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Reform Network Regroups

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The Coalition of Essential Schools, the nation's largest high school reform network, unveiled plans this fall to reshape the organization and wean it from its celebrated founder.

The plans, recommended by a 16-member committee, call for decentralizing the organization and putting it in the hands of the practicing educators who belong to it. Decisions about the direction of the group, the kinds of projects it undertakes, and the professional-development opportunities it offers now come from the coalition's central office at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

The reorganization plans were announced in a report released in October at the coalition's annual meeting in New York City. The report was the work of a committee that Theodore Sizer, the coalition's founder, convened a year ago to take stock of the organization's first decade of work and to chart a course for the next 10 years. "We're in too many schools in too many states for one office to provide support to schools well,'' said Sherry King, superintendent of the Croton-Harmon school district in New York and the head of the committee.

Sizer, a Brown University education professor, launched the coalition in 1984 with 12 schools. The network was based on his widely discussed book Horace's Compromise, which grew out of a national study on American high schools and his own experiences as the headmaster of a private school. Since then, the network's membership has grown to more than 900 schools in 32 states and two countries.

Over the years, the coalition has spawned some well-known success stories, such as New York City's Central Park East High School in Harlem. More recently, however, some studies have pointed to problems in the schools struggling to put Sizer's ideas into action.

Under the new plan, member schools will be grouped into clusters. Each cluster, in turn, will be served by its own central office. Funds to run those centers will be raised by participating schools from public and private sources.

In addition, member schools will send representatives to a national congress that meets twice a year. With more than half of its representatives being practicing educators, the congress will set policy for the entire confederation. A slightly leaner Providence office, taking its cues from the congress, will still give the group a national voice and conduct research.

"There's a general feeling that people working in schools shouldn't be entrusted with important kinds of things,'' Sizer said. "But if it doesn't come from the people doing the work, it's not going to last very long.''

Rick Lear, a Sedona, Ariz., principal who sat on the task force, explained that the new arrangement "will help people see the coalition is not the handiwork of only one person.''

Sizer, 63, has no plans to leave the coalition. Still, King said, "Ted's a grandfather and has been leading this organization for a long time and raised millions of dollars for hundreds of thousands of kids. It's time to let him focus on the kind of visionary work that helps us see some clear principles.''

The report also calls for strengthening the coalition's membership criteria--a response to critics who say those requirements are too loose. In the future, coalition schools will have to: demonstrate that they are run democratically; show that they are involving parents and the community; and work at changing the whole school and not just an isolated pocket of it. "In 1984, we assumed the simplest way to go was a school-within-a-school, but the research evidence is that, while that's rational, it doesn't always work,'' Sizer said. "Even in happy schools, it pits new people against old people and is, in fact, very divisive.''

More important, the new criteria also require schools to demonstrate that their efforts are producing student success. The report calls for the creation of "nationally shared but locally defined'' measures to gauge whether the changes are improving student achievement. "It's time to not just talk the talk but to walk the walk and to show it,'' King said.

Some researchers who have studied coalition schools were skeptical that the group's new strategy would bring real change. "I would think decentralizing is sort of a nonevent since there is no powerful central function now,'' said Samuel Stringfield, a Johns Hopkins University researcher who tracked coalition schools for a forthcoming federal study.

But coalition members said they expect the changes to strengthen the organization in the long run. "I'm really concerned about skeptics saying, 'Aha, this is the death knell,' '' King said. "I see it as the exact opposite.''

--Debra Viadero

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