Carry That Weight

By Debra Viadero — July 12, 1995 31 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

What would happen if some of the biggest gurus in the education field sat down and came up with a single program for improving schools? Say someone like Theodore R. Sizer, the Brown University professor with ideas for radically transforming high schools, got together with Howard Gardner, the Harvard University psychologist whose theories of multiple intelligence are practically household words? Say James P. Comer, the Yale University psychologist, brought to the table his ideas for involving parents and the community into all aspects of school planning? And suppose those three invited Janet Whitla, who could bring the Education Development Center, a world-renowned research-and-development outfit, into the mix?

What you would get is something like the ATLAS Communities Project. Now being tested in schools in three states, the ATLAS model for school reform combines the work and the wits of Comer, Gardner, Sizer, and the E.D.C. It is among the most ambitious of the nine projects funded by the New American Schools Development Corporation, the foundation inspired by President Bush to fund promising school reforms.

Specifically, the acronym ATLAS stands for Authentic Teaching, Learning, and Assessment for All Students. But it’s no accident that the name also conjures up the image of the brawny Titan of Greek mythology who bears the weight of the world on his shoulders. For that is pretty much what ATLAS is trying to do.

Not only does the project blend some of the nation’s most prominent school-reform approaches, it seeks to change everything about the schools it touches, from the teaching and learning that goes on in classrooms, to the way schools are managed, to the roles played by the communities that embed them. And it seeks to do all of those things at the same time.

Now, as the early phases of ATLAS’s three-year experiment come to a close, the obvious question is: Did ATLAS try to carry too great a load?

Some of the key players in the project concede that the answer is probably yes. At least, they admit, it took on more than could be accomplished in the short time frame the NASDC funders set.

“But is there an alternative?’' Comer asks. “If you want good schools, you must do all of that. There are faster, easier, and quicker things to do, but they’re not going to be successful in the long run.’'

On the surface, the separate ideas that the four guru organizations brought to the table seem to fit together as neatly as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

Sizer’s plan for the Coalition of Essential Schools, built from the principles he outlined in his 1984 book Horace’s Compromise, aims primarily at high schools. It envisions schools where teachers would have fewer students and thus come to know those they had much better. They would be places where learning wouldbe interdisciplinary and organized around questions that mattered--"essential questions’'--and where students would demonstrate what they had learned by doing projects and exhibitions rather than taking multiple-choice tests.

Comer’s School Development Program, in comparison, comes from his work in the 1960’s with inner-city elementary schools in New Haven, Conn. He focuses less on the content of the learning and more on developing the ideal climate in schools for nurturing children’s social and emotional health and critical-thinking skills. Centered on the African proverb, “It takes a whole village to raise a child,’' the schools Comer envisions would be places that welcome parents, social workers, mental-health professionals, and others in the community and that actively involve them in important decisions.

From Harvard’s Project Zero, which Gardner directs with David Perkins, comes thinking on the processes of learning, understanding, and creativity that go on in the minds of students from their preschool years through high school. Gardner made his mark with his theory of multiple intelligences, which suggests that people have many forms of intelligences, unevenly distributed.

The seven “frames of mind’’ that he has identified thus far range from logical-mathematical, which is the traditional kind of academic learning that schools emphasize, to less traditional intellectual spheres, such as musical intelligence and bodily-kinesthetic capacity, or the ability to use one’s body in skilled ways. The job of educators, Gardner says, is to become aware

of individual children’s intellectual strengths and weaknesses and to capitalize on that knowledge in their teaching.

And the Newton, Mass.-based E.D.C., headed by Whitla, provides the filler. The 160 projects conducted by the center draw on a wide range of research in the field of education and provide nuts-and-bolts thinking on everything from classroom technology to training teachers.

“Each of our groups had certain things we felt we were doing well, but there were other things we didn’t know much about,’' says Gardner. “Project Zero has lots of stuff, but not the overall envelope for school reform. The School Development Project and the Coalition for Essential Schools had a general approach to school reform, but did not have the stuff to fill into that overall envelope.’'

All of the four partners had met one another before and knew of each other’s work. They were even located in the same part of the country--Gardner and the E.D.C. in Massachusetts, Sizer in Rhode Island, and Comer in Connecticut.

But they had never thought of collaborating until NASDC sent out word that it was looking for a few good school-reform strategies that could be replicated in large numbers of schools. The opportunity was too good to pass up.

