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Critical Friends

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Once a month, Bil Johnson hops in his 1989 Plymouth Sundance and drives north to John Jay High School in New York's upper Westchester County to talk with teachers about school reform.

Johnson can empathize with their concerns. Most days, he teaches high school social studies in Bronxville, N.Y. "I'm trying to do this stuff all the time myself,'' the 19-year veteran says. "And I know how hard it is.''

His work as a "critical friend'' to staff members at John Jay High School is part of a unique effort to redefine the way professional support is given to schools pursuing large-scale reform. Known as the National Re:Learning Faculty, it consists of a cohort of like-minded teachers, administrators, and school board and community members who are struggling with change in their own schools and who can share their insights and experiences with others.

The National Faculty was created two years ago by the Coalition of Essential Schools. Because coalition founder Theodore Sizer and his staff at Brown University could no longer provide all the training and assistance that schools need, they formed what is, in essence, a self-help network. Says Paula Evans, the director of the National Faculty, "Strong local support, provided by colleagues from nearby schools and districts will enable teachers and administrators--as well as parents and community members--to stay the course and make visible progress.''

While the coalition does not provide a blueprint for participating schools to follow, many of Sizer's principles require wrenching changes in how schools operate. Evans says the overwhelming nature of the work requires more than the "one shot'' inservice training typically provided for teachers and administrators. That's where the National Faculty comes in.

Faculty members commit to working with one or two schools for at least one academic year. They spend a significant portion of their time observing and listening. The agenda for what they do at the school is defined by the school itself, not by the consultants.

Fifty-eight teachers are currently members of the National Faculty. This teacher cadre is known as the Citibank Faculty because of a grant from the financial-services company that helps support the program. Three teachers at Parkway South High School in Manchester, Mo., are Citibank fellows. The National Faculty also includes 24 principals. And this year, the program has expanded to include 14 district-level personnel, school board members, and community-based professionals who are working with schools on a less intensive basis.

To prepare for their task, most of the fellows participate in five weeks of training: a week in March and four in July. The training sessions are designed to immerse participants in coalition principles and show how they can be put into practice; to help with facilitation techniques, such as conflict resolution; and to provide experience in designing a course based on essential-school theories.

During the year, the principals and teachers receive ongoing support from the coalition staff. Staff members visit fellows in the field and conduct regional meetings. And an electronic-mail network helps fellows stay in touch with the coalition and each other.

Johnson is a far cry from the typical educational consultant. A bearded, long-haired extrovert who keeps a drawer full of Jolly Ranchers candy in his classroom to help him quit smoking, he views his role as part missionary, part politico. "There is an element of winning people over,'' he says. "It's important that people get to know who you are and trust you because you're going into somebody else's school.''

Today, Johnson is meeting with a small group of John Jay teachers working on an interdisciplinary, global-studies course. He prods them to clarify what they expect their students to know and be able to do by the course's end.

"It's difficult to keep in mind that 'less is more,' one teacher worries. "We're not secure enough yet to let that happen.''

"If you're in a discipline where coverage has been stressed for most of your career,'' Johnson sympathizes, "I think the concern that was just voiced is the toughest thing for any of us to get through.'' After four years of teaching an interdisciplinary course at Bronxville High School, he adds, "this is the first year I feel more on top of it than behind it.''

To participate in the program, Johnson's home school had to agree to release him for up to 20 days during the year. John Jay--or any other school he works with--pays for his substitutes. It also pays his travel expenses and a $75-a-day consulting fee.

Most of the matches between the consultants and the schools are made by coalition staff members in Providence. In addition to John Jay, Johnson is working this year with the Alternative Community School in Ithaca, N.Y. But the match with John Jay seems particularly appropriate. Bronxville and Cross River, N.Y., where John Jay is located, are both affluent suburban communities where the schools have a reputation for sending their graduates on to college.

Although Bronxville was one of the first schools to join the coalition in 1985, it has constantly struggled with how much of its traditional structure to give up. Over the past seven years, teachers have slowly moved away from traditional lecturing. A walk through the halls reveals students working in small groups and standing at the front of the class explaining their ideas to others. The teachers float in the background-- coaching, cajoling, and questioning.

John Jay is also a "pretty well-established school that's done pretty well,'' Johnson says, "and there's reluctance on the part of faculty to make some radical changes.''

"We're members of the coalition, but we're really wondering what that means in terms of actual practice,'' says Dick Parsons, a teacher at the school who is also a National Faculty member. "One of the issues we have to deal with is whether education as a whole is broken, or whether what we are doing still works.''

There is a sense at John Jay, in particular, that their work with the coalition has stalled. In fact, says Laura Frenck, the school's new principal, the coalition has sent them a message "that we couldn't remain members indefinitely and not be more proactive.''

Johnson's presence, Frenck hopes, will help jump-start changes at the school and allow them to explore new ideas "in a more safe, secure fashion.''

According to Johnson and his colleagues, the fate of the coalition's efforts rests in schools such as Bronxville and John Jay. "Nobody questions the need for change or reform in desperate situations in urban schools,'' John Chambers, the superintendent of the Bronxville school system, notes. "But that doesn't mean we're doing as well as we should be in schools in affluent systems. The whole reform of secondary education will succeed or fail based on what models affluent suburban schools can show.''

Although its founders originally envisioned the National Faculty as a resource for other schools, its greatest impact appears to be on the schools from which fellows come. Many fellows say they joined the program specifically to help their own school or to improve their own teaching.

"I spend so much time looking at what I'm doing,'' Johnson says. "The whole experience of being a Citibank person and being responsible for modeling the best behavior has had a huge impact.''

Then he adds: "When I first came here, I was way too abrasive and too demanding of people to change, and I've recognized that's not going to work. I still am somebody who would like to see a lot of change in a short amount of time, but that's just not the nature of the kind of change that we're talking about.'' --L.O.

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