper's profileof himself with a headline that reads, "Hero or Villain, He's on a Mission."

Yet, Harris has agreed to allow the experiment in school-based management to proceed, saying that he welcomes alternatives to the way Compton schools have been run in the past. "What I'm trying to do deals with the end product," he says. "We don't have to have the same method [as the school-based-management team], but the end is the same."

Nevertheless, he has mandated three "non-negotiable" practices for the participating schools: establishing a reading program at each site, placing an instructional specialist at every school, and requiring ongoing student-assessment tests.

But principals such as Willowbrook's McKee seem enthusiastic about carrying out the project--even under the strict outcomes-oriented mandates from Harris' office. "I believe that the measure of success will be the test scores in the end," says McKee, who sits in the shadow of his own set of charts and a bulletin board that reads, "Willowbrook Declares War on Test Scores."

McKee says the project has allowed the school to take its own steps toward establishing the kind of order that will lead to academic improvement--steps such as implementing tardy sweeps, requiring uniforms, and starting the morning class schedule with an academic period rather than a much-avoided homeroom period. "I believe that restructuring is going to have an effect on test scores," he says.

From her perspective as a researcher, Wohlstetter acknowledges that the Compton situation is an unusual case study for school-based management because the impetus for change came from outside the immediate district rather than from within. For that reason, she says, project leaders have spent a good deal of time with administrators making sure they really want their guidance and teaching them how the experiment can help their schools. Administrators are learning, for example, how they can adapt the test-score charts to help schools build on their strengths.

Still, Wohlstetter says that what sets Compton apart from most districts--its almost exclusive attention to test-score results--could actually make the district a valuable research laboratory to measure school-based management's effects on student achievement. "The setting is right for mining the kind of research question that requires hard data," she says.

Not 'Little Sheep'

In evaluating the effectiveness of the Compton experiment, the key questions about how a school-based-management system will work ultimately lie with the players themselves--the teachers and administrators who suddenly find themselves needing to adjust to a whole new dynamic of leadership and shared responsibility.

At McKinley Elementary, teachers have devoted the first two hours of the morning to a language-arts period as part of the school's 3rd-grade literacy goal. After students spill out of the classrooms for recess, the staff members take time to reflect on the program--and all say they'll take the new responsibilities over the way it used to be.

"I used to be at meetings years ago, and you would feel like little sheep," says Cleveland Hurd, a veteran teacher who has been at McKinley for five years and now chairs the school's budget committee. Hurd says he's excited about his new role, where he suddenly has responsibility for issues affecting the entire school. But he does admit that progress has been slow as there's so much to learn about managing a budget.

Georgene Taylor, a 1st-grade teacher who co-chairs the school's staff-development committee and has worked for more than 30 years as a teacher and a resource specialist, is also enthusiastic about the experiment. "This decisionmaking power--it's something that I've always looked forward to," she says. "Now, teachers have the opportunity for more creativity."

One of the younger teachers on the school's leadership team, Jessica Shea, says the best part about the project is the line of communication that has now opened up between the schools and the district office. Although the third-year Teach for America teacher expresses some regrets about ideas that the district would not allow the school to pursue, such as nongraded classrooms, "it would be defeatist to just get hung up on them," she says.

Project participants appear genuinely eager to take on their new responsibilities. But the realization that a transformation in school culture won't take place overnight tempers their enthusiasm.

McKinley Principal Jane Harris, who is no relation to State Administrator Harris, says the fact that teachers now have a greater role alters the entire decisionmaking process. "We need time," Harris warns, "because a lot of what we're doing is really different from what we've done before."

More information on this topic is available from:

Odden, E.R., & Wohlstetter, P. (1995). Making school-based management work. Educational Leadership, 52(5), 32-36.

Robertson, P., Wohlstetter, P., & Mohrman, S.A. (1995). Generating curriculum and instructional changes through school-based management. Educational Administration Quarterly, 31(3), 375-404.

Wohlstetter, P. (1995). Getting school-based management right: What works and what doesn't. Phi Delta Kappan, 77, 22-24, 26.

Wohlstetter, P., & Mohrman, S.A. (1994). School-based management: Promise and process. Finance brief, Consortium for Policy Research In Education. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University.

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