“It was an attempt to take some people who were in some geographic and philosophical alignment and put them together to do more than any one of the groups could do on its own,’' Whitla says.

Together, the four organizations had toted up 80 years of experience in the arena of school reform. From their disparate programs and philosophies, ATLAS’s founders eventually distilled five broad, basic principles.

For one, they agreed, “authentic teaching and learning is driven by questions; focuses on habits and understandings; and involves challenging, purposeful, and sustained work.’' They declared that"ongoing cycles of planning, action, and reflection characterize effective teaching, learning, assessment, and organizational change.’'

They decided that “relationships matter because learning is a social activity. And they called for creating a “collaborative culture for learning’’ through “shared leadership, commitment, and communication.’'

Finally, the founders emphasized, all the participants in ATLAS schools should “see themselves as part of broader, more integrated learning communities.’'

With that, and an initial $2.5 million grant from NASDC, the group set out in 1992 to simultaneously develop and test those principles in the real world. For its laboratory, ATLAS chose three vastly different school systems: Gorham, Me., a small rural district that had already been experimenting on its own with similar kinds of reforms; Norfolk, Va., a medium-sized urban district with a large African-American population; and Prince George’s County, Md.

If, like the ATLAS of mythology, the founders of the ATLAS program were looking to shoulder a challenge, Prince George’s County was the place to do it. Sitting on the border of Washington, Prince George’s gets the overflowof that city’s problems. It is a schoolsystem where large percentages of the students are black, poor, or recently arrived immigrants, where bureaucracies are firmly entrenched, and where money is perennially tight.

The five schools that are part of the ATLAS project here form a geographical “pathway,’' a concept borrowed from Comer’s School Development Program. In a pathway, the students from the elementary schools are funneled into the middle school and, in turn, into the high school. Prince George’s pathway consists of three elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school, with five more schools set to explore whether to join over the coming school year.

At some of the schools in this pathway, up to 94 percent of the students come from families poor enough to qualify them for the federal subsidized-lunch program. At other schools, 44 percent of the students are recent immigrants. Among the student body in the high school, for example, more than 65 languages are spoken. In all, the 4,000 students and 400 teachers in this single pathway vastly outnumber the entire student enrollment of rural Gorham.

ATLAS makes its home here in what is known as the Challenger Instructional Center, a former convent that the school system bought in the early 1980’s. Working in tandem with the county, members of the ATLAS project hope to transform this three-story, 1960’s-era structure into a round-the-clock hub of social services for the families of the students who attend the schools along the pathway.

Dorothy Giersch, who is developing that part of the program, says she hopes the convenient social services will help cut the high rate of student mobility. Another benefit is that officials of the various agencies, many of whom work with the same families, are brought into closer contact with one another. In fact, one Comer-inspired feature of the ATLAS model are the periodic meetings between all the mental-health and social-service workers serving the pathway schools to talk about common concerns, such as attendance problems.

Already, the convent’s first-floor rooms have been transformed into pre-kindergarten, Head Start, and child-care classrooms for children from poor families. Newly arrived immigrants can come here to register their children in the International Student Guidance Office, and parents of small children can visit the Even Start center, where they can pick up parenting skills and lessons on literacy. A county agency also uses the site to provide monthly problem-solving workshops to welfare recipients, and the Prince George’s Arts Council sends visiting artists to the center’s early-childhood classrooms for four weeks each quarter of the school year.

Giersch has also arranged for a van, paid for by the state, to stop at the center one day a week to provide free preventive medical care and referrals.

That is a service that Deloris Pugh, a nurse at one of the two elementary schools that flank this center, has already put to use.

“I get what I call the `Monday morning specials,’'' she explains. “Parents will have noticed that something is wrong over the weekend, and they come to me and say, `What is wrong with my child?’'' Now, Pugh says, she can make them an appointment with the “well mobile’’ so that these families can walk their child there for the medical advice they need--and often cannot afford on their own. That prevents more serious medical problems from occurring and cuts down on lost instructional time for students.

But the center did not officially open until June. And most of its former dormitory rooms are still empty. Their doors are firmly shut, and the glossy polish on the floors of the hospital-green corridors shines, still unscuffed by the hundreds of feet that ATLAS founders hope will one day tread here. Like the rest of the work here, the center is not quite complete.

