April 01, 1997 3 min read


How do we create successful schools? That is the key question in conference rooms and schools all over this country as reformers, policymakers, educators, and foundation officials struggle with the challenge of “scaling up"--replicating throughout the system ideas and programs that have proved successful at restructured schools. A few years ago, the New American Schools Development Corporation provided grants to 11 organizations that had won a competition to develop “break the mold” schools that would become models for all schools. Now those models--which involve the best-known reformers in the nation--are available for replication. For the most part, they are quite different from traditional schools. They incorporate what we’ve learned from research and experience about how best to facilitate teaching and learning. The goal--the fervent hope--is that the majority of schools will reinvent themselves in the image of the new models.

There is little reason for optimism, however. Failing and mediocre schools have not rushed to emulate the thousands of successful schools that already exist. Indeed, they ignore and sometimes disdain even the schools that are succeeding under the most adverse circumstances imaginable.

This strongly suggests that reformers should seek to reproduce the conditions that make success possible rather than try to replicate the programs, ideas, or the innovations themselves. A model cannot be transplanted to a school unless that school and its community have created a culture in which positive changes can flourish. One of the most important prerequisites is enlightened and committed leadership, as dramatized by two features in this issue.

G. Holmes Braddock Senior High School in Miami (“Crowded House”) and Harvard-Kent elementary school in Boston are not places where one would normally look for success. Braddock is the second-largest high school in America. Built for 3,000 students, it now enrolls about 5,000 youngsters--most of them minority, and many of them non-English speaking and economically disadvantaged. The principal, Jeffrey Miller, admits that he does not know all of his 245 teachers. In many ways, Braddock is the school reformer’s worst nightmare; all of the elements of chaos and failure are present. Yet Braddock appears to be succeeding.

Harvard-Kent, meanwhile, is housed in a drafty, leaky building. Its students generally represent the racial mix of the city. They are mostly poor, and many are non-English-speaking immigrants. Yet attendance averages about 93 percent, a majority of the pupils score well in reading and math, and there is a waiting list to get into the school.

Neither Braddock nor Harvard-Kent would be considered a “break the mold” school in terms of innovation, but they have that vital prerequisite for change: leadership--especially the leadership of the principal.

Jeffrey Miller and his staff at Braddock are determined to make the best of a bad situation. Their focus is on the kids, and they make every effort to keep class sizes down, encourage contact between students and teachers, and provide as many opportunities for learning and growth as possible. They have a clear idea of their responsibility and mission and will not let circumstances distract them.

Harvard-Kent principal Jack Halloran and his teachers behave as though they are on a crusade. Struggling with a challenging student body, they accept the role of surrogate parents. To accomplish their goals, they do whatever works. Halloran encourages his teachers to be imaginative; if one approach doesn’t work, they try another.

Unfortunately, success built on charismatic leadership often does not endure when the leader departs. If Miller and Halloran are to sustain their gains, they must institutionalize in their schools conditions for success that will outlive them. That is a leader’s greatest challenge.

American education lost its paramount leader with the death of Al Shanker. I had the pleasure of his company many times over the past 20 years, and I always left him knowing more and thinking more clearly about education than I did when we met

--Ronald A. Wolk