Walk into any ATLAS school and you are bombarded with examples of student work--Lego models of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, a five-foot-tall Eiffel Tower painstakingly constructed of toothpicks, brightly painted papier-mƒch‚ communities. That is where the “authentic teaching, learning, and assessment’’ part of ATLAS comes into play.

Walk into Adelphi Elementary School, however, and the exhibitions explode on you. One corridor is papered with star-studded, black paper, and papier-mƒch‚ planets hang from the ceiling. Another is transformed into an ocean floor. A child-size scuba diver, an octopus, and other creatures of the deep dangle from above.

Little more than a year ago this was, by all accounts, a tradition-bound school for students in kindergarten through 6th grade. In fact, it was among a number of schools across Maryland that lived under the threat of being taken over by the state because students in the federally funded Title I program were not making gains in their test scores.

When ATLAS arrived, the school essentially started anew. County school officials agreed to transform it into a K-3 school and to open Cool Spring Elementary School, a completely new K-3 school, nearby. Today, these schools flank the Challenger Center like matching bookends. The third elementary school in the pathway, nearby Langley Park-McCormick, became a school for upper-elementary students.

County school officials also gave Adelphi’s teachers the option of transferring to another school if they felt they could not buy into the program. About one-quarter of the teachers did so.

“It was a very brave thing they did when they reconstituted two elementary schools into three,’' says Donna Muncey, an anthropologist who has been tracking the ATLAS-inspired changes in Prince George’s County as part of an independent evaluation of the project for the rand Corporation. “They just told teachers, some of whom had been teaching 20 or 25 years in the same classroom, that there was no guarantee they would be teaching in the same classroom or the same school next year.’'

Moreover, the school got a new principal--Cynthia Best-Goring--and rapidly began making instructional changes. After two weeks of intensive summer workshops that covered a potpourri of school-reform ideas, the school quickly instituted multiage classrooms and began incorporating Gardner’s theories of intelligence. The old basal readers were thrown out and replaced with lots of children’s literature as teachers moved toward whole-language methods of teaching reading, an approach that emphasizes teaching children to learn to read much in the same way that they learn to talk.

“Every single thing those teachers were doing was new,’' Muncey observes.

Francesca Algarin, who now teaches a combined class of 2nd and 3rd graders at Adelphi, was one of the teachers who chose to stick out the changes.

Before, “you followed your program and the teacher’s guide,’' says Algarin, who speaks with the accent of her native Puerto Rico. “We were supposed to keep a pace on reading, and we didn’t care if they learned those words or not because we had to go on.’'

“When they decided to bring in this program, I said, `This is it,’'' she says.

What she likes about ATLAS is that students who are not academically talented can do well. That is particularly important in a classroom like Algarin’s. Of her 28 children, four speak no English at all, three speak a little English, and six speak English but prefer speaking Spanish. Two students require special education, and Algarin figures two more will probably become certified for that program next school year.

There is, for example, Alexander, the boy with close-cropped black hair who conspicuously buttons his garish gold, black, and red shirt so that his teacher will notice that it is new. Having spent much of his school career shuttling with his family back and forth between here and El Salvador, he still cannot read well in English.

“But give him something manipulative, and he can do everything,’' Algarin says. So he constructs a volcano with his classmates and pours vinegar and baking soda into it to make it erupt. He plants bean seeds to see if they will grow without air or soil. But, when the rest of the class reads aloud or writes, he puts his head down on his desk.

“He will plant his seed, and he will care for his seed and go to the window and see how it does, and maybe I can help him write in that,’' Algarin says.

At Adelphi, as at its sister school, Cool Spring, classes are organized into “neighborhoods’’ of five or six classrooms each. Teachers in each neighborhood are given joint planning times so they can organize their instruction around common essential questions. This semester’s question is: How does exploration affect me and my world?

It takes a lot of time to map out a curriculum without a teacher’s guide or textbooks. While Algarin once ended her work day at 4 or 4:30, she now works from 7:30 in the morning until 6 or 6:30 at night. Her notebooks are filled with lesson plans that look like the spokes of a wheel--her representation of the way that the skills, themes, and concepts she wants to teach interrelate.

And that is how her lessons go, smoothly weaving literature into science and incorporating writing into mathematics. An introduction to the story “Jack and the Beanstalk,’' for example, leads to a discussion of compound words, such as beanstalk. After the story, children map out the main characters, the essential problem, and the resolution. Then they plant bean seeds, following closely the instructions Algarin has written for them, and predicting in writing what will happen to their seeds.

“I won’t go to a traditional program,’' Algarin says now. “I work more with this, but I don’t regret it because my kids are taking responsibility for their own learning.’'

However, Algarin has retained some of her more traditional ways as well. On two visits, for example, she directed her hands-on activities from the front of the classroom. She also likes to maintain a quiet, orderly classroom, sometimes inhibiting the conversations that go on around the lessons.

In keeping with Comer’s edicts, the school has also worked hard at bringing more parents into the building. The P.T.A.., once practically nonexistent, now has more than 100 members. And Best-Goring has set aside a room where parents can work with teachers or students when they visit. Thirty-five parents used it in February; 20 in January.

“I feel happy that everybody here knows who is me,’' says Ana Vasquez, the parent of a kindergartner as she sips coffee in the main office and chats in Spanish with the school secretary. She frequently drops by the school to see that her son eats the breakfast he gets through the federally subsidized breakfast program and that he pays attention in class.

“At the beginning of the year, teachers were nervous, and they were anxious because the security blanket had been pulled out from underneath them,’' Best-Goring says. “But everything came together in January or February.’' Teachers who earlier in the year had asked to transfer to other schools came to Best-Goring in the spring and told her they had changed their minds. What’s more, the school last month learned that the test scores of its Title I students had improved dramatically for the first time in years, making it likely that the school will get off the state’s endangered list.

The school still has its share of problems. Monthly attendance, for one, doesn’t always quite meet the county’s expectations.

“But at this point,’' says Muncey, “teachers seem to be pretty pumped up.’'

“Maybe this year we are not going to get all the results we’re looking for. But you come back next year, maybe two years from now, and you are going to see that this school is a success,’' Algarin says. Then she gives a visitor a hug.

What’s important to realize about the ATLAS project, however, is that it looks different in every Prince George’s school and in each school system that’s trying it out. At Cool Spring, Adelphi’s new sister school, educators also have worked hard to teach in ways that build on their students’ multiple intelligences and have discarded their textbooks. But their focus has been on creating settings where students who do not speak English or who have disabilities don’t have to be repeatedly pulled out of classrooms for special instruction.

In classrooms here, you can find English-as-a-second-language teachers whispering in the ears of children, translating unfamiliar words as the teacher reads a story to the whole group. Sometimes, these teachers even participate actively in the lessons so that it becomes hard to tell who is the classroom teacher and who is the specialist.

This arrangement is not specifically part of the ATLAS design plan. But the plan does call for sharing the decisionmaking that goes on in schools and allowing those decisions to be made at the school site, rather than at school-system headquarters, which are located in a rural part of the county, more than a half-hour drive and a world away from here.

“This was something teachers had created because they recognized the fact that there were so many pullout programs and that that was fragmenting the instructional program,’' says Bill Ritter, who oversees the entire ATLAS project in Prince George’s County.

At all of the ATLAS schools here and in Maine and Virginia, the mech~anism for making those kinds of decisions is the “school planning and management team,’' a body made up of administrators, teachers, students, parents, support staff, and members of the community. Meeting weekly, these teams tackle everything from coming up with a comprehensive plan for improving their schools to deciding what to do about a lack of playground equipment at recess or frequent interruptions on the public-address system.

At Cool Spring, the shift to more inclusive classrooms has been hard. Some teachers saw the specialists as intruders; others welcomed them. But some of those teachers now say that teaming up with specialists seems to be paying off, at least for students who are newcomers to this country.

“I taught at another school last year where they used more traditional basal readers, and you would see the E.S.L. students grow at the end of the year,’' says Troy Boddy, who teaches 5- and 6-year-olds at Cool Spring. “This year, there’s been a turnaround because the E.S.L. kids are really doing some of the best work, and we’re getting into their minds.’'

Meanwhile, at elementary students’ next stop on the pathway, Buck Lodge Middle School, the focus over the past year has been largely on projects and exhibitions. Students use a computer program developed by the E.D.C. to produce thick research projects called “I-search’’ papers. Slightly different than a formal research project, the program helps students trace in writing the story of their research. What question did they begin with? How did that question change as they researched the subject? What did they learn? The answers to these computer-generated prompts form the text for their reports.

Students choose their own topics in keeping with the essential question on which the school is focusing, and they spend weeks researching and compiling their reports.

“You feel like you made up the whole report for yourself,’' says Angel McNatt, a Buck Lodge 8th grader who wrote about racial violence. “My mom was impressed when she saw I wrote all this, ‘cause I be watching TV all the time and she was, like, `You really did this?’''

And, at High Point High School, the only high school in the pathway, the most visible and dramatic change has been a move to block scheduling … la Horace’s Compromise. Rather than have six 54-minute class periods each day as had been done in the past, the school this year arranged for students to take seven 90-minute classes that meet every other day. The idea is to give students and their teachers more uninterrupted time for in-depth learning. Teachers also get additional time for lesson planning.

When ATLAS began, its organizers joked about backing a big Hertz rental truck full of reform practices up to schools and letting educators pick something from the School Development Program, something from Project Zero, something from the Coalition of Essential Schools, and something from the E.D.C. But, in Prince George’s County, it looks like that’s exactly what ATLAS did. That kind of spottiness extends as well to the reforms going on within individual schools. At High Point and Buck Lodge, for example, teachers were asked in this first year to devote just one class to requiring students to show what they’d learned through student-made performances and exhibitions, rather than using traditional teacher-made tests to assess student learning. Other than that, they are free to pick and choose from other things in the ATLAS storehouse.

That was not precisely what ATLAS reformers had in mind. Atlas’s founders never intended to produce a “cookie cutter’’ design for school reform. Yet, they reasoned, you should be able to distinguish an ATLAS school from everything else that is going on in education reform.

“It shouldn’t take 20 minutes to explain what ATLAS is,’' says Gardner.

But it was also inevitable that, in these first-generation ATLAS schools, the project would take on distinctly different configurations. That is in large part because ATLAS itself did not know what it was until halfway through the project. Its design summary underwent revision after revision and is, even now, expected to undergo further streamlining as the ATLAS vision crystallizes.

“Much of the first year was devoted to getting the organizational structure, getting past turf issues, and dealing with everything from different operating cultures to some different views of the work we were doing,’' says Sid Smith, who recently stepped down as the group’s executive director to return to working in schools.

“Some of the other NASDC projects came with a design, but we didn’t have one,’' he continues. “We had four different programs with a potpourri of activities and different principles. It was like putting a car together, not to mention changing the tires, as it’s moving 45 miles per hour.’'

“I think we all thought it would be easier to become compatible than it was,’' Gardner adds.

For one thing, there were some philosophical differences. While Sizer’s group favored thematic, interdisciplinary instruction, Gardner advocated working within the traditional academic disciplines. The group also split over how much professional development it should provide and how structured that help should be. The meaning of “personalizing teaching’’ also varied among the groups. To Sizer’s group, it meant having fewer students. To Comer, it meant knowing the “whole child.’' To Gardner, it meant understanding individual children’s intellectual strengths. The groups also argued over where to start. Should school-management structures be overhauled first or the curriculum?

The four organizations also had operating styles that ranged from the highly structured to practically laissez-faire.

“Intellectually, these organizations were very much in sync, but the exact strategies they might use to effect change were very different,’' says Muncey, the anthropologist tracking the project.

In the meantime, however, the pilot schools that called up ATLAS’s central organization looking for help got different answers, depending on which organization they talked to.

“We were pretty much left to our own devices,’' says Ritter, the coordinator in Prince George’s County. “Things were very volatile for awhile.’' Members of the project there decided to take much of their form from Maryland’s new performance-assessment system, coming up with a set of standards and benchmarks for the pathway schools that adhered closely to the requirements of the assessment program.

Recognizing the problems, ATLAS officials decided to make some changes. Each of the four organizations had staff members working full time or part time on ATLAS at their separate home bases. The founders decided to consolidate nine full-time ATLAS employees in one central location at the E.D.C. headquarters.

With funds from three private foundations, the group also formed something called the ATLAS Seminar, which has become a sort of think tank for the project. It serves as both the research-and-development arm for ATLAS as well as a forum for hammering out or clarifying substantive differences among the organizations.

What’s more, it completed the design that set out five broad principles and seven elements for ATLAS schools.

“I think they’re compatible now,’' Smith, the former executive director, says. “There are some philosophical differences that remain which serve as good sources of critical inquiry about our work.’'

“By and large, there’s enough glue to pull us together,’' he adds. “In future sites, you’ll see a lot more coherence and consistency across sites.’'

“We’ve been around this work long enough,’' Sizer adds, “to know we have to be patient.’'

A yellow Prince George’s County school bus makes its way daily among all the ATLAS schools in the pathway here. It takes high school students to middle school, where they might “teach’’ a class of younger students. From the middle school, it takes members of the “buddies’’ club, a group of adolescent boys who are considered to be at some risk for heading down the wrong fork in the road of life, to work with preschool children and to learn something about role-modeling in the process. Parents can also ride the bus to use the services at the Challenger Center.

This is the most visible symbol of the pathway here. And, if you had to put your finger on the most distinguishable ATLAS characteristic in this school system, the pathway would probably be it. While most school systems have feeder schools, the difference here is that all of the schools in the pathway get together to decide what makes sense educationally for children from their preschool years through high school.

The policymaking body for the pathway is the ATLAS Communities Team, or act. Made up of principals, a few key teachers, and parents from all the pathway schools, act meets monthly to discuss common problems and concerns and to hammer out a coherent plan for students’ learning from preschool to high school.

“As teachers, we get a real sense of what the pre-K to kindergarten program is,’' says Jerry Kountz, who, as Buck Lodge’s principal, is smack dab in the middle of this pathway. “It’s not, `What are those people doing down there at the elementary school?’ You know what the elementary school is doing, and you know exactly what the high school is expecting.’'

Prince George’s act has spent much of its time thus far crafting standards and benchmarks for what students at all five schools should know and be able to do--a curricular map that dovetails closely with state requirements in Maryland. Fortunately for these schools’ efforts, the county has allowed them to be exempt from its criterion-referenced test, which emphasizes facts-based learning.

The state’s performance-assessment program, in contrast, already reflects the kind of authentic teaching, learning, and assessment that ATLAS participants are trying to bring about in their schools. The project is planning its own assessment to take place during the off years for the state-testing program. And it will begin unveiling the new standards and benchmarks to the public over the coming months.

The act panel is meeting for the last time this school year on a balmy June afternoon. It is 4:30. School has been out for hours, and a warm breeze flows into the open windows of the meeting room, which is a former classroom on the second floor of the Challenger Center.

Participants are being asked to reflect on their three years with ATLAS here, so there’s a lot of discussion of what went wrong and what went right. There is a sense, at least among these participants, of having come a long way.

“One image I have is that, at first, we were sort of exploring; where we opened a National Geographic and saw a flatrelief of the Grand Canyon,’' says Paula Poulis, Cool Spring’s principal. “Then, in August, they put us on the floor of the Grand Canyon looking up, and we’ve been climbing, tripping along the way, and occasionally seeing glimpses of the beauty.’'

The ATLAS schools here have all made some changes but, as rand’s Muncey observes, “it’s been slow going.’'

“I suspect you’re beginning to be a true ATLAS school in three to five years,’' Comer says. Muncey, on the other hand, figures 10 years would not be an unreasonable estimate for schools in a large, urban school system such as Prince George’s. Sizer concurs.

“I would hope that if ATLAS is going to continue and move to new sites, that they don’t abandon current sites in the project,’' Muncey adds.

That is a worry for Prince George’s. Under the terms of the NASDC grant, ATLAS’s central organization must now set its sights on creating new schools in the same mold. Prince George’s County’s first crop of ATLAS schools will get a smaller grant from the central organization this coming school year.

But ATLAS’s founders say they have no plans to leave behind their pioneer schools. Atlas Central will allow the Prince George’s schools to carry over into next year $120,000 in unspent funds from this year. Moreover, the organization will still offer technical advice and other in-kind assistance. And the five first-generation ATLAS schools here will continue to be linked electronically to their colleagues in Maine and Virginia, and at other sites, such as Florida and Pennsylvania, where schools are deciding whether to join the project next year.

The hope is that the rest of the money the county needs to consolidate the gains it made this year will come from the school system. Edward Felegy, the school superintendent, has recommended fully funding Ritter’s job--as well as those of the ATLAS coordinators at the pathway schools--for another year.

“We need to let this project continue to percolate because real change is only now evolving,’' says Felegy, who has been a strong supporter of the project. But Felegy left the school system in June after a somewhat rocky tenure. His successor is Jerome Clark, a longtime employee of the district and its first African-American superintendent. Moreover, the school system’s administrators are grappling with another shortfall this year.

Even if the necessary funds are not forthcoming, the teachers and administrators most closely involved with the project say they will not go back to the old system. At High Point High School, Principal John H. Payne even offers solid proof that teachers are embracing the changes: Not a single teacher at the school asked to transfer this year. Even more impressive, more than 100 asked to transfer into the school this spring.

More good news for the project came just weeks ago. On ATLAS’s “school climate’’ surveys, which reflect everything from teacher morale to whether students feel cared for, all three pathway schools improved in some areas this school year.

Reflecting on how far she has come, one teacher at the June act meeting got teary-eyed.

“To feel the same challenge that you felt as a first-year teacher, to me, is incredible,’' she tells the 25 other educators at this end-of-the-year session. “It’s very exciting to have every day be a learningexperience.’'

The Design Principles

The schools and districts that belong to the ATLAS Communities focus on five principles and nine design elements. The principles hold that:

Authentic teaching and learning is driven by questions; focuses on habits and understanding; and involves challenging, purposeful, and sustained work. Students acquire essential skills, habits, and understandings when engaged in challenging and meaningful learning activities that are coherent, sustained, and driven by essential questions. [The] goal is to move beyond superficial learning to deep understanding of the most important concepts and principles within the content areas. To reach deep understanding, students must actively construct, apply, and demonstrate their knowledge over time. The same is true for adults in the learning community.

Ongoing cycles of planning, action, and reflection characterize effective teaching, learning, assessment, and organizational change. Continuous improvement in education, whether at the individual, classroom, school, or pathway level, calls for an ongoing cycle of planning, action, and reflection. It also calls for a creative, problem-solving mindset. Such a process and orientation have a powerful impact on the learning environment that, in turn, shapes the people who take part in it.

Relationships matter because learning is a social activity. Teaching and learning are most successful when they occur in the context of valued relationships. Teachers must know students well to teach them well. Likewise, the adults in a learning community must know each other well to work in concert to achieve their goals for students. This is the context in which valuable habits of heart, mind, and work are formed.

Shared leadership, commitment, and communication build a collaborative culture of learning. Building a positive school culture requires shared leadership, commitment to a collective vision, and an understanding of the ongoing nature of change. Effective, ongoing communication and coordination within schools and across the K-12 pathway are essential both to meet the developmental needs of all students and to manage this change process in a no-fault environment.

Members of ATLAS schools and pathways see themselves as part of broader, more integrated learning communities. Quality education requires partnerships among school personnel, students, parents, policymakers, and other key stakeholders in the community. Only in this way can we identify the assets and effectively use the resources for learning that exist inside and outside of schools.

ATLAS School Sites

  • The school districts of Gorham, Me.; Norfolk, Va.; and Prince George’s County, Md.

ATLAS Partners

  • The Coalition of Essential Schools
  • The Education Development Center
  • Harvard University’s Project Zero
  • The School Development Program

This is the final article in “Breaking the Mold: The Shape of Schools To Come,’' an Education Week occasional series that has examined the projects and progress of the New American Schools Development Corporation’s nine designs teams. The “Breaking the Mold’’ series was underwritten by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 1995 edition of Education Week as Carry That Weight


Student Well-Being Webinar After-School Learning Top Priority: Academics or Fun?
Join our expert panel to discuss how after-school programs and schools can work together to help students recover from pandemic-related learning loss.
Budget & Finance Webinar Leverage New Funding Sources with Data-Informed Practices
Address the whole child using data-informed practices, gain valuable insights, and learn strategies that can benefit your district.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Classroom Technology Webinar
ChatGPT & Education: 8 Ways AI Improves Student Outcomes
Revolutionize student success! Don't miss our expert-led webinar demonstrating practical ways AI tools will elevate learning experiences.
Content provided by Inzata

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated: May 3, 2023
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated: April 26, 2023
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated: March 29, 2023
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Quiz Quiz: Test Your Knowledge of Trending Education News
How well do you know the trending news in education? Test your knowledge by taking our quiz.